When Maryland public radio station WYPR fired progressive radio host and station co-founder Marc Steiner on February 1, 2008, they declared in a press release that they did so over low "ratings." Not only were many people shocked by the move, but what was a public radio station doing firing their station icon, best reporter, and main fundraising voice over "ratings?" Isn’t public radio supposed to be insulated from this type of commercial number-crunching?
WYPR is "an independent NPR station" that receives approximately 50 percent of its funding from "underwriters" who sponsor radio programs, reports WYPR President Tony Brandon in an open letter at WYPR.org. The station receives 7 percent from the federal Corporation for Public Broadcasting and about 33 percent from listening members, according to funding data handed out at a February community meeting.
WYPR’s reliance on underwriting as their main funding source is part of a national trend and it has to affect thinking at the station. An underwriter must think very differently about programming than a station member—especially because an underwriter may not even listen. In fact, unlike listening members, underwriters are often not humans. According to WYPR President Brandon, WYPR’s top four underwriting sponsors all are institutions—non-profit, banking, retail, and educational.
Iowa Public Radio, on their webpage dedicated to luring underwriters, pitches: "Who is the public radio listener and is reaching them potentially beneficial to my business?" Utah Public Radio opens their webpage for underwriters with: "Underwriting is a great way to position your company name and image to those people most likely to use your services—public radio listeners."
Dana Davis Rehm, National Public Radio senior vice president of strategy and partnerships, said at WYPR’s April board meeting that underwriting was growing nationally at public radio stations and edging out membership as a primary funding source. She cautioned that public radio stations should seek to maintain balance between underwriting dollars and membership dollars to be true to their mission.
National Public Radio host Scott Simon told Public Radio International’s "Marketplace" show—which did an investigation of underwriting: "Let’s put it this way, I find them indistinguishable from ads."
February 23 protest at WYPR
In response to Steiner’s firing, people began protesting outside the station six days a week. WYPR canceled their February fund drive, then their March executive board meeting. Letters to local newspapers and emails to the station poured in. By April, over 1,000 people had signed an online petition calling for the show’s reinstatement.
Meanwhile, Maryland public radio listeners have discovered that "ratings" were not the reason WYPR fired Marc Steiner. The Baltimore Sun, using data from industry group Radio Research Consortium, reported that while Steiner’s show lost 17 percent audience share from 2005 to 2007, it was rising back up to 2005 levels. More significantly, the station overall dropped 21 percent in ratings from Fall 2005 to Fall 2007.
WYPR then claimed that Steiner was fired because of secret reasons they could not disclose.
To add to the sense of duplicity, WYPR President Brandon had also implied on WYPR’s "Maryland Morning" that a handful of loan backers "own" WYPR. WYPR board member and attorney John Machen followed up by publishing a March 7 commentary piece for the Baltimore Sun claiming similar exclusive ownership of the station.
Then at the April board meeting, WYPR chairperson Barbara Bozzuto declared that neither "ratings" nor that previously claimed "secret reasons" were the primary cause of jettisoning Marc Steiner. It was about a "fundamental difference of vision" for WYPR, she said. Then she declared he can never come back. The audience booed. Bozzuto called the meeting into executive session and the board walked out.
Where are things now? At WYPR’s April 15 board meeting, 60-plus people attended to witness the board’s explanation for all this and to try to hold WYPR accountable.
To date WYPR swears they will never bring back Marc Steiner. A Save WYPR movement continues to lobby the station and pressure the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to investigate alleged regulatory violations of federal funding rules at WYPR.
WYPR held its May board meeting at a small non-profit center in Baltimore that could only hold eight members of the public. When Save WYPR advocate Maria Allwine tried to ask a question, according to eyewitnesses, a board member shouted her down.
So what is this "fundamental difference of vision?" Is the difference of vision tied to the rise of underwriting now comprising 50 percent of WYPR or not? Does it have to do with a WYPR board that says they "own" a public radio station, rather than steward it for the public good? What does it mean to "own" a non-profit corporation with a special public radio license? The answers to these questions remain to be discovered. Former WYPR members and listeners continue to press their case by protesting in front of the station and by pressing for an investigation at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Gregg Mosson is the author of Season of Flowers and Dust (Goose River Press), and his commentaries have appeared in Z, the Baltimore Sun, and the Futurist. The photo used is by him.