Will recent fundraising success erase friction over rescinded layoffs at WMNF-FM?
The past few days have brought some good news to community radio station WMNF-FM (88.5), which has seen its devoted listenership respond strongly during a summertime fund drive aimed at raising $116,000 by this afternoon.
The fundraising effort has collected $100,00 in pledges so far, according to the station website, lowering fears that recent unrest at the station might have discouraged supporters from donating.
But behind the scenes, some of the Tampa station's administration, staff, board and volunteers still are struggling to understand a crisis that saw WMNF declare the first layoffs in station history and then rescind them -- threatening to shred the organization's legendary communal methods.
The station has always had squabbles among its eclectic group of supporters and longtime leaders. But many say these arguments feel different, as some critics wonder if the station's core ethics have been changed or redefined after the trauma of near-layoffs.
The surprise announcement of job cuts unearthed simmering resentments against station manager Jim Bennett, who some critics blamed for moving too quickly and employing a corporate management style that limited outside input. Others faulted the station's board for not being more open about the process and asking tougher questions.
And despite a station meeting July 6 aimed at talking through some of the unrest, some longtime volunteers and staffers remain troubled.
"I'd say there's more frustration with the board for not stepping up to own a decision that was badly timed and badly mismanaged, to say the least," said WMNF program director Randy Wynne, a 25-year veteran. He gave Bennett credit for admitting problems with communication and moving too quickly, while questioning why three high-profile staffers were chosen for layoff weeks before an important fundraising drive.
The station's finance committee recommended quick job cuts when WMNF's last on-air pledge drive fell $70,000 short and live events such as Tropical Heatwave brought in half the revenue of past years, Bennett said.
Linda Reisinger, a 31-year WMNF veteran known as the mother of the station's popular Tropical Heatwave fundraiser, saw herself laid off and then rehired without ever setting foot in Florida; she was in Ohio caring for her ailing mother when Bennett called in mid-June to end her job.
"I wasn’t getting paid anyway, and they laid me off?” said Reisinger, known as Linda Lu to longtime WMNF listeners. “It was like two great loves of my life were going away at the same time. It’s something that was an eye-opener.”
The layoffs of Reisinger, 10-year music director Lee "DJ Flee" Courtney and receptionist Julie Scheid, were canceled about a week after they were announced when the station received an unexpected bequest from the 401(k) of a longtime WMNF fan who died in December. Ultimately, the station expects between $70,000 to $100,000 from the bequest, depending on taxes, Bennett said.
WMNF is developing a policy for implementing layoffs that would include feedback from its personnel committee, as well as considering a different health care plan and across-the-board salary cuts to save money, he said.
“One of the biggest shocks to everyone was that the (layoff decision) happened so quickly,” said Bennett, who noted he had never laid off employees before. “I did promise people I would communicate more than we have…giving ourselves more time to find solutions.”Wynne sympathized a bit with Bennett, who joined WMNF in January 2009. "We don't have a lot of success stories of managers coming from outside," he said. "WMNF is normally very slow about change, we have meeting and meetings, consensus and argument. … But I saw these (quicker) changes weren't really thought out."
The timing of the bequest was dramatically close; Wynne called it a "Hollywood" moment that came as resistance to the layoffs "was going to break the station right open." WMNF official said the money given by former Honeywell engineer Rob Meyer (left), killed in a Dec. 12 motorcycle crash at age 59, came unexpectedly after the station already had received about $15,000 from his estate.
Longtime volunteer and show host JoEllen Schilke helped develop a website to collect ideas for saving money (http://wmnf.us), refusing to believe even a crashing economy should force the station to abandon its ideals.
“We don’t do things secretly…we honor humanity and do things the right way, even though it’s harder,” she said. It’s been awesome to see all the emails saying ‘This isn’t how we handle things…guys, correct your course.’ (Saying the economy forced this) that’s an easy cop-out.”
Bennett expects more feedback in August, when the board collects reviews of his performance while considering renewal of his contract. "I don't feel my job is on the line," he said. "The board did indicate they backed me in this tough decision. But if I feel I'm in a position where I can't fix the problems at WMNF, I wouldn't stick around."