Tuesday, September 27, 2016

News from My Public Radio

Ever since Johns Hopkins' radio station was renamed WYPR  (Your Public Radio)from WJHU, I feel like being part of it. Especially since I donate every month as a sustaining member (The station receives $71,000 per month from members that pay monthly). So I care when the host of the noon talk-show show is changed again. Or when Wes Moore gets to do a new show.

This is how I see it: Originating from Germany which like Great Britain and other European countries has a tradition of public radio, I see a commercial free station as a valuable local asset and an important source of information that is not beholden to the private profit principle .
Lisa Simeone, multi talent once
at WJHU

I remember when in the late 80s and early 90s the local public station was WJHU and there was mostly jazz and classical music and an occasional syndicated show like Morning Edition, All Things Considered and the Diane Rehm Show. Local news discussion was limited to a one slot weekly talk hosted by Lisa Simeone that addressed Baltimore area issues. Lisa did other shows on the station, too. But the people that were interested in what was going on in Baltimore listened to her call-in show and I was very proud to have been on it once. (I was even prouder when I ran into Lisa the other day and she actually remembered me).

Then, in 2001, public radio had to be saved because JHU jettisoned it's campus station.  I don't recall details except Marc Steiner emerged among some others as one of the heroes that made the transformation to YOUR public radio happen. Since then the station called itself "your local news station." That transformation, however, cost $5 million and only $1million was raised in cash at the time. (Sun, 1/31/2002). There are still payments to be made to pay back the loan. That whole big sale is odd, given how much money Johns Hopkins University has and how much public radio should be part of the public education mission that at the university's heart.
Marc Steiner and WYPR's Steiner Show

At the time Steiner had already expanded the talk format to daily shows and had a loyal local following for his talk show. It allowed him to successfully collect drum up support for the purchase of the station. His shows were a full menu from the philosophical to the polemical and went from utility to architecture.

One day in 2008, in what seemed to everybody like a "night and fog" operation, Steiner was gone. Tony Brandon, the station manager fired him and maintains that he had good reasons. A lot of people were quite upset at the time. As co-owners of  "My Public Radio" the public wasn't asked nor did I get an actual explanation from Brandon when I asked him directly. Brandon, along with Andy Bienstock, is one of the saviors who helped to create WYPR.

Steiner went on to revive a very similar format at the smaller Morgan State's public radio station and Dan Rodricks became WYPR's new talk show host at noon, a show now called Midday. ("Thank you for making Midday part of your day"). Rodricks turned out to be a worthy successor who kept asking critical questions of anybody that came before his microphone and increased the audience for the show as well.
Dan Rodricks and WYPR's Midday

One day last year, Rodricks was gone, too, and once again it wasn't entirely clear what had transpired, although I gathered that this time it was the talk-show host himself who had jumped ship. He began podacsting for the Sun, where is also a print columnist. They built him a studio so that he can catch the wave of podcasts.

At WYPR, this time, there was no new host for the Midday show and the station just moved the chairs around among those that did the other station newscasts, Maryland Morning's Sheilah Kast took over as the host of Midday which was cut from two hours to one. Tom Hall who was the station's cultural contributor took on Maryland Morning. The station filled the second Midday hour with the syndicated "Here and Now" show.

Last week, the musical chairs rotated again. This time, Tom Hall came in for Sheilah Kast and she went back to Maryland Morning which was renamed On the Record, a broadcast that the station website describes this way:
Catch On the Record, hosted by Sheilah Kast, weekdays from 9:30 to 10:00 am, following NPR’s Morning Edition. We’ll discuss the issues that affect your life and bring you thoughtful and lively conversations with the people who shape those issues -- business people, public officials, scholars, artists, authors, and journalists who can take us inside the story. 
Once again, there was little explanation except what vice president Andy Bienstock told the SUN.
“It’s been about 10 months or so since we had the current lineup, and we just decided that Tom is better at hosting the call-in show, and Sheilah does a great job with long-form interviews, so we decided to switch them.[...] The two formats are the right matches for each host … and this puts them in the best position to shine.”
Sheilah Kast at WYPR's Midday
Jonathan Roger, Senior Vice President of Merrill Lynch Global Wealth Management and chairman of the Board of Directors at WYPR since 2014 resigned from his position in May, apparently over a dispute about the course of the station. 

Much weight rests on the shoulders of public radio thanks to the ever diminishing circulation of the print press. The fate of a talk show which is mostly devoted to local and state politics is extremely important for the quality of the local political discourse. One has to wonder if WYPR has enough resources to do the necessary background investigative work and staff the shows that make it truly a news station. The station's creative ways of airing local content and getting money for it is not what I mean.

Wes Moore: WYPR's new Future City show
Last year the City Paper described in a piece of investigative journalism the curious manner how WYPR stretches news content through paid contributions by sponsors like the National Aquarium. The City paper summed up the conflation of the various ways how news content was chained throughout the day this way:
The station’s management makes no distinction between programming that is written and produced in house by its professional, paid staff or syndicated through National Public Radio, and that which is, directly or not, underwritten by the corporate host.
In this way, programming produced by a Johns Hopkins public-relations professional, the CEO of the National Aquarium, a pair of local restaurateurs, and a prominent local economist—all of whose corporate employers underwrite programming on the station—blend in with work by radio journalists and talk-show hosts with no other allegiance or means of support.
The addition of Wes Moore to the station line-up with a monthly show called Future Baltimore is a promising addition. Wes Moore, a Baltimore native and author will investigate how best practices from other cities can be applied to Baltimore. One show about Community Schools aired so far. (Podcast) A Tom Hall podcast with Wes Moore about his latest book can be heard here.
In each episode, Wes looks at bright ideas that are working in other cities.  And he asks the question: Can those ideas work for Baltimore? (Station website).  
“At a time like now, when Baltimore is working to resolve chronic problems, and is making progress on many, Future City will gather urban leaders from around the country to share what’s working in other cities, We’ll also have Wes Moore’s input as a progressive and thoughtful Baltimore leader.” ” Tony Brandon, president and general manager of WYPR speaking with the Baltimore Times
 I am honored that from Simeone to Steiner and from Rodricks to Kast local hosts saw me fit to join their shows as an invited guest to discuss architecture, urban design, cities and "design thinking". This made me think even more, that this was also "my station". I hope that I can contribute to Future City as well. Meanwhile, I wished, as a member I would be better informed about the policies that govern WYPR's decisions and how, exactly, budget, funding and news content are balanced and weighted.

This week is WYPR's fall pledge drive. Give freely but ask questions. All this on-air talk about why this station needs money should be used to explain what is in store. True independent news radio is important in Baltimore, now more than ever!

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA