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Radio pirates

A group gathers in WYPR's lobby to celebrate the station's first anniversary
A group gathers in WYPR's lobby to celebrate the station's first anniversary

On this month's episode of Wavelength: WYPR finds success and faces controversy in its first decade.


Marc Steiner: It was 2001 and there was a general manager search going on, and there were three final candidates. And just as the staff was about to interview the candidates, we got a notice that the search had been called off–postponing it is what they said. So I knew something weird was going on. And so I called one of the vice presidents at Hopkins and said–who was overseeing the station–and I said ‘so you gotta tell me what's happening. This either means you're selling this station, or you're closing the station. So what's going on?’ He said, ‘it's not for publication, but we're selling the station.’

Maria Broom: This is Wavelength: Baltimore’s Public Radio Journey from Your Public Studios, a monthly podcast series made possible by PNC Bank. I’m your host Maria Broom.

You just heard the voice of former WJHU, WYPR, and WEAA talk show host Marc Steiner reflecting on Johns Hopkins University’s decision to sell WJHU.

Since WJHU was the precursor to WYPR and this is WYPR’s 20th anniversary year, indulge us as we focus on the station’s early years in this episode. A lot went on…

So, as Marc Steiner was saying, in 2001 WJHU was up for sale. Former WJHU jazz host Andy Bienstock and others pick up the story.

Andy Bienstock: Johns Hopkins had decided that we were not part of the university's mission and that it would be better to sell us to someone who did have a mission for public radio. We had other public stations come and look at us. I was on the transition committee at the time. And we were visited by WBUR in Boston, by WETA in Washington. I think from WAMU in Washington. We also knew that Maryland Public Television was interested in acquiring us. And of course there were lots of religious groups that wanted–that would have paid a lot of money to have us become a religious station. And to give the university credit, they made it clear that was not what they wanted to do. They wanted to keep it as an NPR station or as a public radio station. So as all this was going on, Marc Steiner was our talk show host at the time, and Marc started putting together a group to try and buy it and keep it as an independent radio station.

Marc Steiner: The only staff member that really joined the effort was a woman named Martha Ruski, who was then the marketing director for WJHU. And she and I formed the Maryland Public Radio Corporation, that was incorporated as a nonprofit. We knew we had to raise $5 million dollars and how we were going to do that was the question.

[“Hash Out” by Sunday at Slims begins.] Song courtesy of Blue Dot Sessions.

Marc Steiner: Hopkins would not let us use the membership list to raise money to buy the station so I had a list of 500, 700 odd people who I had been in touch with over the years who were listeners, maybe more even and I had that list of names and so I put that in our database and started writing everybody. So we–well the first people– two people who came in first: one was Bill Clark, the other was the Daniels family, and then was the folks at Town Creek Foundation. They supported it too. So we had this initial burst of serious contributions. And then we went after other contributions from, from listeners. And so we ended up with three quarters of a million dollars, which was not enough to buy the station. But it was a significant down payment. (laughs.)

Andy Bienstock: So Marc was put in touch with Tony Brandon, who was living in Baltimore and Tony had a string of commercial stations.

Tony Brandon: I’m Tony Brandon. I was the general manager of WYPR from 2002 to 2019. I had been in the radio business for probably at that time, 30 years. We had a family company that I was president of called American General Media, which owned 45 or 50 radio stations. I went to the president of the bank and told him of our intentions to attempt to acquire this station. He said he understood that it wasn’t part of our American General Media acquisitions, that it was totally independent and it was separate from that. But the bank would require personal guarantees to make the loan to a non-profit that was not to be owned by broadcasters who were seeking to make a profit. And we gathered together eight people.

Gary Levine: Bill Clark, of course Tony, Barb Bozzuto, Darielle Linehan, John Melnick, Charlie Salisbury and Albert Williams. I’m Gary Levine. I’ve been associated with WYPR from its inception.

Tony Brandon: And the 8 of us guaranteed $500,000 each. And the bank proceeded to make the loan for $5 million required to purchase the station.

