Don't Touch That Dial!

Maria Staub is determined to make Teen Live Wire a hit radio show -- even if it destroys her family

Four teenagers are gathered around a table in the north Miami-Dade studio of WAXY-AM (720). Each perches before a fuzzy black microphone as the music of Big Pun fades from overhead speakers. An illuminated "ON AIR" sign announces that a broadcast is under way.

"Welcome to Teen Live Wire," host Adrian Baschuk says as the microphones crackle to life, "a radio show for teens by teens hosted and produced by teens. Tonight's topic is teen stripping. The money is good, you can meet people, and the working hours are ideal, so what's so bad about stripping? Hear directly from teens who have worked in the clubs as they tell of their experiences."

Eighteen-year-old Baschuk introduces his panel, which includes cohost Travis Roig and two young women who plan to argue the pros and cons of the profession. Two exotic dancers, one of both genders, wait on telephone lines. When prompted by Baschuk, the female stripper details her entry into the adult entertainment field. "My boyfriend encouraged me to do it," she begins. "He says I have a nice body, that he likes it, so I started dancing. It's just like a job. I've liked to dance all my life. When I go onstage at the club, it's just like being onstage performing for school."

At this comment, Roig's eyes widen. "Kinda," deadpans the eighteen-year-old, who ads humor and a sense of street smarts to the mix.

In the control room, executive producer Joe Keener, the staff geezer at age 33, breaks into laughter. Gliding around on a wheeled office chair, he types questions Baschuk and Roig can read on a monitor in the studio. He takes up a phone to tell the girl to stop mumbling. The male stripper, who surprises the hosts by defining himself not only as a stripper but as a "pagan bisexual stripper," also reveals an unfortunate proclivity to swear. At each profane word Keener lunges across an instrument panel to pound the "dump" button, which will prevent the slur from reaching the ears of listeners. If there are any.

Despite laudatory articles in the Miami Herald and the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and puff pieces on several television stations, listenership remains low. There is no sure way to gauge the audience on a "brokered" station like WAXY, where producers purchase airtime for their programs and then try to sell ads. But even on a night with a subject as juicy as teen stripping, Keener receives just two calls.

How then does Teen Live Wire stay on the air? The answer to that question is no doubt the most curious aspect of the three-year-old project. In short, the show is the personal obsession of a 51-year-old German immigrant named Maria Staub, the show's sole sponsor. She claims to have spent $400,000 of her own money just to keep it going.

Four hundred thousand dollars.
"My brother-in-law thinks I'm crazy for spending all this money," Staub allows. "In certain things, you know, like starting something or doing a business or taking chances, he doesn't know what it takes."

Staub is taking chances, all right. After years as a successful restaurateur (she is best known as the proprietor, along with her husband Werner, of North Miami's La Paloma restaurant), she now works full-time on the show. She approves the discussion topics, screens the questions that will be asked, selects the rotating troupe of hosts, and monitors their performances. She also pays thousands of dollars for airtime, which WAXY officials sell for a flat rate.

Staub has trouble explaining her decision to turn away from a successful restaurant business and pursue radio, a field in which she had no prior experience. The best answer she can provide is printed in her bio, which is available in the radio show's media kit: "Maria's love for her children helped to foster the desire to somehow work on a community level with teens."

But Staub's mission is even more perplexing when you consider her history as a mother: Because of her hectic schedule at La Paloma, she chose not to raise her two daughters, now teenagers; they were reared by Staub's sister-in-law. In fact, her quixotic decision to pursue radio has threatened to ruin her marriage and has strained relations with the rest of her family.

If any of this seems the least bit ironic to an observer, the irony is lost on Staub. She is single-minded about her show. "I think it takes perseverance and a lot of sacrifices to get where you want to go," she says, her voice soft but steely. "I've made a lot of sacrifices already. I haven't been on a vacation in years. I've had arguments with my husband because I'm still paying thousands of dollars every month [for the show]. So it has cut into my private life very much and into my family life. We had our arguments over how much longer I want do to this. And how we really can't afford this any more, it's not right. And I told him that I know it's not right, but it is going to come. It's going to happen."

