The obvious question after the events of last month: Could WMNF 88.5 general manager Craig Kopp peaceably go back to working alongside a guy he’d fired?
The answer, apparently, is no way.
Kopp quit the community radio station Monday morning, about a month after news director Rob Lorei returned. The station’s board of directors overturned Lorei’s firing amid a very public fracas by listeners who trashed Kopp’s reputation along the way.
In a resignation letter sent to the station’s employees, Kopp said he’d found himself in an “unworkable situation,” in which he no longer had authority over news operations, and that the station had become such a “closed system that even anti-Semitism can be tolerated.”
“I manage the station,” Kopp wrote, “except for News and Public Affairs, which is now the fiefdom of Rob Lorei and his followers.
“I love WMNF as a concept and have dedicated myself to setting it up to continue far into the future. But the reinstatement of Rob Lorei assures that it will remain firmly rooted in the past.”
Kopp wrote that he’d worked with Jewish Federations in Tampa Bay to get a “Jewish show” on the air to create balance with opinions on the Middle East and Palestine the station broadcasts on public affairs show True Talk, but that it was rejected by Lorei as better suited for conservative radio. Kopp called the decision to “deny the Jewish community a voice ... unfair at the least, anti semitic at the worst.”
Kopp described himself as “what you’d call a classic liberal,” but feels a small and insular group of employees, volunteers and highly-involved longtime listeners and donors control the station to an unhealthy degree, and “are in such lockstep with progressive liberal ideas” there is zero room for other viewpoints.
“I’ve heard people there say, ‘We need to think about who we want listening’,” Kopp said. “That goes against my whole broadcasting brain. I want everyone in the community listening. Not everyone will love everything, but you mix it up a little bit.”
Lorei said it wasn’t him alone who rejected the show, but a programming committee of eight people that included him, because it was too one-sided. He also said Kopp had quietly developed the show and sprung it on the committee, which is against the station’s procedures.
“First of all, we already have a Jewish show. I put it on in 1980. It hasn’t gone away,” Lorei said, referring to Sunday Simcha, formerly known as The Jewish Sound. “So Craig is factually challenged. That’s part of his problem. But he wanted to develop a second one, and it was pretty conservative ... but the general feeling was just that it got things wrong.
“There are six different stations I can tune into around here if I want to hear someone saying let’s go to war with Iran, Saudi Arabia is great, tax breaks work for everyone. We were founded to be the voice of peace, social justice, the environment, feminism, to give voices to diverse people. I think Craig wanted to change the mission of the station. If he wanted to do that, he should have changed the mission statement, but he didn’t.”
WMNF’s board president David Harbeitner agreed that there is a smaller, committed core of people who are the most engaged with the station.
“But in the larger sense of who we serve, our mission is not to serve just those committed people. We serve the community. I think what [Kopp] was reflecting on there is that a small percentage of the WMNF community can have an outsized voice, and that’s something the board is aware of — that we are serving the community of the future, and not just the WMNF community of the past.”
Kopp knew there would be a backlash when he fired news director Lorei, a founder of the station who’d been on the air for decades, but took issue with how the firing and a public meeting where volunteers and listeners spoke on Lorei’s behalf, were portrayed by Lorei and local media, including a column in the Tampa Bay Times.
“I don’t think that small group of 150 people or so represents WMNF, or some kind of grassroots movement,” Kopp said. “That column made it sound like it was fun to watch. It was not fun for me, because what those people said about me, that’s not who I am.”
Kopp also said that rumors he’d fired Lorei over not posting enough to Facebook were untrue. “It was insubordination,” Kopp said. “He was completely unmanageable.”
Asked for specifics, Kopp said he got pushback on anything he wanted to do to increase the station’s audience and move toward a digital, multi-platform future. That included posting more frequent news stories on the station’s website, producing news around high-profile events like elections and posting more on social media.
“We don’t even have enough people listening, to test what people want to hear,” Kopp said. “And they spent no time in the past four years working to expand the audience.”
Lorei said that Kopp never made suggestions to him about news programming, and that his first priority is to put good shows on the air. He said he told Kopp that they’d need to hire another news staffer to do some of the things he wanted done digitally, but was told it wasn’t in the budget, which Lorei said the board told him was untrue.
Harbeitner said the board will move quickly to find a replacement for Kopp, but that “given some of the activities of the past 90 days,” finding someone with the right “people skills” would be critical. He said Kopp had a strong vision of where radio had been, and where it was going, and that the next general manager would need to be ready to build in the digital space and position the station for future growth.
“To the degree that there is a toxicity,” Harbeitner said, “we need someone who can help us get past that.”
Kopp said he did not regret his decision to fire Lorei. After four years at the station, he was most proud of what he’d done to get WMNF’s finances into the black. He renegotiated monthly payments for the station’s building in Tampa, and moved the station’s IT and engineering in-house, saving thousands. The station also received grants from Hillsborough County to build a new tower and install new electronics in the studios during his tenure.
Kopp left his position hosting All Things Considered at WUSF 89.7, Tampa’s NPR affiliate, to take the job at WMNF in 2015.
Contact Christopher Spata at [email protected] or follow @SpataTimes on Twitter.