Maria Broom: But on September 11, 2001, radio acquisitions, entertainment, travel, everything…stopped.

[Clip of Morning Edition] Bob Edwards: Good morning, you’re listening to special coverage of tragic events that have occurred today in New York City and in Washington D.C.

Maria Broom: That morning Andy Bienstock woke up and walked into his kitchen. Morning Edition was playing on the radio.

Andy Bienstock: Bob Edwards was the host back then, and he was talking about fire, a fire at the World Trade Center or an explosion at the World Trade Center. And, of course, there had been a terrorist attack there in the early 90s. And I thought for some reason, they were doing the story about that attack, and replaying it. But as I listened some more I realized oh no, this was today.

Bob Edwards: I’m going to go through just a timeline of today’s events as compiled by the Associated Press. Plane crashes into tower of World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan shortly before 9 AM eastern time. And then shortly after 9 AM eastern time, a second plane crashed into the second tower of the World Trade Center. President Bush, in Sarasota, Florida, earlier this morning, called the crash–crashes an apparent terrorist attack and a national tragedy.

Andy Bienstock: So I abandoned my radio and went to the television, and just sort of watched in horror for the rest of the day. Now, I grew up in New York, in Manhattan, so I knew people involved. My father who was elderly at that point, lived not far away. And my uncle was actually working at a place that wasn't too far from the World Trade Center. So it took a while, you know, on the phone with my father and making sure he was OK. And that was also Election Day in Annapolis, I guess it was our primary election here in Annapolis. I guess it was a mayoral election. And I remember going to the polls, and it was just quiet. Everyone, no one talking about anything. Everyone just in shock. No one talking about what happened because nobody wanted to talk about what happened or even understood it.

Maria Broom: This is Wavelength. We’ll be back in a minute.

Maria Broom: This is Wavelength: Baltimore’s Public Radio Journey. I’m your host Maria Broom. On today’s episode of the podcast, we’re talking about the transition of WJHU to WYPR, which officially started on February 1, 2002.

Marc Steiner was one of the founders of WYPR and became the Vice President for Broadcast and Production when the station began.

He explains what WYPR stands for and how it was actually his second choice for call letters.

Marc Steiner: I said, ‘Well, we're the Maryland Radio Corporation. So we can just be like Maryland Radio Corporation, that'd be the WMRC.’ And I stopped and it was this dead silence and Martha stopped and looked at me and went ‘Marc.’

Valerie Williams: I said that.

Marc Steiner: Oh you said it, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. My wife just reminded me she's the one who said it. She is right. I get times mixed up. I always do. Thanks, Valerie. (laughs.)

Valerie Williams: You came home all excited.

Marc Steiner: I came home all excited, saying, ‘we came up with the call letters WMRC.’ And she looked at me and went ‘Marc, how do you spell your name?’ And I said ‘Oh, shit!’

Valerie Williams: No, you said ‘Mar-shit.’

Marc Steiner Mar-shit. (laughs) So then a little brainstorming session we just came up with, you know, the whole line we're giving people was that this was gonna be a community owned station, and it belonged to the people of our listening area. So we came up with it's your station, isn't it? Right? It's your public radio station. So why YPR. So that was how YPR came about instead of naming it after myself. (Laughs.)

Aaron Henkin: My name is Aaron Henkin. I'm a producer here at WYPR, and I've been here since 2001. When we switched from the call letters WJHU to WYPR, I remember our morning announcer at the time. Great guy, Tom Olsen. And we had a–we took a pool, I think, here at the office for how long it would be that first day when we were supposed to be WYPR for him to mess up the call letters and say WJHU. I think it took about an hour and a half before he said the wrong call letters, but he eventually got it into his head. And, you know, we all became WYPR together.

Andy Bienstock: Tony became General Manager and I became the Program Director of WYPR.

Tony Brandon: As it turned out immediately after closing in 2002 February 1, we had a fund drive and it was enormous. And it was one of the biggest fund drives the station had ever had.

