A perfect public radio storm

February 22, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA

It didn't take long - only to the ninth speaker of the night - for the first obscure reference to come up: something about French soldiers shooting the nose off a sphinx during an Egyptian campaign. Somewhere around the 13th speaker came one of what would be many pointed observations that the "Y" in WYPR stands for "your," and yet none of the yours trulys in attendance were consulted.

This is what happens when you anger the articulate and irk the ironic.

If ever there was a perfect public radio storm, the firing of Marc Steiner is it. Here's the guy who not only hosted the signature show on WYPR, but played a role in rescuing the public radio station from its financial problems six years ago. That he would be forced out by the people he had turned to for help in saving YPR is exactly the kind of injustice that would outrage your typical public radio listener - and no surprise, it did just that.

About 300 Steiner supporters filled the auditorium at the Baltimore Museum of Art on Wednesday night for a meeting called to discuss his firing. It was quite a scene, what with the fired host and the managers who fired him, as well as many of the on-air personalities, reporters and producers, all in one crowded room. Would two hours and two microphones be enough? Were the BMA treasures in danger from rampaging Y-pers?

I suppose this is where the inevitable disclaimer goes: I was on an Inside Maryland Politics segment with Steiner once, and, of course, Sun columnist Dan Rodricks has been hired as the new host of the noon-to-2 p.m. slot that Steiner used to man.

But mostly, I'm just another listener. At a time when stations in many other cities largely broadcast one syndicated national show after another, I've always thought Baltimore was lucky to have so many of its "own" programs, across the AM and FM bands.

Station officials have noted Steiner's low ratings and his Baltimore-centric topics as reasons for letting him go; Steiner and his supporters say there's more to it, mentioning everything from personality clashes to a discomfort among some managers to have Steiner as the dominant face of YPR.

But, like it or not, he was the station in many people's eyes, or rather, ears. Once the decision was made to dump him, surely it could have been handled more graciously. Don't these things always play out this way - it's not just the decision, but also the unceremonious way it was handled?

Now the station has a full-blown issue on its hands, with dues-paying members threatening not to re-up and the station delaying a pledge drive until, presumably, the anger simmers down. If they're concerned about ratings, this surely can't help, not with competing shows such as Ed Norris' on WHFS doing so well.

Wednesday's meeting drew a remarkably passionate crowd, one that wanted to assert public ownership of public radio, and yet also an oddly festive one. If nothing else, the station's listeners seemed happy to be, well, listened to.

The woman holding up the "30 seconds" and the "stop" signs to keep speakers to their 2 1/2 -minute allotment got quite the workout.

But mostly, people seemed grateful to be among the like-minded, the fellow grievers over the loss of Steiner.

"I knew there was a community I belonged to," Doug Colbert, a University of Maryland law professor, marveled as he looked at the standing-room-only crowd.

It was an audience thick with the predictable NPR set, college professors and public school teachers and civil rights lawyers and professional activists and such, so much so that everyone seemed palpably relieved when a bus driver from Bel Air stepped to the microphone. See? We're not all precious, latte-sipping, Birkenstock-wearing NPRsters!'

As the speakers continued into the night, somewhere around No. 48, Richard Chisolm, the mood seemed to lift a bit. Chisolm drew much applause for calling on the crowd to "make room" for the station managers to reverse their decision.

"I have an incredibly positive feeling I didn't expect to have," he said. "This is going to work."

Maybe, but Tony Brandon, the YPR president and general manager who has emerged as public radio enemy No. 1 among Steiner's supporters, doesn't seem inclined to budge. Brandon sat in the front of the auditorium, his back to the crowd, and didn't speak during the meeting.

Afterward, he didn't have much to say when asked about the show of support for Steiner and the threats to stop supporting the station.

"You know, this is not a forum that gives us usable research," he said, adding that the station has 160,000 listeners, of whom 300 showed up for the meeting.

No, it's not Obama-level love - and already there are the similar protestations of how a cult of personality is developing around Steiner - and yet 300 Baltimore-area residents coming out on a snowy night is pretty impressive, as is the fact that they remain riled up three weeks after the dismissal.

But with promos already heralding Rodricks' debut on Monday, it doesn't seem as though the hope and change this crowd rallied around will come to any action, at least in the short term.

Doreen Bolger, the BMA executive director and member of the YPR Citizens Advisory Board that held the meeting, said board members will meet among themselves to decide what to do. She expects that the board will issue a report to Brandon and the other members of the station's board of directors, although everyone acknowledges that the board's role is advisory and not binding on Brandon in any way.

So Wednesday night might have been it - a chance to be heard, which, as callers to radio talk shows know, is pretty much all they usually get.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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