WMNF Tampa’s Best of the Bay-winning general manager drama is coming to an end.
On Wednesday, the station announced that the station’s board of directors hired Rick Fernandes, who will start on November 11. According WMNF, Fernandes served as the executive director of the Fred Rogers Center and as an executive at Time Warner as the director of television programs.
In an interview with Sean Kinané, Fernandes described himself as “just a kid from Brooklyn,” and detailed his work with both nonprofit and for-profit organizations.
“That sort of gives me a different perspective,” Fernandes said. “[I’m] able to look at things from a different angle. And what I hope is to sort of bring the best out of people, and help WMNF achieve its goals.”
In February, WMNF’s last GM caught flack after the firing of News and Public Affairs Director Rob Lorei, who co-founded the station 40 years ago.
"Nobody in this building is happy today," Kopp told CL after firing Lorei. "I've been in this business since 1974, and this is by far the singular, worst day that I've ever had."
Kopp kept details close to the vest since the decision was a personnel matter, and added that the station would launch a national search for Lorei’s replacement. At the time Lorei told Florida Politics that was fired, in part, because of low ratings in the 1 p.m.-3 p.m. time slot.
"Their (news) release tried to make it seem like we parted ways or something, but he fired me. He gave me 15 minutes to leave the building. That’s not a very nice way to end 40 years at the station.”
In the immediate aftermath, loyalist listeners wondered if the community-funded could still be still itself without one of its co-founders. Others lamented the loss of yet another journalist at a juncture when the public needs more guardians to keep watch over its elected officials. But most anyone who appreciated Lorei’s tempered and thoughtful approach to the news of the day — plus the trust he’s cultivated within the community since WMNF was founded — was simply confused.
Two days after the firing, Kopp faced listeners at an all-station meeting open to the public.The meeting was supposed to be about upcoming changes to to WMNF’s programming — it’s something WMNF does semi-regularly, and it allows programmers to reconnect with station brass about their radio shows — but it turned into a tense back and forth where listeners questioned Kopp while he defended the station using the argument that the station must move beyond radio.
Kopp spoke of smart speakers, car dashboards and also cited a market study which told him that only 2% of the Tampa Bay market actually knows what WMNF is (CL asked for a copy of the report and never received it). He argued that the station must not only keep its core listeners but also expand beyond the walls of WMNF to reach new listeners who will sustain the station from a programming and donation standpoint. Kopp also revealed that the firing off Lorei already cost WMNF an estimated $30,000 in listener donations. At the same meeting, Lorei said that he planned on filing a grievance, which would be examined by the board.
“What you read and hear about this matter will be just the tip of an iceberg of facts that we will investigate in our grievance procedure to ensure Rob was treated fairly,” David Harbeitner, president of WMNF’s board of directors, wrote in a statement.
A month later, the board reinstated Lorei. Board president said that the board believed that the Lorei and Kopp “can and should play a critical role in the present and future of WMNF.”
On April 15, a month after Lorei’s reinstatement, Kopp resigned from WMNF in an email with the subject line, “One Last Message.”
“On February 18th 2019 I terminated WMNF News Director Rob Lorei for cause. In the past year he had been cited for insubordination and had proved to be unmanageable,” Kopp wrote, adding that Board of Directors representatives were informed of every step of the process,” Kopp wrote. He said every step of the process was guided by WMNF’s labor attorney, and that he expected furor over the change.
Kopp said that the board’s reinstatement of Lorei was not an upholding of his grievance.
“In other words, his arguments against the firing were not endorsed by the Board,” Kopp added. According to Kopp, Lorei’s “bullying behavior” was not endorsed or condemned. “The Board, apparently, just thought he needed to be back on the air to stem the protests.”
After Kopp’s resignation, Harbeitner said that the board would meet with each other and the station’s senior staff over the next two days to plan the search for a GM.
Read the full interview with Fernandes via wmnf.org.