Andy Bienstock: Our membership grew immediately. I think the story of, sort of the little guys who took over the station was a great story. Keeping it as local ownership was a great story. And I think frankly, a lot of people didn't want to give money to a wing of Johns Hopkins, and were more willing to give an independent station money.

Gary Levine: The best part of the pledge drive to me was to be able to listen to listeners and what and how much they loved the broadcast, how much they loved the journalism and all the on air hosts at WYPR and NPR. This is Gary Levine. I've been a board member at WYPR for 10 years now. My affiliation with WJHU started with me becoming a fan of All Things Considered and Morning Edition and deciding in our business to become an underwriter at WJHU. Deborah Davis was our administrative assistant and she worked with my brother and I for many years. When it came time for us to part companies with her, she immediately applied at WJHU and was hired as a membership director. All I can say about Deborah is that she was the heart and soul of the station. She was brilliant when it came to meeting the members' needs and encouraging them to give and be part of all of the fund drives and all of the events, Deborah attended every one of them. I miss her terribly.

Tony Brandon: We re-organized our underwriting department and brought in a woman named Carla Truax she did a phenomenal job of convincing local businesses to underwrite on the station.

Carla Truax: I'm Carla Truax, I was VP and underwriting Sales Manager for WYPR. And was there for 18 years. There were 13 of us that were part of the full time employees as WYPR which was a very small group of people. But there was a real spirit, there was excitement. Loved going to work because there was so much to do. We were in a sense, starting a new station. And it was a wonderful feeling. The one thing we didn't understand at that time, or I didn't understand, was how passionate our listeners and our underwriters and our members were about public radio. I mean, we said that all our time, all the time in our sales pitch. But I mean, we'd walk into a meeting, and they would just tell us, they would tell us more about the station than we knew. I mean, they listened constantly. So that was all exciting. And we were so well received, and then we kept adding other programs, other events that we could sponsor to our portfolio and sales. And that really helped. Yes, we still had to watch money, but it was letting us add more people and then more product.

Andy: When you work for Johns Hopkins, you know your paychecks are not going to bounce. You have a pension plan, there's a lot of pluses for working for Johns Hopkins, even when you work for an organization that Hopkins isn't paying a lot of attention to. And we went from that to, you know, as a business, almost living paycheck to paycheck. We had to, you know, every two weeks the payroll was due. We had to grow like a small company finding its way. We kind of felt like we were pirates. I mean, there were only us in the building. We had this entire building to ourselves all of a sudden, and we could imagine new things. We could come up with new ideas. It was ours. There was really no one to say no anymore. Hopkins had gotten pretty good about saying no, we can't afford to do that. No, we can't afford to do that. There was no one to say no. We just had to figure out how to pay for it. If we could pay for it, we could do it.

Aaron Henkin: So here was the WYPR brand new radio station, and suddenly it's trying to figure out who are we going to be? How are we going to be different? How are we going to be more alive than we were as WJHU? And so it was a time when if you had a good idea, you were invited to try it out. It was a time of rapid prototyping. New programs, big and small, were popping up all over locally, all over our programming clock. And at that time, Lisa Morgan and I had been talking about creating a cultural show for WYPR that was going to be sort of like, you know, the local public radio stations’ version of the City Paper. And we're talking more and more about this and The Signalwas pitched by me and Lisa right at the right time, right at the right place. And they said, ‘Go for it.’ The Signal's original name was A Very Special Edition of The Marc Steiner Show, because basically the way we pitched it was like, ‘Marc, you can take a Friday, a month off because we'll make this special sort of cultural magazine show,’ which he thought, ‘Oh, nice for me. Sure. Go for it.’ And so originally it was a once a month show. And then, you know, we got better at turning it over faster and faster. And before long it was a new weekly show. So, yeah, I'm always going to be grateful to Marc and Andy and the way they just welcomed new ideas with open arms at that time.

