Steiner honored for series, `Words'

WYPR host's firing still draws protests

Entertainment

April 03, 2008|By Jill Rosen | Jill Rosen,Sun reporter

Two months after WYPR fired him, Marc Steiner won a Peabody Award yesterday - just as the public radio station kicked off a fund drive that it had postponed in the wake of the intense outcry that followed the host's dismissal.

The Peabody recognized Steiner's 2007 series titled Just Words, a documentary that featured the voices of addicts, ex-felons and the homeless. Steiner, who nominated his work for the prize, called it "an amazing honor."

"The idea was that nobody heard the words and stories of the working poor of America and what they have to say about their own lives," Steiner said.

The 55-part project, funded by the Open Society Institute, aired throughout last year in four-minute segments on WYPR. The Peabody recognizes distinguished achievement and meritorious public service by TV and radio stations.

Peabody officials said in giving voice to marginalized people, Steiner's project "made common social issues immediate and personal."

But Steiner has been off the air since Feb. 1. WYPR, 88.1 FM, abruptly canceled The Marc Steiner Show that day, noting declining ratings and what it called Steiner's focus on Baltimore despite the station's reach to all corners of Maryland.

Longtime Sun columnist Dan Rodricks took over Steiner's time slot on Feb. 25.

Vocal opposition flared after the firing of Steiner, who hosted the lunchtime public affairs program for 15 years and had largely become the face of the station.

When the station (then owned and operated as WJHU by the Johns Hopkins University) faced financial troubles in 2002, Steiner waged a campaign to purchase it, appealing for funds in an e-mail drive. Eventually, the station was saved when eight investors stepped in as guarantors to secure a loan to buy the station.

The station's Community Advisory Board voted Tuesday night to recommend that WYPR give Steiner back his job after receiving hundreds of comments from station listeners. The advisers will pass that recommendation on to the station's board of directors at the board's April 15 meeting. The station appointed the advisory board to represent the public, but its decisions are not binding.

"I don't see it purely as an exercise," CAB member Ralph Moore said. "In the words of Frederick Douglass, power concedes nothing without demand. It never did, it never will."

WYPR's fundraising drive was originally set for mid-February, about two weeks after Steiner's firing. But fearing the protests would chill contributions, station managers pushed it back to this week.

The protests may have cooled a bit, but they haven't abated. Activists affiliated with the Save Steiner movement have set up camp on the station's steps six days a week since the firing, and an online "Bring Back Steiner" petition crossed the 900 signature mark this week.

Last evening, nearly 30 Steiner supporters, the largest turnout in recent weeks, lined the 2200 block of N. Charles St. Some waved to passing motorists, urging them to honk in support. One man beat on a 5-gallon bucket, two others blew whistles and another beat stainless-steel pot lids on a light pole.

"I called today to tell [fundraising] volunteers that I wouldn't be contributing my normal amount of $365 to the fund drive," said Maria Allwine, one of the protesters. "Surprisingly, the volunteer told me that I wasn't the only one to call and express my decision to withhold contributions."

However, WYPR President Anthony A. Brandon said yesterday that the protests weren't hurting the pledge drive, which runs for a week.

"Through noon today, we have seen no influence from outside sources on our pledge drive," Brandon said. "We're very pleased with where it is and encourage people to support the great work we're doing here at WYPR."

Several protesters said they called the pledge line to say they would not be giving money in light of Steiner's firing.

"I called and told them there's no way I'm giving them any money," said Anita Lingan, who used to be a dollar-a-day WYPR member. "I want them to feel this."

Lingan called Steiner's Peabody "more evidence of what a ridiculous decision this has been to take someone off the air of this caliber."

Allwine, who's been protesting WYPR since Steiner's dismissal, said if nothing else, the Peabody should show the station's management what they lost.

"What irony that he wins this six weeks after he's sacked," she said. "If they were astute business people, they would swallow their pride and bring Marc back."

Since his firing, Steiner has been blogging and working on projects with his production company, Center for Emerging Media. He said he would return to WYPR if he could.

"If the station wants us back from noon to 2, we'll be back from noon to 2," he said. "It's really up to them. I didn't exactly resign."jill.rosen@baltsun.com

Sun staff writer Brad Schleicher contributed to this article.

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