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Media Circus

New News Is Good News?

By Michael Anft | Posted 10/24/2001

Since the not-quite-final sale of WJHU (88.1 FM) by Johns Hopkins University to a local group led by talk-show host Marc Steiner this past summer, speculation has mounted among loyal listeners as to which direction the station might go when its new owners take the reins in January. Among the more intriguing ideas forwarded by Steiner is that of a full-fledged news operation. Among Baltimore-area radio stations, only WBAL (1090 AM) regularly offers reported stories through the radio ether (although its news desk mainly runs rip 'n' read rehashes from the Associated Press wire and The Sun).

The local radio landscape is certainly ripe for a new news entry; Steiner, for one, realizes there's a huge "news hole" out there. "There's very little in-depth reporting in town," he says. "There's very little crossing of the bridges to all the communities in the area."

True to his liberal politics and background as a youth organizer, Steiner views the would-be WYPR--the call letters his group has applied for with the Federal Communications Commission stand for "your public radio"--as an antidote to what he characterizes as a distorted media picture of Baltimore in particular and the urban landscape in general. "The vast majority of stories I see on inner-city life are negative," he says. "What about the tens of thousands of kids who are trying to make their way in this city? Nobody does that stuff."

Along with such lofty ideals come lofty, self-imposed expectations. In addition to covering the city from the bottom up, Steiner says, his news crews will craft features on Baltimore legends, read hourly updates with more up-to-the-minute local reporting, undertake investigative stories, and possibly put together a weekly newsmagazine show. Regular commentators--prospects include this paper's Tom Chalkley and other correspondents from the region's underexplored neighborhoods--might be added to the mix. In order to get all that done, Steiner is hoping National Public Radio will assign a reporter to WYPR (at NPR's expense) and that refugees from buyouts at The Sun will come to work for the station. "We're ready to train print people for radio," he says. "We also want young people with energy."

WYPR's news beginnings are likely to be humble, however. Steiner cites current 'JHU on-air presences Diane Finlayson, Andy Bienstock, and Tom Olson as the early-days vanguard. None is likely to be confused with Bob Woodward.

"We'll have them doing features," Steiner says. "If their work isn't up to standards, then it won't go on."

The nascent station will also rely heavily largely on the work of stringers and freelancers, he says. "We'll start small," he says. "As we raise the revenue, we'll increase the staff."

At the outset, WYPR's news staff will be made up of one member, a news director. The rumor mill has Daily Record reporter Amy Bernstein taking on the job, but she says the scuttlebutt is "totally not true." "Look closely," Bernstein says. "They don't even have the financing together to the point where they're in a position to hire people."

Steiner's proclamations about the depth of his group's pockets notwithstanding, it's clear that WYPR is cutting it close, dollar-wise. Station hands and others are wondering how the neophyte operation will be able to pay back a $4 million bank loan in seven years--the primary funding option--while spending a half-mil or more annually to run the station. Even if the new ownership group demonstrates considerable savvy in lining up public support and sizable grants--something for which Steiner has evinced a talent--the station may find itself operating with a skeleton crew for longer than the new boss lets on. And that's going to make it hard for WYPR to shed light on this city's many closeted skeletons.

Survival Is a Virtue

The death knell for Brill's Content, the not-quite-glossy mag dedicated to all things media, is another sign of the obvious: To the consternation of high-minded reporters and editors everywhere, not everyone is obsessed with the dramas and doings of news organizations.

Many newsies won't admit that media are products its buyers consume like oranges: They don't know or necessarily care to know where the orange is from, whether its source is pure, or whether the orange grower has stopped beating his wife. Brill's high and mighty ethics and hard-line standards (echoed by its motto, "Skepticism is a virtue") were laudable, but its pretensions to reaching a large general readership were laughable. When people haven't the time or inclination to question anything more than Dan Rather's mental state or Gary Condit's culpability, a media insider's perspective isn't going to mean much to them.

Don't tell my boss that, though.

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