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Beneath Cancellation of Steiner Show Lies a Tangle of Egos, Money, and Clashing Philosophies

The City Paper Digi-Cam™
RADIO DAZE: Marc Steiner says he does not know what the personnel issues were that led WYPR to fire him.

By Edward Ericson Jr. | Posted 3/19/2008

Marc Steiner's office is hard to locate, tucked away in a warren of small rooms in the annex of the Clean Cuts music production offices, in the historic stone mill complex on Chestnut Avenue just off the JFX.

"We're just in temporary space here," says Steiner, the former WYPR radio talk-show host whose abrupt removal has become a cause célèbre.

On March 6, as protesters in front of his old station call for his return, Steiner is leaning back in his desk chair, dressed casually in front of a sound board. This place is, for now, headquarters of the Center for Emerging Media--CEM for short--a 7-year-old nonprofit Steiner founded to "expand the public understanding of the issues affecting our world."

Though little known even now, the CEM appears to be a part of the dispute that caused Steiner's abrupt exit from Baltimore's National Public Radio affiliate on Feb. 1. But the CEM's finances are murky, and Steiner's own financial arrangements with WYPR (88.1 FM) are more complex than many realize. Steiner can't explain how CEM spent thousands of dollars, and he says any focus on his WYPR contract misses the real issues surrounding his dismissal, which center on the direction and character of the station's programming, and on the outsized ego of WYPR President Anthony Brandon.

And these, too, appear to have been factors.

WYPR's cancellation of The Marc Steiner Show, a two-hour talk show featuring guests and called-in questions, has given rise to a "Bring Back Steiner" movement that has posted protesters outside the station, and spurred letter-writing campaigns and internecine disputes ("Told You So," The News Hole, Feb. 27).

The movement has prompted apologies and explanations from station management--but no sign that WYPR intends to reinstate the iconic show. Some longtime WYPR supporters have threatened to divert the money they would normally send the radio station to an escrow account--or to the CEM directly. Station managers have postponed WYPR's pledge drive and a board of directors meeting originally scheduled for March 12. The board is now scheduled to meet on April 15.

On March 5, WYPR board Chairwoman Barbara Bozzuto sent listener-members an e-mail purporting to explain the mess more fully, citing, in addition to falling ratings, "complicated personnel issues" as the reason for Steiner's dismissal. But that letter only enraged his fans, and it prompted Steiner to demand that the station bosses explain his ouster in detail.

"They have never told me, nor my listeners, nor the members, what those `complicated personnel issues' are," Steiner says on March 6, looking over the letter. "I'd like to know. And I give them full permission to put it all on the table."

In his much larger, wood-paneled office at the radio station, Brandon doesn't take that bait. "We still decline to elaborate on the nature of the problems except to say that there were serious issues," he says. But Brandon's answers--and his nonanswers--during an hour of questions on March 13 suggest displeasure with not just Steiner's personality but also his unusual employment contract.

"Marc was under contract for $125,000 per year to produce eight hours of programming a week," Brandon says. "He was also given the latitude to operate other business ventures at the same time."

Indeed, since his ouster seven weeks ago, that latitude has only increased. As of now, WYPR is paying Steiner the same $125,000 to produce zero hours of radio for the station. "They called the contract in," Steiner explains. "They have to say, `We're giving you a year's notice; after that your services are no longer needed.' They have to pay me in the meantime."

But it's more complicated than that. Since his removal as a station vice president in 2005, Steiner has not been a WYPR employee. The contract for The Marc Steiner Show did not include a paycheck made out to Steiner. Instead, WYPR paid a company Steiner founded in 1998, called Lasko Round Inc. "They wanted to get rid of me as VP, so they had to give me the contract I wanted," Steiner says when pressed for details. He says he'd rather have stayed vice president.

Though he says his contract is "no secret," Steiner is not eager to discuss his finances. "Without that contract I would be left swinging in the wind," he explains in an e-mail following the March 6 interview. "But more importantly these groups that have formed are not about Marc Steiner. They are rallying for the future of public radio, for the community forum, and the building of community that our show represented. They are concerned, from what I understand, that the public in public radio is more than just a fund-drive slogan and that the `your' in Your Public Radio has substance."

Peace activist Max Obuszewski, who has protested in front of the station on most days since Steiner's show was canceled, agrees. Steiner's replacement, Sun columnist Dan Rodricks, "is as bland as he can get," Obuszewski says, adding that the core of the dispute is the difference between Steiner's show, which routinely took on controversial issues, and Brandon's vision, which favors shorter, less saucy stuff like "Radio Kitchen," "Backstage at the BSO," and "Cellar Notes"--shows that sound more like genteel infomercials than public-affairs programs.

"He wants [WYPR] to appeal to conservatives," Obuszewski says. "Anyone can listen to The Signal [an award-winning Friday arts show]. So it's ideological."

