Protesting WYPR

Terrible reception for WYPR

Radio station can't clear the air in Steiner debate
By Adam Bednar
(original at Baltimore Messenger)

As the WYPR board of directors prepared to meet May 21, more than a dozen protesters waved signs at passing traffic at the corner of 21st and Charles streets.

The members of Take Back YPR demanded that the public radio station operate in what they called a more "democratic" manner.

"We want more diversity on the board and other voices making decisions," said Rhonda Stolle, a resident of Pigtown in southwest Baltimore who was among the 14 protesters.

The seeds of the protest were planted in February, when WYPR canceled Marc Steiner's longtime talk show, saying his ratings weren't up to snuff and his show was too Baltimore-centric.

The firing of Steiner, who led the fight to keep WYPR a public radio station in 2002, was unpopular, and residents packed meetings demanding his return. Rather than fading over time, the issue has taken on a life of its own, even as Steiner has moved on with plans to start a new show at another station.

After it became clear that WYPR's management wouldn't budge on returning Steiner to its airwaves, many of his supporters switched their focus.

Now, the group is trying to assert more control over the station's management and how the station is run.

"We've moved beyond the Marc Steiner show being brought back," said protester Max Obuszewski, of Hampden. Obuszewski, a self-described "peace activist" better known as an anti-death penalty and anti-war protester, is one of the founders of Take Back YPR.

He is picketing in front of WYPR, 2216 N. Charles St., almost daily in the hopes of persuading the board to operate the way he believes it should. He and other group members have a litany of complaints about the station's management and board of directors.

They say WYPR received funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting illegally, because it took money before it held public board meetings and appointed a citizens advisory board.

Members of Take Back YPR also are calling on board chairwoman Barbara Bozzuto and station president Anthony Brandon to resign, saying that they played roles in canceling the Steiner show and that Bozzuto improperly closed board meetings and didn't carry out public broadcasting's mission to provide programming that serves the community.

"It's just become bland entertainment programming," Stolle said.

Brandon and Buzzuto could not be reached for comment.

Group members now are moving beyond protesting. They have filed a complaint with Ken Konz, inspector general for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, asking him to investigate any wrongdoing by the board.

They also are trying to have group members appointed to the Citizens Advisory Board that was formed in February.

Steiner, who has joined the Center for Emerging Media and is negotiating to start a talk show on WEAA-FM, said he is not involved with Take Back YPR, because it would look "self serving." But he said he believes the group's cause has become "part of something larger, because it's a national conversation about media and where the media is going."

Others don't believe protesters are making much of a difference. Ralph Moore, a member of the advisory board, said they don't hold much sway with station management.

"I don't think they're going to change the station," he said.

There never were enough people upset about the situation to make a difference, he said.

The high water mark for backlash against the station was in March when a crowd of 300 people showed up for an advisory board meeting at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"People won't like my saying this, but that's not an overwhelming (crowd) number," Moore said. "it's not a bowl-you-over number."

Moore said that in conversations with Brandon since Steiner was replaced by Sun columnist Dan Rodricks on WYPR, he was told ratings have gone up and fundraising for the station is doing well.

Moore also said he believes that much of the continued protest about the station is political, because many left-wing critics say the station is drifting right politically. He personally believes the station is more centrist than it used to be.

But in the station's quest to draw a larger audience, it should keep people such as Max Obuszewski in mind, Moore said.

"I think they could do a better job taking into account the kind of people Marc Steiner represented." Whether or not the protesters will be able to bring about the changes they want is yet to be seen.

When they tried to attend the May 21 board of directors meeting at The Family Tree building, 2108 N. Charles St., half of the protesters weren't allowed in because there wasn't enough room.

As they left the building and returned to the street corner to wave their signs, some said being turned away is an example of why WYPR isn't a public radio station. It's the kind of snub that keeps them coming back, they said.

E-mail Adam Bednar at Adam Bednar@patuxent.com