Teen Live Wire, to use the appropriate vernacular, doesn't suck. Baschuk and Roig are engaging interviewers. Despite their youth, they speak without leaning on the "ums" and "ahs" one might expect to hear. Questions are extensively researched. Guests are assembled from an impressive network of social service agencies, schools, and friends. When everything clicks, when the guests are good and the conversation flows, Teen Live Wire is a fresh and original program that surpasses some of the nominally professional talk shows on local radio or television.

But everything doesn't click very often. Or at least not often enough. "Sometimes, man, things just go south," admits Baschuk. "We did a show on high school athletics and so this guy comes on, a football player. We couldn't get him to talk at all, about anything. I'd ask him to describe what it's like to be recruited by major colleges. His answer? 'It's, like, good.'"

Baschuk and a cast of other hosts have been struggling to overcome bad guests and dull topics since November 1995, when Teen Live Wire first hit the air. Broadcast from 8:00 to 9:00 every weeknight, the show is an ambitious, if obscure, attempt to bridge the chasm between parents and their adolescent offspring. The program's printed "mission statement," devised, naturally, by Staub, lists eight "strategic objectives" -- in essence, a blueprint for managing the trials of adolescence. Among Staub's lofty goals: "to reach the teenagers of America, both the well adjusted and the at-risk," and "to help our young people collect and clarify their ideas into a coherent voice and translate them into successful management skills that can be understood by both young and old."

Staub began researching teen issues on the Internet. As best she could, she determined what topics were the most important: abortion, partying, depression, sexuality, and so on. She formed a staff of professional producers and volunteer assistants, most of whom she knew from her restaurant. Together they assembled a core panel of teens, then prepared to hit the air.

"One week before we went on, we all gathered in someone's living room with some microphones and a few tape recorders jigged up to simulate calls from listeners," recalls Bob Lacey, a television set designer and one of the few pioneers still involved with the show. "We had no idea what we were doing."

The confusion continued after the show began. The original running time was 120 minutes per night, two nights a week, then five nights a week. To fill all those hours, Staub booked national names such as Magic Johnson and Ruth Westheimer. Yet she continually fussed with the format of the show and ran through a succession of producers.

Claudia Laurence came on as a producer last year. She and her co-producer, Sandy Wayland, researched the topics and booked the shows. They scripted the dialogue and located the experts. Laurence says she worked fourteen hours per day, and even hosted the show. She pauses, then lets out a breath: "And no matter what we did, [Staub] was unhappy."

In an effort to improve the show, Laurence and Wayland created elaborate press kits and began outreach into high schools. Their efforts led to at least token support from two board members of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Michael Krop and Demetrio Perez, Jr., who both appeared on the program.

Yet Laurence quit the show after only four months; Wayland left a few months later. Staub says that neither person could give her the results she wanted, so she had to let them go.

"If it was serious, it was too serious. If it was light, it was too light," recalls Laurence. "She doesn't seem to know the direction she wants it to go. If she does, she hasn't been able to convey it to two-plus years of people who have gone in to work there."

Wayland filed a lawsuit seeking $4000 in back pay; she has since been paid all but $1700. "I really hold no ill will [toward Staub]," Wayland says. "I just don't feel that her show should be all of a sudden lauded and publicized."

"What Maria has, perhaps all she has, is potential," Laurence concludes. "It could be a really, really, great, informative show. It could be a real community, an opportunity for teens in the area to find out what is going on and where they can go for help. To connect, unfortunately, you need to have a listener. And there is nobody listening. What teen is screwing around on their AM dial at 8:00 at night? That's when Melrose Place is on."