Brandon says the shorter shows are common on public radio stations, and that they serve a triple purpose in which local businesses get to associate their name with major cultural institutions while financially supporting the station. "The listener wins because, I believe, the content is very consistent with our mission to broadcast programs of intellectual integrity and cultural merit which enrich the minds and spirits of our listeners and ultimately strengthen the communities we serve," Brandon says, reading from the station's mission statement.

Obuszewski's persistence, and his close attention to things like the Corp. for Public Broadcasting charter, which requires that public stations have a community advisory board and that the board have a say in policy decisions, seem to have made an impression on Brandon. Brandon says he met with a subcommittee of the board the night before the City Paper interview, and Obuszewski says the station postponed its March 12 board meeting as soon as he raised the legal issues.

Brandon says the board postponed its meeting for the Community Advisory Board's benefit.

At the Feb. 20 meeting of the Community Advisory Board, Obuszewski announced a separate pledge drive in which would-be WYPR supporters could pledge their money to an alternate fund. Though he's not ready yet to release the figures, he says Brandon "is going to be embarrassed by the pledge drive. Last fall it was $2.3 million, and he's not going to get even part of that this year."

Steiner, for his part, says he's keeping Obuszewski and other movement people at arm's length. He says he has no idea how many, if any, additional pledges have filled the CEM's coffers since his departure from WYPR. And he says he's looking forward.

Steiner brought two people who produced his WYPR show, Jessica Phillips and Justin Levy, to the CEM, where they have produced several hours of interviews for podcast that sound very much like the old show.

Steiner says he is in talks with other organizations to help amplify and distribute the CEM's work. "There is a lot we can't really talk about because we're in a lot of negotiations with different groups," he says, adding that he hopes to have an announcement soon.

Fans have often said Steiner could be a national star, and the CEM was founded with national ambitions in mind. He produced a six-hour radio documentary called Shared Weight, featuring himself and Vietnam War veterans touring Vietnam for the first time since hostilities ended. The show was broadcast on 70 to 80 stations across the nation, Steiner says, adding that he's working on a sequel.

According to the CEM's publicly available tax returns, Steiner started the center with a $3,981 loan from his own pocket. In 2006 the CEM raised more than $200,000, including $97,000 from the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, $7,500 from the Rouse Charitable Foundation, and $86,000 from the Osprey Foundation, which gave more than $1 million away in 2006 for things like food in Africa, cancer research, and the Living Classrooms foundation in Baltimore.

But in the spaces on the tax form listing the five highest-paid officers and employees, there are "none." Also blank is the section meant to list the highest-paid contractors, despite a notation elsewhere that the company paid a "production company" $45,400 and miscellaneous "subcontractors" more than $86,000.

"This is all Vietnam stuff," Steiner says, paging through the tax form. "Advisers, guides in Vietnam, expert work from a ton of people we worked with on this project." Steiner's accountant, Eric Pripstein, did not return a phone call asking about the CEM's taxes.

Steiner says the CEM was meant to be an outside production company that could bring some grant money into the station, including more than $75,000 from the Open Society Institute in 2007 and late '06. He also says he got an "anonymous donor" to pay Phillips' salary last year so she could keep producing the Steiner Show. Brandon says he has no knowledge of the CEM or any money Steiner gave the station through it.

"The center is Marc's business. It had nothing to do with WYPR," Brandon says. "He was highly paid to produce eight hours. . . . We had philosophical differences."

Though Brandon declines to elucidate those differences, his reaction to questions suggests that he thought Steiner was taking too much credit for the station's successes. Steiner, for example, says that he hired WYPR news director Sunni Khalid around 2002, but was told to fire him when Brandon found out that Khalid had filed a discrimination suit against NPR, for which he had worked as Cairo bureau chief. He says Brandon asked him where his loyalties were--with Khalid or with the station's board, and that Steiner answered that he was with Khalid--and that they'd have to fire Steiner if they fired Khalid.

Khalid did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Brandon's memory of the incident is clouded. "The question was raised whether he was suing his former employer. I looked at it and decided that it was appropriate that we hire him," Brandon says . Asked whether the question was raised before or after Khalid was hired, he says only that Khalid is "an exemplary employee."

Similarly, Steiner says he was instrumental in bringing The Signal's Aaron Henkin back to the station after he had left WYPR for a job at NPR. In a very short conversation just before the interview with Brandon, Henkin says Steiner and WYPR program director Andy Beinstock lured him back.

Says Brandon: "I certainly give all the credit to Aaron and [The Signal co-host] Lisa [Morgan] and Andy for their vision in creating this show."

Brandon then questions the premise of the questions. "One person cannot take credit, all the credit," he says. "WYPR has 33 passionate journalists. They work way beyond what's expected of them, and for any one person to take credit for that is outside the spirit of public radio."

Brandon does his best to appear unperturbed by the Steiner fallout, and he has at hand a half-inch stack of printed e-mails from people who did not appreciate Steiner's on-air style. Still, he acknowledges that Steiner's removal has caused a major breach, though this acknowledgement is only implicit.

"I'm confident," Brandon says, "that the radio station can re-establish a relationship with this community."

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