One year later

A look at how some of the key players have fared since WYPR's firing of Marc Steiner rocked his fans

February 03, 2009|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,

A year has passed since the very public, and messy, divorce of Marc Steiner from the Baltimore public radio station that he had long represented. Although some predicted WYPR would suffer from Steiner's dismissal last Feb. 1, the station is just as strong a year later, with more listeners and solid donor support especially with the turbulent economy. For his part, Steiner is on the air at WEAA, Morgan State University's public radio station.

Here's a look at four of the figures involved: Steiner; his former boss Anthony Brandon; his WYPR successor Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks; and peace activist Max Obuszewski, one of Steiner's staunchest supporters - one year later.

The voice

He says he's tired of talking about it.

Marc Steiner, whose 15 years at WYPR-FM (88.1) and its predecessor, WJHU, came to an abrupt end last winter, insists he's moved past it all now.

He's been back on the air since June with the hourlong The Marc Steiner Show, which begins at 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays on WEAA-FM (88.9). He's concentrating on expanding his own production company, the Center for Emerging Media, which he founded in 2000. He's working on partnerships with other broadcast and print media - raising money, putting together a board of directors. He plans to continue creating information and advocacy programs like "Just Words," a series that was broadcast on WYPR in 2007 and featured interviews with addicts, felons and the homeless.

"Just Words" won Steiner a Peabody Award, announced 10 days after he was fired. "I thought that was poetic justice," he says.

He's working on a new series, this time about the energy crisis.

Steiner's got a lot going on and says he doesn't want to dwell on what is happening at a station that didn't want him anymore. And yet, what happened at WYPR clearly still rankles him.

"I helped build that station. I led the movement to buy the station [from the Johns Hopkins University]," Steiner says from his cramped second-floor office near Hampden. "I thought I was home. It was very tough. ... What they did was wrong. It was vindictive, spiteful and wrong - I think most people got that. But I can't waste my time worrying about that."

His audience is considerably smaller at WEAA. The station placed 24th in the most recent Arbitron ratings, with an average weekly audience of 85,600 listeners who tune in for at least 15 minutes. (WYPR finished eighth, with more than double that audience).

Steiner is spending a lot of time struggling with finances, trying to come up with enough grants, contracts and corporate underwriting to keep his center running and its four-person staff paid. So far, Steiner says, he's received money from the Town Creek Foundation (to look at the issue of sustainability in the new green economy) and the Osprey Foundation, which funds conservation work. He's in negotiations to produce radio and Internet stories in partnership with Urbanite magazine.

"It's a very scary time in this country," he says, "and that's why I think the work we're doing now is the most important work. I don't want to just do the gloom-and-doom stories, like everybody else, about the economy. I want to talk about hope and what works, and what people are doing to make this work. How do we make this society work as a place for all of us."

Steiner says he's energized, and as committed as ever to the cause of social justice that frequently fueled his WYPR show. Nowadays, he says, he listens to WYPR "only by accident."

The station boss

Tony Brandon would do it again.

"We never doubted that the decision we made was correct," says WYPR's president and general manager, insisting there was never a thought of reneging on the decision to take Steiner off the air. "For the long-term growth of the station, we were doing the right thing."

All the tumult that followed Steiner's firing notwithstanding, the latest numbers at the station suggest WYPR has never been in better shape. More people are listening than ever, an average of some 185,000 a week in the last quarter of 2008, according to the most recent Arbitron ratings. The station has climbed from ninth to eighth place in the Baltimore region, garnering some 3.3 percent of the listening audience (up from 2.4 percent for the comparable period a year earlier).

The number of listeners signing on as members has risen as well, even though the average donation has decreased (most likely due as much to the troubled economy as to any trouble at WYPR), and total membership contributions are down nearly 10 percent. So far, in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, revenue is down about 3 percent. That's not bad, given the economic doldrums and the station's decision to cancel one of three on-air pledge drives last year because of the furor over Steiner's firing.

"The fundamentals of the business are operating beautifully," Brandon says from his office at WYPR's Charles Street studios. "The economy is our issue, as it is for any other profit or nonprofit business."

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