Bob White: Bob White here. Station’s senior producer, one of several. And also on-air talent. I was real optimistic about the new direction of the station and talk about doing local, you know, vignette programs that were 5 minutes long and getting underwriting for that, which we did do. So there was just this growing process that kept on manifesting itself. And these were some of the things that led to me getting more involved in production and producing shows and individuals. For me it started off pretty much with Radio Kitchen, Cellar Notes and my friend and colleague Anirban Basu started producing his Morning Economic Reports and his Your Retirement show. Mario Armstrong’s Digital Cafe, Sky Watch, Mutual Perspectives, the late P. M. Forni Commentaries. And then we had a lot of health commentaries. There was a lot of people, of course, that were guests on the former Marc Steiner Show and which segwayed and became Midday. And the original host was Dan Rodricks. Probably some of my favorites–the late Valerie Harper and Carrie Fisher. Valerie Harper especially surprised me when she was here. She had just finished being interviewed by Dan for Midday. I was in the café, our little cafeteria and green room, and I was bending over in the refrigerator to grab a water and she tapped me on the back and she said, ‘Hi. We haven't met yet I don't think. I'm Valerie.’ And I felt like saying ‘No shit.’

Andy Bienstock: We did Morning Edition. Then we had The Diane Rehm Show. Then we had our local talk show with Marc Steiner at noon.

[Clip of the Marc Steiner Show] Opens with the theme music. Marc Steiner: Hello I’m Marc Steiner and welcome this hour.

Andy Bienstock: And then we had NPR’s Talk of the Nation in the afternoon. And we had All Things Considered. It was more network programming, less local programming. And early on, we added another talk show, it used to be called Maryland Morning. We brought in Sheilah Kast to do that program.

[Clip of Maryland Morning] Opens with theme music. Sheilah Kast: Welcome to Maryland Morning, I’m Sheilah Kast. You're with us on takeoff as we launch this new show this morning. I’m here in the studio with Tom Hall, our arts and culture contributor and with Nathan Sterner, our director and engineer and the local host for WYPR for Morning Edition.

Andy: So that was our first big programming investment in addition to growing the new staff. Bringing in Fraser Smith, and Sunni Khalid to the news department.

[Clip from news stories] Fraser Smith: Children at risk shouldn’t be on their own. They’re strong, resilient, and hopeful. They’re a treasure. And they’re being saved every day by people you’re never likely to hear about. Sunni Khalid: Now if the international community seems poised to send a peacekeeping force to Darfur to end the suffering. But even if a mission succeeds, Al Khalifa says many refugees must face the reality that it may be many more years before they can return home.

Marc Steiner: Mary Rose Madden who had been one of my producers, became the news producer for the station.

Mary Rose Madden: Last year Dr. Andres Alonso, the CEO of Baltimore City Schools, said school transportation would be a priority this year.

Marc Steiner: Then we brought in a whole bunch of print journalists who had never really done radio before.

[Clips of news stories] Joel McCord: In a report issued last fall, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation said the health of the bay had gone down over the last year. Whether that condition improves or not depends on how effectively the bay states manage their sewer plants, farm fields, streets and lawns. I’m Joel McCord reporting for 88.1 WYPR. Melody Simmons: I’m Melody Simmons reporting in Dundalk. Inside the Steelworkers Union Hall in Dundalk, a new kind of education is going on. Retirees of Bethlehem Steel, whose ages range from the mid 50s to the 80s, are learning just what it will take to make ends meet after they’ve experienced two hits to their financial security. Art Buist: A little after 6 PM tomorrow, the call to the post for the Preakness will be sounded. A band will play “Maryland, My Maryland.” And the second jewel of the triple crown will be run in Baltimore for the 129th time. I’m Art Buist reporting in Baltimore for 88.1, WYPR.

Maria Broom: The station’s programming was about to enter another period of change in 2008. The Marc Steiner Show which was heard on 88.1 since 1993, was canceled. Why? Well, there are differing opinions about what led to the end of Marc’s tenure at WYPR.

Tony Brandon: Marc was a big voice, big talent, very smart guy. I always liked Marc but we saw a little bit different vision for the station and we decided to part ways in about 2008.

