LaFontaine Oliver swears he started to tweak the programming at WEAA-FM (88.9) months before Marc Steiner got fired. It was, he says, part of his long-term mission to increase news and public affairs programming at Morgan State University's radio station.
Still, if disaffected WYPR-FM (88.1) listeners want to sample his station's offerings -- if they want to follow Steiner across town to what will be, beginning tomorrow, his new radio home -- Oliver's not going to complain.
"It wasn't so much a conscious effort to woo those folks, as much as the stars sort of aligned," says Oliver, WEAA's general manager for the past 15 months. "We were already looking at some programming changes to strengthen our news-talk and public affairs lineup when the situation happened with Marc."
Steiner, a fixture on Baltimore public radio for decades and the man who gave WYPR its name, makes his WEAA debut tomorrow.
He'll be the host for a two-hour Town-hall meeting with city schools CEO Andres Alonso beginning at 6 p.m., airing on the station Steiner has begun referring to on his blog as "your community radio station."
The broadcast will be the first of what Oliver says will be weekly appearances by Steiner on the WEAA airwaves, although such particulars as day and time are still being worked out.
The hope, Oliver says, is to have weekly one-hour call-in shows with Steiner as host, plus monthly town-hall meetings such as the one set for tomorrow.
Also beginning tomorrow, WEAA will be adding Democracy Now!, an independently produced news program with hosts Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, in the 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. time slot, and The Takeaway, a news and talk program originating out of New York with veteran journalist John Hockenberry and Baltimore-born Adaora Udoji as hosts.
The hourlong program comes on at 7 a.m.
"LaFontaine is a really bright, forward-looking radio manager," says Steiner, who has made no secret of his scorn for what he sees as WYPR management's attempts to turn the station into a more conservative, less grass-roots forum.
"He's really serious about building that station up."
Adds Maria Allwine, a former Green Party candidate for City Council president who has been among those picketing outside the WYPR studios to get Steiner back on the station, "I will be more than happy to listen to WEAA. I will support it, I will give money to it. I will do everything I can to boost its listeners."
In the latest radio ratings, for the first three months of this year, WEAA's audience was less than half of WYPR's -- 81,300 listeners in an average week, compared to 166,800.
To cut into the difference, Oliver and WEAA will have to do more than simply persuade listeners to switch their allegiance from one radio station to another.
"Will whites listen to a majority black station?" asks Jason Loviglio, director of media and communication studies at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"The history has been no, unless it's been primarily a music station."
Oliver came to Baltimore after stints in Washington with Radio One (which operates four stations here, including top-rated WERQ-FM, 92.3) and XM Satellite Radio.
He says WEAA airs a mix that's about 70 percent music, 30 percent news and talk, but he would like to move that ratio closer to 60-40.
"Historically, WEAA has always had a mix of jazz, news and public affairs," he says. "This station, as well as the community, could really benefit from us adding more news and public affairs programming."
And it should help the station raise money, he adds.
WEAA's annual operating budget stands at about $800,000, Oliver says, and about $300,000 of that comes from Morgan State. In October, he says, the station held its first membership drive in about three years, raising $50,000. Another drive is scheduled for May 31 to June 8.
Andy Bienstock, WYPR's vice president and program director, says he welcomes the increase in news and talk at WEAA. "Competition helps all of us," he says. "More choices are good."