“If there’d been no Marc Steiner behind the mic for the past 20-plus years, Baltimore’s public radio airwaves would have been tamer, more predictable and a lot less fun,” said public radio producer Aaron Henkin.
Steiner, 71, announced recently that his long-running radio show would cease July 31, ending nine years at WEAA and 24 years as a Baltimore public radio journalist. During his 15 years at WJHU (now WYPR), his years at WEAA and his work with the Center for Emerging Media, the West Baltimore native focused on his hometown and its people. From poor city residents to political leaders, Steiner was known for giving a voice to the voiceless and speaking truth to power.
“I think when I started in 1993 there was a void, and I filled it. I was lucky,” he said. “I’ve always had a point of view, and I’m not afraid to say what it is. But you have to be open to everybody’s ideas and not belittle anybody. It’s how you address the issues.”
Steiner gave Henkin his start in 2001 at WJHU, teaching him the ins and outs of producing a daily public affairs talk show.
“But what I really learned from Marc was how to love Baltimore city,” Henkin said. “Whether you’re the mayor, a recovering drug addict, a policy wonk, an ex-offender or just someone interesting who Marc met randomly at the coffee shop last week, you’ve got a seat at the table on his radio show.”
Early in his career, a Native American woman took Steiner aside at an event, telling him to stop talking and listen. “That changed a lot for me,” he said. “None of us own the truth. If you believe that, then you listen to people.”
Steiner fan Sammy Alqasem of Baltimore said social justice issues and marginalized groups are underrepresented in Baltimore news, making Steiner’s listening essential. “Very few journalists have the life-long commitment to social justice that Marc does,” he said. “And few journalists think as deeply as he does on these issues.”
Steiner credits his British mother in part for being a catalyst for that social and political awareness. From enrolling him in a black East Baltimore Boy Scout troop at 11 to letting him walk a picket line at the segregated White Coffee Pot in Mondawmin Mall at 13, Steiner’s human rights education started early.
“I was in Habonim and grew up with cousins who had numbers on their arms. From a little kid, I knew what that meant,” he said about Baltimore’s Jewish community. “There are so many people involved in social justice issues. And there’s a reason for that — it’s our history, it’s who we are.”
Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz hopes Steiner will continue his activism.
“Marc is a true Baltimore institution who has always been a smart, compassionate voice on issues large and small that affect our region and the world at large,” he said. “He is all about creating community connections and bringing diverse voices to the table while offering his own unique insights and perspective.”
As a young civil rights worker, Steiner was arrested, had his nose broken and was beaten up, but that didn’t stop him. He earned degrees in political theory and creative writing, studied drama and taught at city schools, including the Baltimore School for the Arts, eventually landing in advertising at Trahan, Burden & Charles. Contacts there led to his first radio gig as a public affairs program host on WJHU. During his years there and at WEAA since 2008, Steiner brought an array of issues and people to the mic. But what stands out, looking back, are the mensches.
“There are two men in politics who struck me as having a deep, moral, ethical core,” he said of U.S. congressmen from opposite sides of the aisle: Parren Mitchell, the first African-American congressman from Maryland, and Republican Wayne Gilchrest. “Both of these guys were mensches. We always need mensches in politics. And I love Barbara Mikulski. She’s opened doors for lots of women.”
“I’ve been telling him he needs to write these things down,” said Valerie S. Williams, executive director of the Center for Emerging Media and Steiner’s wife. “He grew up in such an important time and has played a unique and special role in Baltimore.”
Steiner is writing things down. “I’m trying to take 24 years on the radio and wrap those around my life of social activism, my view of the world, what I’ve learned and put that all in a book or a series of articles,” he said. Archives of those 20-plus years of shows now reside at UMBC.
In addition to writing, work goes on at the Center for Emerging Media, which Steiner envisions as a center where people can bring their work and have their voices heard. “We can teach people how to get out there and do the work they think has to be done from their community’s perspective,” he said.
One of CEM’s ongoing projects grew out of meeting Nelson Malden, a barber from the “Fades & Fellowship” theatrical group.
“He gave Martin Luther King his first haircut in Montgomery,” Steiner said. “He also gave him his last trim before he was assassinated. He is fascinating. And his wife is too. We realized that there were another dozen stories.”
In addition, Steiner plans to revisit his series “Voices from the Holy Land.”
“That was a series where people just talked from all perspectives. I’d love to go meet some of those people and see where they are after all these years and what they think,” he said. “For me, one of my biggest fears is that what’s happening with Israel now, with the occupation, is really eating away at the Jewish core of who we are. That is my biggest fear — that’s part of what I’ve been writing about as well.”
Steiner is seeking funds for those projects and plans to keep writing and working. “If I have a radio hero, it’s Studs Terkel, who I interviewed five times,” he said. “He didn’t stop working until he was 96, when he keeled over writing his last book.”
In a business where news stories and attention spans often last only as long as a tweet, Henkin attributes Steiner’s longevity to his honesty, consistency and humanism.
“Put simply, Marc loves people,” Henkin said. “Whether or not Marc agrees with your views, he’s going to aim to find common ground with you, to build a bridge of understanding. Yes, Marc is going to argue with you. Passionately. But when the conversation is over, he’s going to give you a hug because you’re a fellow human being.”
For frequent Steiner show guest David Simon, journalist and creator of iconic Baltimore television series such as “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “The Corner” and “The Wire,” news of Steiner’s leaving the airwaves was a shock.
“Oh wow,” Simon said. “Well, that truly ends a great run in Baltimore radio and in smart, progressive programming. He’s been an essential civic asset.”
Susan C. Ingram is a local freelance writer.