Marc Steiner: When Tony says there were different visions, the vision was that he wanted to be in control and didn't want to share the control. And so it was easier just to get rid of what I was doing as vice president and then it was easier just to say we don't really need you here anymore.

Andy Bienstock: We had protestors out front, people banging bongo drums. We had regrettably activists trying to disrupt the membership campaign. It was pretty crazy but one of the things you know in radio and it’s especially true in public radio–it’s about content more than personality in public radio and we weren't changing the content of what we were doing. We were changing a major voice in what we did, and we were sort of changing his way of looking at content, and that was going to hurt. You know, Marc is a vital voice in Baltimore, and a tremendous personality, and probably one of the greatest idea people I've ever been around. He comes up with ideas in his sleep, just brilliant. Brilliant that way. I miss Marc, and Marc did a good job. It might have been time for him to leave. He's certainly done really well on his own and gone out and done great things. And I think it was important for the station to get its own identity as WYPR and not any one's place.

Maria Broom: Dr. Jason Loviglio is Associate Professor of Media and Communication Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He’s written about this period in WYPR’s history and says there was intense public reaction to Marc Steiner leaving WYPR’s airwaves.

Dr. Jason Loviglio: Marc Steiner was fired on a Friday. The following Wednesday, the community advisory board for WYPR called an open meeting, a kind of town hall, at a large auditorium space at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Hundreds of people gathered. I didn't interview them all but the unanimous sentiment seemed to be real outrage at the firing, and a real sense of confusion about what it meant for the future of the station. What struck me the most was that you had hundreds of Baltimoreans physically together, hundreds sharing stories at an open mic, one after the other about the ways that the station and in particular Marc’s show had framed their lives in Baltimore and that there was a tremendous amount of emotional gratification from sharing in real time, together in community, what it means to be part of a community. And so for someone who studies radio, having the invisible audience, visible, tangible, palpable, right there was remarkable. But I think everyone in the room felt it, that there was this opportunity to reflect on the importance of radio, the importance of radio that is local, the importance of radio that is local and community-focused. One of the most common refrains I heard that evening was, ‘it's not about Marc,’ which was to say that they understood themselves to be part of a community drawn together through a certain kind of programming and drawn together through a particular idea of what public institutions owe to their communities. And to the extent that Steiners’ show imperfectly, but often, served that understanding of community, it was worth fighting for.

Marc Steiner: And it was worth it, I mean, look, we created something really really wonderful for this community and I think–that to me–was really important. Am I happy how things turned out for me? No. Am I happy how the station turned out for this community? Yes. And people have done brilliant and remarkable work at that place. Some of the small programs that we began, some of the news department we started are really important parts of the listening world for the state and all that’s really important. So no, I wouldn’t–I wouldn’t have changed anything, perhaps I would’ve fought this thing more strategically when I was in the midst of it.

Andy Bienstock: We brought in another host for the midday show after a small period. And we brought in Dan Rodricks and Dan made it his own very, very quickly.

[Clip of Midday with Dan Rodricks] Opens with theme music. Dan Rodricks: I’m Dan Rodricks and this is Midday. Clip ends with music. 

Andy Bienstock: Things settled down. I mean, people, if people are only listening to you, for one person being there, you've got a problem. You know, it's like when Howard Stern left, people used to listen, just for Howard Stern. People love Marc, and people loved Marc, and they loved Marc's show. But as long as we were doing good radio, people would stay with us. And they did.

Dr. Jason Lovigilio: One of the nice things that persists on WYPR today partly as a result of the fact that some of the folks who produced The Marc Steiner Show are now making their own shows, podcasts and broadcasts on WYPR and because of all the other, more recent talent that has been drawn to the station, and part of national transformations in strategy and in access to public media, has been that there's just been this Cambrian explosion of voices and diverse perspectives.

Bob White: We were certainly blessed with a lot of good radio people, especially those from the production and hosting side of life. And there was a lot of respect for what we were doing from our colleagues and other stations locally. Plus, the listenership was there and we knew that. And these people became, you know, avid listeners of this radio station, and we are blessed to have them.

