Steiner hopes to buy station

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Purchase: As WJHU's fate is still up in the air, parties in and out of state are making their interest known.

April 04, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Baltimore talk show host Marc Steiner is in for the pledge drive of his life. As Johns Hopkins University is preparing to put WJHU (88.1 FM) out for bids, Steiner is scrambling to raise at least $5 million to purchase it.

"I do not feel personally threatened by the change," Steiner says. "My biggest interest here is creating a station that is locally controlled by a community-based, nonprofit organization."

Also leading the effort unveiled yesterday, called Friends of Baltimore Public Radio, are furniture-store owner Gary Levine, an underwriter of the station, and Martha Rudzki, WJHU's marketing director. She is working, off-duty, to create an e-mail-based pledge drive for the initiative.

"We're real anxious to keep it local," says Levine, who serves on a Hopkins advisory panel for the radio station. The Web site is www.baltimorepublicradio.org.

The competition for WJHU is fierce. Maryland Public Television wants to buy it and Minnesota public radio's parent company is also exploring whether to make a bid. The possible sale has stirred officials at WBUR, the powerhouse public radio station owned by Boston University, and WAMU, its counterpart at American University in Washington.

It's rare to get a chance to buy a license to broadcast at frequencies set aside for nonprofits, radio executives say. "It doesn't happen very often in the public radio world, so we're very interested," says Cathy Merritt, station manager for WAMU.

Her station's signal already reaches much of the Baltimore region.

One prospect, that the university could sell the station's license to a religious broadcaster organized as a not-for-profit, is now being discounted by several people familiar with WJHU.

Over the past few weeks, as Hopkins acknowledged it intended to seek suitors to purchase or run the station, some listeners have vented about what they say is the disappointing scope of the station.

WAMU and WBUR, like WJHU, do not receive operating subsidies from their institutions. But the Boston and Washington stations have been able to generate a wider array of original programming that, ultimately, have helped to stimulate greater revenues for them. Even Nashville Public Radio, run by the library system of a city smaller than Baltimore, has a much richer roster of programs and local news reporting.

Absent greater income, however, the station needs added subsidies to pay for hiring news reporters or improving technology. Robert Embry, head of the Abell Foundation, recalls being asked by WJHU's previous station manager to lend him the money - close to $1 million - to buy a transmitter in Frederick to extend the reach of the station's anemic 10,000-watt signal before the university began soliciting suitors for the station.

Now Steiner is back, asking Embry and others for aid. Embry's response: What's your business plan? What's the alternative?

That last question remains unanswered. MPT officials are trading on the fear of out-of-state ownership to promote its own bid with Hopkins officials. MPT spokesman Jeff Hankin says that Steiner's weekday talk show would likely continue largely in its current form, if the state-run TV system were to take over the radio station. MPT says it would also try to find jobs in-house for other staffers.

Bids will be taken by Hopkins through this month. Officials say they will then sift through the proposals to see if a suitable buyer or partner can be found.

WBAL agreement reached

WBAL has released former morning show host Audrey Barnes from her contract, bringing to an end an acrimonious standoff lasting nearly three months. In early January, WBAL officials told her that she would no longer be on the morning anchor desk; instead, she would be a reporter on the same show, from 5 a.m.to 7 a.m.

As that's considered a rather severe demotion with wicked hours and little glory, Barnes bristled. And, despite being under contract through the summer, she never showed up at the station again to appear on WBAL's broadcasts.

News director Princell Hair and general manager Bill Fine declined to comment, other than to acknowledge she was no longer an employee. She resigned March 14, Fine says.

After negotiations with her lawyer, Joseph Mallon, station executives agreed to pay her an undisclosed sum, and sever her contract. She is now allowed to work at another station outside the Baltimore market. "I am moving on," Barnes says. "The station and I have resolved our differences. There was a difference of opinion whether or not they could put me on the street [as a reporter]."

Barnes, raised in Maryland, arrived at WBAL in 1997 after a stint as the main anchor at a station in Flint, Mich. She strongly hints that she will be an anchor "within the week" at an unspecified station that can be seen in parts of Baltimore.

But she says she's interested in doing more in-depth reporting and teaching some journalism classes. And she expressed thanks for the outpouring of support she says she's received since leaving the air. She and Dina Napoli, who left the station last fall, have been replaced on the morning show by Sade Baderinwa and Marilyn Getas.

`Zoh Show' retools

Zoh Hieronimus worries that her nearly 9-year-old radio program, "The Zoh Show," focusing on Clinton conspiracy theories, UFOs, looming ecological disasters and survivalist schemes, has been a little too political, a little too topical.

Starting April 30, her retooled show, "Future Talk," will air weekdays at 1 p.m. on WOLB (1010 AM). In an interview, Hieronimus says her show will look at technology, the environment, archaeology, and, yes, "off-planet habitation," among other subjects. "As both a broadcaster and as a citizen, what I have to offer is my ability to see the future," she says.

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