Great “Mysterian” Marc Steiner Celebrates 20 Years on Baltimore Air
Back in ’93, the general manager of college radio station WJHU, Dennis Kita, turned to theatrically minded and politically outspoken Baltimorean Marc Steiner for advice on how to start a public interest radio show. Steiner’s recommendation: “Let me give it a shot.” If you live in Baltimore, you know he got that chance and made a career from it. The rest is history, though that sounds too simple — Steiner’s local fame is certainly not controversy-free.
Still on the airwaves, Steiner’s eponymous “The Marc Steiner Show” made him a local celeb nearly overnight; he helped found WYPR (88.1) and served as exec vice president of the station from 2002 to 2006, and meanwhile founded his own non-profit company, the Center for Emerging Media (CEM).
Then in February of 2008, Steiner was fired unexpectedly. In a similar flash, supporters launched a petition and several websites, collecting over 1,000 signatures demanding he be reinstated. Listeners picketed the station’s advisory board meeting. They vowed not to renew their WYPR memberships. Through it all, General Manager Tony Brandon stuck to his firing guns.
“Brandon and WYPR’s Board Chair Barbara Bozzuto offered a range of reasons for Steiner’s firing, from bad ratings to Steiner’s fixation on Baltimore city politics (as opposed to statewide issues),” wrote Evan Serpick online at Baltimore magazine.
“They never explained it to me,” Steiner told Serpick. “They can’t come up with a concrete reason because there wasn’t one.”
In happier news, Steiner’s comeback happened almost as quickly as his job termination. He celebrates 20 years on the radio this year. The CME board and an assortment of old friends are honoring him with an event, “20/50″ — named for his radio anniversary and his 50 years of “fighting for social justice causes” — this Saturday, April 6, at the American Visionary Art Museum.
“The Marc Steiner Show” now airs, of course, on WEAA (88.9) from Morgan State University. Worth noting also that his media nonprofit received a super prestigious Peabody Award in 2007 for the series “Just Words.”
Born on May 17, 1946, at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, Steiner spent his early career in therapeutic settings with at-risk youth. He founded a theater program in the Maryland State prison system, as well as the Family Circle Theater, a company of teens that wrote, produced, directed, and acted in original productions. Marc also served for a year as the principal of Baltimore’s Experimental High School, and taught theater for 10 years at the Baltimore School for the Arts. Some of his students were stars-in-the-making, including Jada Pinkett Smith, Tupac Shakur, and Josh Charles, who happens to serve on the “20/50” event’s honorary committee.
Steiner and his wife, Valerie, live just outside of Baltimore – he has three daughters and four grandchildren.
Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.
I call myself a Mysterian — I live in awe of the Great Mystery of Existence.
When did you define your most important goals, and what are they?
Two moments early in my life defined my life’s trajectory.
1. When I was 11 and first read Lord Baden Powell’s Scouting for Boys: A Handbook for Instruction and Good Citizenship, I was moved by his writing about international brotherhood and his vision of how we should behave as humans. I found out later in life that many of Baden Powell’s founding principles came from his observation of Zulu culture.
2. When I saw in Life magazine, at age 13, a photo of Mac Parker’s boots. The image struck me deeply, because I knew he had been lynched. I realized then that I had to fight for social justice and a better world.
What is the best advice (or worst) you ever got that you followed?
The worst advice I ever followed was to bring in (what turned out to be) untrustworthy people as my business partners.
What are the three most surprising truths you’ve discovered in your lifetime?
1. The bottom line for me is that nothing is more important than the unconditional love and support from family and dear friends.
2. In any relationship, truth, clarity, and honesty is paramount. Anything else leaves too much pain in its wake.
3. Expiration dates on food really do mean something.
What advice would you give a young person who aspires to work in radio and/or the rapidly changing variety of media?
Listening. Much more important to communication than talking.
What is the best moment of the day?
Waking up next to my wife, Valerie.
What is on your bedside table?
I don’t have a bedside table.
What is your favorite local charity?
There are so many people out there on the ground level doing wonderful work in our community. I could never pick a favorite.
You taught future superstars at the BSA. Did you see their potential early on? If so, how did you identify it?
Yes, of course I saw their potential, but I taught and saw the potential in so many equally talented young people at BSA who didn’t go on to become superstars. When you see someone who can transform themselves into another being, who can really transcend space and time and put themselves in a different place — that’s the true talent of acting.
You’ve been actively participating in a dialogue for civil rights since you were arrested (for same) at age 16… In this context, as a dedicated actor-for-change + journalistic observer, how do you see Baltimore’s racial landscape in 2013?
We clearly have evolved and are evolving. There are cross-racial relationships in this city that are very powerful and important. Yet we are still a segregated city. We don’t cross lines. We can eat and work together now, but we don’t live and play together. I’m happy to say there are a lot of people in the younger generation for whom this is changing.
Tell me about a day in the life of your job at the Center for Emerging Media. What are you most passionate about? What’s the biggest challenge?
Every morning begins with reading journals and newspapers, writing down ideas for possible shows. When I arrive at the office, I have a production meeting with my producers. The rest of the day is consumed with recording interviews and researching the topics for my shows that day. My wife will tell you that I am always working — reading books, researching topics, and talking to people often late into the evening.
My passions are many. Most recently: putting together a debate about Monsanto and the future of our food; spending two hours sitting with and interviewing homeless women and their children (all these women were homeless simply because they had lost their jobs and their homes); my interviews with the godson and daughter of the great civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer.
Our biggest challenge is struggling to find the best guests for the show each day.