Before both women departed, Staub formed a board of directors, largely in response to Wayland's repeated pleas. On the board she placed her accountant and several friends she knew from the restaurant. All fine and well. But the board never seemed to meet. "I have not been invited to any board meetings," says member Ingrid Constanzo. "I am not aware that there have been any meetings. I think Maria has been running her own show for quite a while and is perhaps not used to following certain advice or rules. I don't know. Personally, I feel the more advice you can get the better. No one can do a vision on their own any more."

Constanzo is a regular at La Paloma. An advocate for other youth programs, she joined the board because Staub's passion was evident in her invitation. She thinks Teen Live Wire is a great idea: "It's more positive to have teens listen to it than to The Simpsons or to whatever those other two creeps are, Butt-head and Beavis."

Even casual acquaintances are aware of the tolls of Staub's endeavor. "There is a lot of friction between the husband and wife," Constanzo observes. "I don't think I am speaking out of school there. They are both wonderful people and they are both wonderful restaurateurs. He knows that and doesn't want to do anything else. But Maria has branched out, or wants to. It's cost her a lot of money that I'm not sure she'll ever see back. You know what they say, that being a good lawyer doesn't necessarily make someone a good stockbroker. It's the same with Maria. She's a wonderful restaurateur."

The door to La Paloma opens one evening to the sound of "I Will Survive" plinking on a piano. The large marquee facing Biscayne Boulevard advertises Swiss continental cuisine, but the place is perhaps most famous for its kitschy interior. It's the Liberace of local restaurants. Opulent colors shade the walls and carpets. The cavernous dining room is an eye feast of knickknacks. Tiny porcelain dolls sit in a display case near the maitre d' station. In one corner a bronze peacock brandishes a full fan of beaded feathers.

Maria Staub sits at a table in a back alcove of the dining room. It is the early-evening rush and a bouquet of white-haired diners begins to bloom at the tables around her. A second wave, on average much younger, will start to arrive around 8:00. There is seating for 350 people. On a really busy evening, such as Valentine's Day, La Paloma serves more than 800 plates of Wiener schnitzel and steak Diane.

Staub always dreamed of opening a restaurant. She first came to America 30 years ago, leaving her family's farm near Berlin with only $100, a lone suitcase, and a plane ticket to Pennsylvania. There she worked as a nurse during the week and as a waitress on the weekends in a German restaurant. She made more money as a waitress. At the time, she spoke virtually no English, relying instead on a furious work ethic.

Friends in Pennsylvania propelled her to Miami with tales of palm trees and warm weather; she accepted a job at Mount Sinai in 1971. Soon after that she fell in love with Werner Staub. A Swiss chef, he shared her dream of opening a restaurant. Their La Paloma debuted in 1978, originally near the Omni, just north of downtown Miami. Before long it moved to its current location on Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami. The couple married on Valentine's Day 1980, and the first of two daughters arrived in 1981.

The restaurant was a full-time commitment. Maria worked the front room while Werner labored in the kitchen. In the beginning, at the Omni location, the family lived in a duplex above the establishment. If business was slow, Werner and Maria would sometimes sit at a table by the window to make the restaurant appear busy. They always worked hard.

"When my Sabrina was born, I worked up to the last day and I was back at work two days later," Staub recalls. "We left the house at 8:30 in the morning and didn't get home until after midnight. So I called my husband's sister in Switzerland. I called her and I said, 'Listen, you have to come. There's a ticket for you and your husband on Swissair, you have to come and help me. I can't do it any more. I have to work.' We were just building up the restaurant.

"She's been taking care of our kids since Sabrina was born, basically," Staub continues, speaking of her husband's sister, Ruth Bachler, who is responsible for feeding, clothing, and disciplining seventeen-year-old Sabrina and her younger sister Caroline, age twelve. "She's our mommy and nanny and just a great person. It would have been very difficult for me not having my sister-in-law being totally there for the kids, with me working every day. I guess if it had not been for her, I would probably have had to stop working and, I don't know, be there for my kids. But thank God she was there and she totally took care of it."

The success of La Paloma has lightened the load on the Staubs. A full-time chef has cooked the meals for years now, freeing Werner to work the front room. Maria, largely liberated from her responsibilities, has channeled her abundant energies into Teen Live Wire.

