On Monday, the news of Rob Lorei’s firing at WMNF 88.5 FM sent shockwaves through the Tampa Bay media community.
Some wondered if the listener-powered, community-funded and nearly 40-year-old station 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.
Why would the station cut ties with a most recognizable voice who was also one its most recognizable faces? Why wasn’t the station’s board of directors consulted? Will contributions to WMNF dwindle as part of the backlash? Could Lorei somehow get his job back?
On Tuesday, Craig Kopp, who was named general manager at WMNF just over four years ago, had to face a conference room full of the station’s volunteer programmers and answer all of those questions — and then some (he’ll do it again Wednesday, live on the air during a call-in show thats starts at 1 p.m.).
The 7 p.m., all-station 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. Longtime Program Director Randy Wynne spent about five minutes touching on that, but quickly set the rules for commenting about Lorei’s departure: Three minutes each, and there’s no way anyone was staying past 8:30 p.m.
“We could go on all night about it,” Wynne said.
Because the station has a style sheet and general standard for decorum (and because people are much kinder to each other in real life), things never got too heated — but the questions were pointed.
Who'll make decisions on public affairs programming if Lorei isn’t there to do it? Kopp said he’s not quite sure yet. “Too new,” he said, “ we haven't talked about it.”
And the real reason Lorei was fired? Kopp stayed close to the vest and cited the same legal reasons he shared with CL on Monday.
“This was not a snap decision,” Kopp told the room, adding that he’d had many discussions with Lorei. Because the firing is a personnel matter, he cannot divulge much. “It eventually reached a point where nothing was happening and nothing was going to happen. This did not happen in a flash.”
What about the ratings? Kopp reiterated his belief that the station needs to go beyond radio. He spoke of smart speakers, car dashboards and also cited a market study which told him that only 2 percent of the Tampa Bay market actually knows what WMNF is (CL has asked for a copy of the report).
And the financial loss in the backlash of Lorei’s firing? Kopp told the room that he estimated it to be about $30,000 a year in listener donations.
What about the timing, which corresponded with the end of WMNF’s most recent fund drive? “The timing was poor,” Kopp said. “I’ll take a mea culpa on that.”
To survive, Kopp added, 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. Some in the room agreed; one listener wondered why Kopp felt like he needed to solve the station’s issues all by himself. Others, like Slossy, who hosts “The ‘60s Show” on Saturdays from noon to 2 p.m., tempered sadness and anger with some practicality.
“We were lucky to have Rob Lorei,” Slossy said. He talked about brand recognition and wondered out loud about the demise of Tropical Heatwave (a long-running behemoth of an Ybor City festival that was WMNF’s signature event). He mentioned the ratings and touched on the fact that WMNF’s tight-knit community (to some, the station’s strength, to others, its weakness) sometimes feels like “a bubble inside of a bubble.”
Best of the Bay-winning programmer Marcie Finkelstein — who is the voice of many listeners’ Tuesday-morning drive to work — touched on a lot of the sadness she got from listeners who called and emailed during her show. She mentioned that WMNF should consider that there might be a tending of, and outreach to, station supporters that needs to happen outside of fund drives and events.
A nationwide search for a news director is planned, but some also wondered if Lorei could get his job back. In short, could the decision be reversed?
“If the board of directors upholds his grievance,” Kopp said, “then I would have no choice.”
“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.
Lorei has said that he plans continue hosting the political roundtable “Florida This Week” on WEDU television (the longest-running news and political affairs program in Central Florida, according to FlaPol).
And listeners will probably be hearing more about Lorei again soon.
"I've spoken with WMNF board president David Harbeitner and the station business manager about the grievance process," Lorei told CL. "I plan to file one and hope to get my job back."