Speaking up for a radio revolution

CATCHING UP WITH... MARC STEINER

WJHU-FM talk show host Marc Steiner has a mammoth task ahead: Can he raise enough cash to keep a Baltimore station Baltimorean?

April 15, 2001|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,Sun Staff

Marc Steiner enters the station laughing, ready to blow another leak in the public discourse: "We'll tackle the political rumor of the moment, the St. Paul's School fiasco, rioting at the University of Maryland, crime in the city ... "

Day after day, WJHU's little 10,000-watt FM radio antenna broadcasts the most impassioned --sometimes, most informed -- claptrap and truth-telling in the city. Tom in Baltimore, Melvin in Woodlawn, Pat in Essex, Victoria in Cockeysville join dozens of callers jamming phone lines while Steiner stirs up a tornado talking about fecal coliform in local streams, recycling snafus, troubles with the crab harvest and some of the day's other most perceptible threats to civilization from Baltimore to Catonsville.

But the real menace is not on today's schedule. It will not explode in the sound booth with Steiner's bantering crowd of government bureaucrats, newspaper columnists and environmental activists.

Today's most impending threat is internal. WJHU is on the auction block.

With interest from potential buyers like Minnesota Public Radio and Maryland Public Television, Steiner needs a fortune to keep the staff and its collective dreams under the wing of community ownership. "This is not the best time to raise six, seven, eight million dollars," he said one day last week, after his midday show. "There's a downward turn in the economy, we're in the middle of income tax season ... "

He completes his list of awesome barriers with a laugh -- his noteworthy hearty, honking guffaw -- because the deadline for filing a bid is also ridiculously near. He needs to start a nonprofit corporation, gather a board of directors and persuade local people to pledge at least $5 million by the end of April.

Did someone say "two weeks"?

Not a money man

Steiner is a most unlikely entrepreneur in this game. Here's a self-described former "revolutionary," in his mid-50s who would rather spend a couple of hours in an Indian sweat lodge than a week in The Hamptons and didn't even have a credit card until 1995. But he is the enthusiastic public face of a quixotic campaign to save WJHU for the Toms, Melvins, Pats and Victorias who have become part of the communal melee that makes public radio in Baltimore so convincingly local, raucous and consequential.

While one of the station's underwriters, Gary Levine, who owns the local Ethan Allen furniture stores, works with lawyers and accountants on a business plan, and WJHU marketing director Martha Rudzki sketches a new marketing plan, Steiner is out banging the drum. After five years of being slowly elevated into local celebrity status, he is the most likely one whom important (read: moneyed) people in town will answer when he calls.

Although Johns Hopkins University, the owner of Baltimore's popular public radio station, gave the staff little warning when news of the sale filtered out a few weeks ago, there seems to be no hint of animosity or regret among the station's employees. As far as Steiner's concerned, programming will only improve when Hopkins hands over the keys.

After all, he points out, the station's broadcast signal is so tenuous, it fades as soon as it reaches Catonsville and disappears completely before Ellicott City. WJHU can't touch Frederick, and it's a crackling blip in the ether in Annapolis. The station has only two producers, who Steiner says barely make enough money to live ("the twenties"), and the hosts do little better ("the thirties"). There is not even an engineer on staff.

Affiliation is impediment

The best public radio in Baltimore scrapes by on a shoestring budget and, truth be told, Steiner believes the university affiliation actually impedes fund-raising. Creating great radio journalism, after all, has never been at the core of Hopkins' identity.

"Even with the wattage we have now, we could be making three times the money we're making now and doing more programming," Steiner said. "I think in some sense, without the Hopkins imprimatur, we could raise more money. I think there's a lot of ill will between Hopkins and the rest of the community, for right or for wrong reasons. There are a lot of reasons that make people reluctant to give all the money they could. But a community station would bring a lot more corporate and individual support. I think we could raise a ton more money."

If the unadulterated Steiner comes off as populist, fearless and ambitious, the same populist, fearless, ambitious ethos is likely to characterize WJHU in the future, should the community-based plan win the license. Since 1996, when Steiner's daytime talk show first aired, the station has gained credibility as a forum for local issues, gathered more public financial support and come more closely in line with the serious-minded focus of other quality public radio stations.

Time for untold stories

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