"Why do I do this? I get asked that many times," she says of her radio endeavor. "And I just believe -- I just know -- that there is a need for open communication between teens and parents and between parents and teens. And it is so difficult. Parents just don't know how to talk to their kids any more."

Staub's soft, full face is as white as the tablecloth before her. When she speaks about her radio show, she chooses her words carefully. Her German accent is heavy enough that when she speaks of her vision, it sounds like she's talking about her wishon.

"My vision is to be a complete resource for teen issues," she says after taking a sip of Evian. "If parents don't understand teens, they can call us and we can refer them to the proper agency. I'd also like people to really talk about [the show] and say that they look forward to it. For people to say that would be really satisfying. Then the money and the advertising will follow."

It seems strange, though, that someone so dedicated to teen issues would be so removed from the parenting of her own children. "I have a great relationship with my kids, even though I did not make breakfast [for them] and I did not do a lot of things [with them]," Staub says. "We spend time together. Not that much quality time, but now I spend more time with them than I used to because I'm not here every night."

Sabrina declined repeated requests for an interview, made through both Staub and Sabrina's aunt, Ruth Bachler. Bachler and her husband declined comment as well.

But don't they find it an unusual arrangement to be raising their sister-in-law's children? "Tell me about it," Ruth Bachler says dryly.

Werner Staub did not return several phone messages seeking an interview. Visited in person at the restaurant, where he greets diners as the maitre d', he declines to talk about either his wife or the money she has spent. "I am running a restaurant," he says politely, excusing himself. "I really have nothing to say about the radio program. All right?"

Maria Staub nearly solved her money problems this past state legislative session. Then-State Sen. Bill Turner agreed to sponsor a bill to give her program $300,000 in public money. The state House and Senate both approved the bill, but it died on the desk of Lawton Chiles. Although Governor Chiles supported the station, he didn't want money to be taken from the Department of Children and Families, as the legislature had decreed. Instead, he preferred that the funds come from the Department of Education, according to Staub, who is optimistic she can get the money during the next legislative season.

Other good signs: The new executive producer at Teen Live Wire, Joe Keener, is working out well. He's a former seminarian with a strong desire to help teenagers. Before joining up with Staub, Keener ran the Archdiocese of Miami's Radio Peace program, also on WAXY. "You hear her talk, you hear her dedication as she tries to win you with her vision," Keener says, "and you just feel all, all --" he shadowboxes an uppercut. "It pumps you up, you know?"

She has also hired a grant writer to help her obtain funding from corporations and foundations. To further that end, she formed a new, expanded board of directors. Major-league names such as retired banker Carlos Arboleya have already signed on. Other new board members have responded to the Herald article and to the television coverage of her radio program.

To improve listenership, she is scouting around for an FM station that might be interested in the show. So far none has shown an interest. Bob Lacey, the volunteer who helped launch the show, recently coordinated the shooting of a 60-second teaser for a Teen Live Wire television show. Staub has hired a media attorney to pitch the program to USA Broadcasting's WAMI-TV (Channel 69), to the new Pax TV family network, and to other outlets. She says she puts in at least 40 hours each week on the radio show.

"I just think there is a need for it," she stresses. "One day, when I really work toward the goal and I achieve with the program what I can achieve, it probably will make a difference. And this is what I want to do: Make a difference in some people's lives. I know I'm on the right track and I'm doing the right thing. And I have to. I have to finish this. I will not give up. If I have to go back to scrubbing floors, I will."

She's speaking from a table near the back of the restaurant. Werner flutters around the main entrance, greeting patrons with a thin smile. In August, after the reporting for this article was largely completed, Werner sued Maria for divorce. They've been married for eighteen years. Their two teenage children will continue to be raised by their aunt Ruth. Maria Staub will live alone in Miami's Venetia Condominium, just north of the Herald building. She has set up the Teen Live Wire offices in an adjacent apartment.

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