Gary Levine: What Tony and Marc and this whole team put together were local journalists, local reporting. You know, it’s one thing to have national programming but as we all know local news is diminishing even more now today but back then there weren’t too many radio stations doing local news. It was radio, it was newspaper and television. But as far as public broadcasting, as far as our listeners were concerned, they weren’t getting really good local reporting and that’s where Tony and Marc began to build this station.

Tony Brandon: By and large the radio station did exactly what we said it was going to do, it was going to be a service to Baltimore, to carry out a mission of education and enlightenment of people, to be truthful and journalistically pure. I think we accomplished a lot of that. We had some bumps in the road along the way like any small business does but we did OK.

Maria Broom: You’ve been listening to Wavelength: Baltimore’s Public Radio Journey from Your Public Studios. I’m Maria Broom.

On the next episode, we’ll hear how stations covered the death of Freddie Gray and The Uprising. Plus, we’ll explore how digital technology helped stations grow their audiences.

Production and support for this podcast and WYPR’s 20th Anniversary was brought to you in part by the PNC Bank.

Jamyla Krempel is the executive producer of Wavelength. Anne Kramer is our producer. Katie Marquette is our audio editor. Production and engineering support by Spencer Bryant. Research and production assistance by Maddie Bristowe.

Andy Bienstock is WYPR’s Vice President and Program Director. Michele Williams is the Director of Underwriting.

You can learn more about the podcast at wypr.org/wavelength.

New episodes of Wavelength will be released on the last Wednesday of the month. Please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a review.

Web extras
Aaron Henkin explains how he got his start at WYPR
I came to the station in, I guess, summer of 2001 as a volunteer off the street. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was waiting tables at Holy Frijoles in Hampden to pay the bills, and I thought 'maybe I ought to go back to school for broadcast journalism. All the people I'm waiting tables on, tell me I have a nice voice.' I was a public radio nerd. I loved what I heard on the station. And so I just called and said, 'Hey, does anyone need any volunteer help?' And they put me in touch with the producer at the time of The Marc Steiner show, and he said, 'come on in.' And so you know, I would answer the phones during the talk show every day, and eventually they'd let me, you know, help research stuff. And then I started helping to, you know, find guests, book guests, write questions, do all the things that a producer does. And then that producer headed for the hills for another job, and they looked around like, 'who's going to produce Marc's show tomorrow?' And they saw me and they said, 'That guy's here every day. He seems like he knows what's going on. He gets along well with Marc. Let's let him do it until we can find someone more qualified.' And so they actually would advertise for my position during the breaks of the Marc Steiner Show while I was the, quote unquote interim producer of The Marc Steiner Show, which was a little hard on the morale. But eventually they were just like, 'Eh, he's doing fine.' And so that was the beginning of a 20 year career, I guess. And since then I've done just about every programming job under the roof.
Dr. Jason Loviglio on what made The Marc Steiner Show unique
Marc Steiner, in particular, was unique, because of the way his show and his persona seem to speak across several different dividing lines that have kind of riven Baltimore, as a community and Baltimore as a city, and are analogous to the lines that divide us nationally. So lines between rich and poor, lines between black and white, lines between recent arrivals to the country and people whose families have been here for generations. The show at its best, seemed to delight in juxtapositions that were challenging. But there were also opportunities to celebrate shared humanity. So unlike so many programs and initiatives that we could characterize as part of a liberal media agenda, you know, his show did not talk about the dispossessed, he would have unhoused people, unhoused activists who were themselves unhoused and who advocated for the rights of the unhoused, come into the studio, on Charles Street, and talk to him about the issues. So you were not doing a show about homelessness, you were doing a show with the people on the ground, doing the work. Those moments where you would have an opportunity for voices that did not have access to 50,000 watts, that did not have access to the kind of cultural capital of WYPR typically. So at its best, that was what the show brought.

Jamyla Krempel is WYPR's digital content director and the executive producer of Wavelength: Baltimore's Public Radio Journey. She collaborates with reporters, program and podcast hosts to create content for WYPR’s online platforms.