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At 40, WMNF still stickin' it to the man. But does it need to change?

WMNF 88.5 bumper stickers are posted on the wall in Tampa, Florida on Thursday, July 25, 2019. OCTAVIO JONES | Times
Published Aug. 3

The first sound heard over the WMNF 88.5-FM signal wasn't much.

The station's founders had already gone door to door for a year gathering donations. They'd raised the antenna, by hand, using ropes. An engineer tapped on the transmission cable with a wrench, and that tapping sound could be heard over the radio that day in 1979.

It was an inconspicuous first breath of what would be countless hours of eclectic music and local voices over the next 40 years.

To those familiar with it, WMNF is a beacon of community advocacy. It's a symbol of cool music, funky people and local events.

Four decades in, "the best little radio station on the planet" sounds and feels in many ways the same as those early years. It broadcast from a house where interviews were conducted in a bathroom and records stored in a tub.

Some call that sameness evidence of an unwavering devotion to the station's mission statement, to educate and entertain "around our shared values," to "advocate for peace, social and environmental justice through independent media and programming neglected by the mainstream."

Others say it's evidence of an unwillingness to change with the times, preventing the community radio station from securing its future.

Either way, the station is essentially a secret. WMNF recently spent $6,000 to commission a survey, the results of which showed only 2 percent of locals who listen to radio have any idea WMNF exists.

"Our issue is awareness," David Harbeitner, president of the station's volunteer board of directors, said during a recent board meeting. "I've talked to political activists in the community, the kind of people you wouldn't believe don't know who WMNF is, and they don't even know us. So take a person down the street who doesn't pay attention to what's going on in the community, and they have no clue who we are. Those are the sad facts."

Former general manager Craig Kopp said those facts often come as a surprise to those inside the station's "bubble."

Disagreements over how to grow audience were at the heart of Kopp's resignation this summer, he said. He also said the station isn't fulfilling its potential. It has a cumulative listenership of around 70,000 to 90,000 people per week, with a signal that can reach four million residents.

Kopp wanted to market more aggressively, focus hard on "local, local, local," professionalize the announcing and freshen the mix of music, but he described being challenged by employees and programmers. He increased the amount of corporate underwriters, businesses who donate and are mentioned on the air, to several more per hour, and "you thought there'd be a riot."

Kopp had disagreements with news and public affairs director Rob Lorei, one of the station's founders, and to some, the voice of the station. Kopp fired Lorei, who he called "unmanageable" in February, only to see the board overturn that decision and bring Lorei back after impassioned Lorei supporters flooded a public grievance hearing and pulled $30,000 in pledges.

RELATED: Craig Kopp, who fired Rob Lorei from WMNF, resigns from the station

"There's a founder syndrome," Kopp said. "The volunteers and listeners up through the employees, the people who got that place going — which truly was this amazing thing in the annals of radio — for whatever reason, those people block change. … It's like they're suspicious of anyone who hasn't been listening forever."

Wayne Garcia resigned from the board shortly after the decision to bring Lorei back.

"Rob Lorei said it himself at his hearing, and several others echoed it: We don't want ratings, we don't care about that," Garcia said. "Well, that's a fundamental problem, because if so, you don't want to be in the community."

Lorei said that is untrue. He does care about ratings, tracks them every single day and looks forward to doing some things to actually improve them now that he has more freedom. He's not against adapting to a modern media environment, but the station's mission must always come first.

"We have to stand for something, and if we abandon what we stand for, our supporters will abandon us," Lorei said. "We were founded to be the voice of peace, social justice, environmentalism, feminism, civil rights, all these things that were missing from Tampa Bay area radio stations … I see it as being the voice of the voiceless."

• • •

For those who tune in over the radio or through wmnf.org, the station provides a constellation of sounds and ideas like nothing else on radio.

Tune in at random, and you might get new indie rock, underground hip hop, metal, folksy Americana, swampy blues, alternative music from the Latinx diaspora or sounds from the Caribbean. You could hear a local band like Have Gun Will Travel or a legend like David Bowie.

You also might get audio from the Mueller hearing, spoken word poetry, a frank conversation about "colonialism" and gentrification in Tampa Bay's black communities or an interview with a woman who stood in front of chainsaws to block developers from destroying an 80-year-old oak tree in St. Petersburg.

Nearly every host and DJ heard on the station is an unpaid volunteer. The station has about 500 volunteers and 12 paid employees.

Paco Morales was a listener who first got on the air after his wife made a donation to get him a one-time guest hosting spot. It went over so well that he now plays pop, folk and rock from places like Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro every Wednesday from 1 to 2 p.m.

Masani Bailey, who at 27 is one of the youngest DJs at the station, did radio in college. She discovered WMNF online and remembered her parents listening to the talk shows. Now she plays indie hip hop, afro beat and alternative R&B every Saturday at 10 p.m.

"WMNF really speaks to what that culture of Tampa was, before all the newness came to the city," she said. "If people want to get a taste for the city, they should start with tuning in to WMNF."

The station has been an oasis for local musical talent.

