The Wire and the Wireless: Marc Steiner and WYPR

In Baltimore, life is imitating art this week.

If you have followed the HBO show The Wire, you know that it’s not really just a “police” show, but is really about the economics of cities. It shows us in heartbreaking and sometimes humorous detail how the drug trade, police, politics, labor, education, and the media are all entwined, complicit in creating exactly the social landscape we inhabit. Good and bad, the show’s creator David Simon likes to say that, “this is as much America as we’ve paid for,” and hopes to show us how this ecosystem really operates.

I’m not much of a TV watcher, but because The Wire is about my hometown of Baltimore, I watch it with special interest. Besides the show’s already complicated fictional storyline, there are parallels to the real world that those of us who live here can pick up on. The fictional mayor is a doppelganger for Martin O’Malley; the city council president is a version of Sheila Dixon. Former Governor Bob Ehrlich made an appearance as a security guard at the State House. I could go on and on; for lovers of Maryland the show is a rich trove of on-location shoots, cameo appearances and, really, is a kind of love-letter to Baltimore.

The current season focuses on the media. In the show, the Baltimore Sun is facing outside ownership (really happened) and cutbacks (really happened) and the closure of its foreign bureaus (really happened). The paper staff is asked to “do more with less” and accept that fact that the newspaper business is changing. More focus is placed on the bottom line than on reporting, and naturally, quality suffers.

While David Simon (the show’s creator) has been criticized for creating an oversimplified caricature of the Sun and its woes (especially when compared to his somewhat more nuanced portrayals of law enforcement and political worlds), his portrayal of the media still rings true.

In fact, this week it seemed particularly prescient as Baltimore suffered yet another in its long line of indignities: the loss of Marc Steiner from its public radio airwaves.

Marc has been a fixture in Baltimore public radio for the last 15 years. As host of “The Marc Steiner Show” from 1993-2008, he shed “light, not heat” on the complex world we live in; on facets of Baltimore, of Maryland, and the world at large. In 2002, Marc led an effort to purchase what was then WJHU from Johns Hopkins University (my alma mater) and make it into a public radio station with significant community involvement. By all accounts, he was instrumental in helping to raise over $750,000 to help purchase the station, and to many in the public was perceived as Mr. Public Radio in Baltimore.

However, the total financing required to purchase the station from Johns Hopkins was $5 million, and other investors stepped in to fill the gap. While it was a minor miracle to have raised the initial $750,000, the remainder had to come from somewhere, and several investors, including Tony Brandon, Barbara Bozzuto, and others helped to seal the deal. Since WYPR was launched in 2002, it has been very successful. Many new programs have been launched, and it has been one of a few things that Baltimoreans could be really proud of.

The Marc Steiner Show, running from 12-2pm Monday-Thursday, has been one of its most recognizable features. Marc’s voice, his laugh, and his theme song are as much Baltimore as Natty Boh and blue crabs. Marc has been such a recognizable champion of Baltimore that he’s even been included in The Wire; once as an unseen voice on a car radio, and again as a moderator of a political debate (something that he’s also done).

The last Marc Steiner show was broadcast last Thursday. WYPR’s manager Tony Brandon cited sagging ratings as the reason for the show’s cancellation. While this may be true, a careful reading of history shows that there has been a long-standing philosophical gap between Steiner and WYPR manager Tony Brandon.

Like David Simon, who was offered a buyout deal to leave the Sun, Brandon offered Steiner a $50,000 buyout deal to leave WYPR and not speak to the media.

If there’s one thing I know, it’s that you shouldn’t try to bribe a hippie. Especially one that’s still got his integrity and that is beloved by a decent chunk of the local population.

As you can imagine, this has turned into a fiasco. It’s not clear how it will resolve itself, what should happen, who’s to blame for what, when. It’s like something straight out of season 5 of The Wire. There is a complexity at work here; however, one thing is certainly true: Marc has done a tremendous public service to Baltimore and to Maryland the last 15 years, and he deserves recognition and thanks for that service.

As a former guest on Marc’s show (I was on roughly once a month from about 1998-2001 talking about technology and internet topics), I’m a participant in the drama, even if in a small way. My friend Erik Monti, myself, and others have formed a Facebook page to help Support Marc Steiner. Whatever happens, we want to do what we can to make sure that Marc gets a fair deal out of this, and that people know how much he meant to Baltimore.

It’s a shame that David Simon didn’t get a chance to include this final coda of the corporatization of Baltimore’s media in The Wire. Now, let’s do a quick count:

We’re down The Wire and Marc Steiner. We won’t even get to hear Marc interview David Simon anymore. As WYPR’s “owners” (if they are not the public) grapple with what to give us instead of Marc, I hope they consider that ratings are not the only measurement of value.

If that was true for television, we’d have only American Idol (a ratings star) rather than The Wire (which struggles in ratings); this would surely be a tremendous loss. HBO deserves credit for allowing David Simon to create important art and entertainment that transcends the need for “ratings”.

WYPR should have allowed Marc Steiner the same freedom. Sometimes, a realistic portrait isn’t what we want to see, but we need it nonetheless.

And as for WYPR, this is — apparently — as much radio as we’ve paid for.