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Homegrown Radio Miller's Tale

By Tom Chalkley | Posted 5/30/2001

Who will take over WJHU (88.1 FM)? The station's current owner, Johns Hopkins University, is expected to announce its choice of a successor on June 11. Still competing for the prize are two of public broadcasting's established heavy hitters, WAMU (88.5 FM) of Washington, D.C., and Boston-based WBUR, as well as Friends of Baltimore Public Radio, the local consortium fronted by WJHU talk-show host Marc Steiner. (Steiner's group is legally incorporated as Maryland Public Radio Corp.)

In mid-May, Hopkins rejected a bid by Maryland Public Television (MPT), despite the quasi-governmental broadcaster's recruitment of National Public Radio as a partner in its proposal. One rumor making the rounds is that MPT lost out because Hopkins would like to keep the popular Steiner on board regardless of who wins the bid to own of the station. The talk jock has negative history with MPT, dating to the late '90s, when he moderated debates on the local public station's News Night Maryland. Steiner resigned from the job, which was a contract position. In a recent interview, he described his hitch at MPT as "frustrating. . . . They wouldn't let you do anything creative or different."

The next few weeks are crucial to the Steiner group's campaign. Financially, it is the obvious underdog, counting on listener pledges, pro bono legal and marketing services, and as-yet-unidentified angel investors to support its bid. Having agreed not to talk about their effort on the air, Steiner et al. are relying heavily on a grass-roots e-mail campaign to solicit pledges. Ultimately, they must convince Hopkins that they're capable of raising at least $5 million. (Readers who wish to pledge, or just to learn more, can visit the group's Web site, www.baltimorepublicradio.org.)

Whatever the university decides, Steiner himself seems to be sitting pretty. "I have never felt my job [was] in jeopardy," he says. "I've had meetings with 'AMU and 'BUR . . . but I really want to see [local consortium] win this bid. . . . There's a lot we can do that no one else will do." Steiner says his group's proposal includes "investigative, explanatory news features, whole new magazine formats . . . a huge Internet presence," and "a youth broadcasting arm." As to the better-heeled competition, he says, "I think they offer a great deal. . . . The people who run 'AMU are some of the visionaries of public radio--but I'd rather be their partner than be owned by them."

Without having read any of the proposals--they're not public information--I support the local group's bid on principle. It's not just that I'm a Baltophile, proud of our town's resident talents and unique culture; it's my well-founded concern that an out-of-town owner, no matter how well intentioned, will lack a real commitment to the city. Over the last 20 years, Baltimore institutions ranging from banks and brokerages to The Sun and, for that matter, City Paper have been swallowed by alien entities, arguably to the city's detriment. Must this pernicious trend extend to nonprofit radio?

Millerfs Tale

On the other hand, WJHU's current owners, local though they may be, have done little to develop the station's potential as a voice for Baltimore. Instead, their bent over the years has been to dump in-house programs in favor of a smorgasbord of syndicated features, from NPR news programming to the hilariously named New Age show Music From the Hearts of Space. Besides Steiner's indispensable talkfest, the locally produced offerings are Andy Bienstock's jazz shows and Media Matters, hosted by Sun TV critic David Zurawik and University of Maryland professor Sheri Parks.

I was forcefully reminded of this shedding of local talent by an e-mail from former Hopkins media-studies professor Mark Crispin Miller, who now teaches at New York University. Readers may recall that, for roughly a decade, Miller was a frequent guest of erstwhile WJHU host Lisa Simeone--who, years after her bitter split with the station, has resurfaced as host of NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. Miller has his own ax to grind with WJHU; years before Zurawik and Parks went on the air, he lobbied the university and the station to give him his own media show, but had no success. He contends station management was shy of controversy and uninterested in local affairs. "The infuriating thing is that the university had the talent, and its community had the will, to do something better for the city," he writes. As an example of better days gone by, he cites Ray Sprenkel's long-defunct classical-music show; I recall Simeone hosting Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concerts and--going way back--actual news reports by Art Buist, now a fill-in station announcer.

In fairness, it must be said that Miller's abrasive style might have contributed to his frustrations in Baltimore. While I always found Miller's media criticism to be on-target and refreshingly iconoclastic, on radio he came off as the caricature of an intellectual snob. The haughty delivery undermined his often populist message.

Love him or loathe him, Miller will be back in Baltimore soon, flogging his new book, The Bush Dyslexicon, to be published by W.W. Norton & Co. in late May. The new work began as a satiric look at America's malaprop-prone president, the author says, but evolved into something more serious as Miller examined the major media's coverage of candidate Bush, the fishy circumstances of his election, and the first days of his presidency. Endless late-night-TV jokes about Dubya's verbal and intellectual bloopers notwithstanding, Miller says, "TV as an institution has been guilty of selling us the emperor's new clothes. This guy is not a moron. He is illiterate, he is ignorant . . . but he does have a shrewdness. Treating [Bush] as an idiot prince idealizes him, makes him more affable and benign."

Having reached the same conclusion myself, I naturally think Miller is pretty smart. He will be appearing and signing at Borders Books in Towson on June 8 at 6:30 p.m.

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