"If you're a musician in Tampa, odds are, you'll go through WMNF at some point," said Benjamin Booker, a singer-songwriter who grew up in Tampa and is signed to ATO Records. One of his first experiences being recorded in a studio and hearing it played back was on the WMNF show Grand National Championship.

WMNF has shows devoted to the local art scene, animal news and issues. There are now two shows devoted to Jewish culture.

Kopp spearheaded the newer Jewish show, The Third Opinion, to provide balance to pro-Palestine views expressed on another WMNF show. Lorei and the station's programming committee rejected it, saying it, promoted the kind of conservative opinions that could be heard on plenty of other mainstream talk stations.

Kopp, in his resignation letter, lobbed an accusation of anti-Semitism. Lorei scoffed and pointed to the station's "40 year history of standing up to racism and anti-Semitism."

The show ended up on the air anyway, because "several of us decided to assume the best of intentions, take the high road and offer the show air time," Lorei said.

On a recent Thursday, Lorei sat at his desk in the station's newsroom, surrounded by stacks of newspapers across from the station's one other paid news employee, assistant news director Sean Kinane. The station used to have four paid news staffers, but cut two of them during the recession.

Kinane sat scanning the wire services, compiling stories for a five-minute newscast he'd anchor at 3:30 p.m. that would include info on a man killed outside an East Tampa mosque. On a wall nearby was an illustration of Alfred E. Neuman with a hippie protest sign smashed over his head and a commendation from the Pinellas ACLU.

Kinane, who had been out covering a Tiger Bay Club meeting where legislators spoke, is sometimes the only reporter covering a local story.

Lorei said WMNF uncovered several examples of police spying on peace groups and unions in the '80s and sued to get the files. More recently, he pointed to the station's reporting on a University of Florida student detained in Israel.

"The question now is what generates revenue," Lorei said. "It used to be if we played new wave or reggae, people donated because we were the only place you could get it. That's no longer the case. So what will that thing be in the future? It could be local news. Maybe we're the only one covering an LGBTQ march or a protest."

Down the hall, Lee "Flee" Courtney was behind the mic. He just played Kingfish. Coming up next, something new from Bruce Springsteen. Over the air, he explained that he played a Graham Parker song because it relates to some news about restrictions on abortion.

Flee handed a CD case to a producer, so he could add the track to an online playlist.

"Most stations are totally automated," Flee said, smiling. "Look, we're still handcrafted, using CDs."

• • •

Community stations around the county are grappling with the same issues.

"How do we make ourselves a little more interesting, how do we bridge the generational gap?" said Ernesto Aguilar, program director for the National Federation of Community Broadcasters.

Studies show millennials and younger audiences are interested in non-commercial media because it aligns with their values.

It's also a time when community radio might be more important to locals than ever.

Several years ago, the FCC changed its rules. It used to be that every radio station was required to have a local office. It was somewhere the community could knock on the door to engage or complain. Now big radio companies can automate, pipe in content via satellite and manage from afar.

"That really impacts a community's access to a given station," Aguilar said. "Which creates an impetus on local stations to let people know, we are local, and we're going to be responsive to what this community has to say."

The first thing WMNF needs to do is hire a new general manager. Harbeitner said there have been hundreds of applications from around the country and an announcement will be made soon.

RELATED: Radio station WMNF victim of ransomware cyberattack

A "commitment to progressive and social justice ideas" is one of the required "job skills" listed in WMNF's ad for the position. The ombudsman for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting recently criticized that language, writing that because WMNF receives federal grant money, it must adhere to the Communications Act, which calls for objectivity and balance.

It's a position with a lot of turnover in the last decade. Jim Bennett quit in 2011 after less than three years. That wasn't long after he'd laid off three longtime staffers who were brought back after a public backlash.

Sydney White took the job in 2012 and was fired in 2014, at which time he described WMNF's internal culture as a "glorified radio club."

There was always a fundamental question of who was really running things, said Laura Keane, a board member until April 2017, who led the search committee that hired Kopp.

"It's a super difficult organization to be in charge of because you have so many constituents," she said.

Growing listeners and members is the next mission, Harbeitner said, but that has lagged because there hasbeen no immediate survival pressure. WMNF, with an annual revenue approaching $2 million, is on solid ground financially, and consistently hits fundraising goals.

This summer's drive raised $226,219. Last month, the station paid off the mortgage on its studios in Tampa, partially thanks to a listener who died and put WMNF in their will.

They have roughly 7,250 donors who pledge a certain amount each month. That number is down from its all-time peak before the recession but has leveled out and held steady for several years.

"Their supporters are fantastic," Keane said, "but when those people are gone, who's going to take their place?"

"It's the circle of life that's going to get them," Kopp said.

There's a story Lorei tells. WMNF received a postcard in the mail from the FCC in 1979. It was the station's official license to begin full-time broadcasts.

The founders always planned to play Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man as the first "legal" song. When the time came, they went to the record library to look for it and discovered the album was gone. Panic set in.

They pulled out John Philip Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever. That was the first song.

They rolled with it.

Contact Christopher Spata at cspata@tampabay.com or follow @SpataTimes.

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