I woke up this morning to discover that Marc Steiner's show had been cancelled. For me, as for a lot of Baltimoreans, Marc's voice was literally the voice of public radio in this town, and I was surprised and not a little vexed by news of his sacking.
According to WYPR general manager Tony Brandon, the move had to do with declining ratings, which I find pretty laughable, considering that: a) the station's overall ratings have declined in recent years, which can't be entirely attributable to Marc Steiner; and b) to the best of my knowledge, ratings have never been the paramount consideration in public radio programming. This morning, on WYPR's own 'Maryland Morning' program, Brandon petulantly defended the decision, saying that it had been made by the station's board of directors. When host Sheila Kast raised the question of who really owned the station, Brandon haughtily replied that the board served as the "proxy for the public" in its authority to make administrative and programming decisions.
When the old WJHU folded and people started pooling money to keep the local NPR affiliate on the air, Marc was the person we rallied around. For a long time under the old format, his public affairs talk show was one of the few locally produced news shows of notable quality, and there were a lot of us who followed it, and him, over to the new call letters. In his interview this morning, Brandon sniffed at this characterization, arguing that Steiner had only raised $750,000 of the $5 million that had been needed to purchase the station, and that the remainder had been ponied up by eight wealthy individuals who guaranteed the station's loan. Brandon's implication was that these guarantors and the board of directors hold the rightful authority over WYPR, and that longtime contributors such as K and I have been over the years are "members" of the station only in name.
For years, "The Marc Steiner Show" has been a forum for earnest, balanced discussions of local topical issues. I'll admit that it's remained Baltimore-focused even as WYPR's signal extended to a greater portion of the state, and that the show has taken a turn for the stodgy recently. But that sort of inconsistency calls for tweaking or retooling, not cancellation. And if uneven quality is a cause for cancellation, I would submit that all of WYPR's other locally produced programs -- including Fraser Smith's pompous weekly essay, Gilbert Sandler's fatuous "Baltimore Stories," Al Spoler's narcissistic "Cellar Notes" and "Radio Kitchen," and even the bland, tedious "Maryland Morning" itself -- make better candidates for axing than Steiner's show.
WYPR's ill conceived move fails to acknowledge that Marc Steiner is more than just the host of a talk show. For many of us, Marc is a symbol of local radio at its most civil, intelligent, and inclusive. By firing him in a churlish way that shows complete disregard for the feelings of public radio listeners, WYPR's board and general manager do nothing but confirm my worst suspicions of rich old powerful white people who feel that they know better than everyone else.
Just two points on the dial away from WYPR, at 88.5-FM, is Washington, D.C.'s NPR affliate. WAMU is a vastly superior station in just about every respect to its Baltimore counterpart, and I expect to switch financial support and my presets to their frequency. Not that the loss of one listener will matter to Tony Brandon or the station's board of directors, but I don't expect that I will be alone in making the shift. This is a sad day for Baltimore and a sad day for public radio. The powers that be at WYPR should be ashamed of themselves.