Orlinsky, Steiner's struggle a classic one

February 14, 2002|By Michael Olesker

THE CLOCK said 25 past noon when Marc Steiner trudged out of Wally Orlinsky's farewell service at the Sol Levinson & Bros. funeral home. At such an hour, Steiner is supposed to be talking into a microphone at the radio station he officially rebirthed just two weeks ago.

"Aren't you supposed to be doing a talk show right now?" somebody asked.

In Tuesday's chilly sunlight on Reisterstown Road, Steiner shrugged his shoulders and muttered something about wanting to say goodbye. He didn't want to make a speech about it, and he didn't have to. He and Orlinsky were spiritual extended family, fueled by the same impulses carried by so many of those emerging now from the packed funeral service: William Donald Schaefer and Kweisi Mfume, Mary Pat and Joe Clarke, Carl Stokes and Joe Curran, Lou Panos and Sandy Rosenberg, Julian Lapides and Catherine Pugh, the Revs. Phillip Cunningham and Chester Wickwire, and Martin O'Malley, too.

"No question about it," Steiner was saying yesterday morning. He was talking about the emotional ties to Orlinsky, the instincts that come from a hunger to be included, to remove the old walls that divide people of different backgrounds and breed generations of suspiciousness.

In Steiner's case, the impulse came out of a boyhood in places such as Garrison Junior High, in the first wave of public school integration, and the jumble at City College, and the civil rights movement. In those classrooms and the chaos of lunchtime playgrounds, those like Steiner (and Orlinsky), out of Jewish homes, feeling the instinctive outsider-ness of the minority, discovered African-American and Italian and Greek and -- fill in the minority of your choice -- kids with the same kind of self-consciousness and the same desire to belong.

It is the American experience, which we find reflected in the nation's radio talk shows -- sometimes -- and it's the instinct Steiner brings to his new radio endeavor, born out of the old WJHU radio station and newly titled WYPR (Your Public Radio Inc.) at the same old 88.1 spot on the FM dial.

It's a funny market around here. The AM talk shows are heavily populated by right-wing Rush Limbaugh imitators who have buried themselves so deeply in the back pockets of Republicans that they couldn't find their way out with a flashlight.

Steiner's whole history comes out of the left -- but here's the difference: He's brought a mix of voices, informed and insightful, to his midday shows virtually every day since taking it over several years back. They go at each other from all kinds of directions.

In the two weeks since Steiner's new parent company took over the station, here's a partial list of the on-air discussions he's had: Tony Ambridge and Doug Miles debating the Martin O'Malley city leadership; David Shipler on Middle East conflicts; dyslexia; the public school testing troubles; Paul Graziano's housing department; the spiritual dimensions of TV's The Simpsons; Del. Maggie McIntosh talking about her public emergence from the sexual closet; mental health care in Maryland; bulimia and anexoria.

And, in the wake of allegations of torture of Afghan prisoners, a gathering of local philosophers to discuss: Is torture ever justified? Steiner added his own perspective. In the mid-1960s, when he volunteered in the civil rights movement in Cambridge, he remembered local police burning his hands with cigarettes, and then beating him up pretty badly.

"They wanted me to sign a paper," he said yesterday, "saying I'd been duped by the Commies to come down to Cambridge and `foment trouble among the Ne- groes.' "

The phrase, and the accusation, seem ancient now. But they were a dividing line among a generation of Americans, and a continuing shadow over the national consciousness: Do we reach for the melting pot, or only give it lip service?

"What we aim for," Steiner was saying yesterday, "is a balanced conversation. We try to reach across the ethnic and racial and political spectrum."

In the new regime, the station will hold on to all of the National Public Radio shows but begin adding local programming. Until now, Steiner's shows have been the only daytime local offerings. But within weeks, the station will add 5-minute local news shows, local stories lasting 4 to 8 minutes, and such 5-minute shows as "Your Maryland," put together by the Maryland Historical Society; a Mario Armstrong tech show; and 5-minute briefs on astronomy, film, theatre, cooking and gardening.

Also, Steiner will begin turning his two-hour Friday slots over to new hosts, hoping to groom talk-show voices for their own full-time shows some time next year.

"We'll spice up the airwaves with some good local stuff," he said.

Occasionally, Wally Orlinsky contributed to that spice. Steiner started bringing Wally on the air six years ago, and caught flak for it. Steiner's feeling was: Orlinsky had betrayed a trust, but he paid for it. He thought he was a smart man with ideas, and a brave man "for coming back to public life in a small town."

Also, he knew they were kindred spirits, men reaching across old dividing lines. They weren't alone. Tuesday at Orlinsky's funeral, there was Kweisi Mfume, standing in the cold and remembering "78 letters" he got from Orlinsky two years ago, imploring Mfume to run for mayor. And there was Joe Clarke, the lifelong Catholic, remembering 30 years of Passover seders at Orlinsky's house. And there was the Rev. Philip Cunningham, glancing down at Wally's coffin and whispering, "L'chaim" -- "To life."

It was the grand American gesture, the voice calling across what used to be a more imposing divide. We don't have to shout anymore. Sometimes we talk on the radio, and try to work things out in a great big crowd of us.

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