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Rob Lorei reinstated as news director at WMNF after appealing firing

Rob Lorei is one of the founders of WMNF. He was fired from his position as news director and on-air host in February.  [Times (2005)]
Rob Lorei is one of the founders of WMNF. He was fired from his position as news director and on-air host in February. [Times (2005)]
Published Mar. 20, 2019

WMNF's Rob Lorei will return to the Tampa Bay airwaves after the station's board of directors decided Wednesday to reinstate him as News and Public Affairs Director. He'll be back on Monday.

Lorei, a founder of the Tampa based community radio station, who has worked there for more than 40 years, was fired by station general manager Craig Kopp in February. Lorei began an appeal process by filing a grievance with the station's all-volunteer board of directors soon after.

WMNF board president David Harbeitner told the Tampa Bay Times that the board reviewed hundreds of pages of documentation from an investigation into the grievance before making its decision.

"It takes two people to create a situation like this. So neither Rob nor Craig was blameless," he said. "There were valid concerns raised all around. At the end of the day, the board thought our actions were the appropriate remedy."

Harbeitner announced the decision in a brief on-air statement on Wednesday:

"We believe that both Rob and Craig Kopp ... can and should play a critical role in the present and future of WMNF. This event, unfortunately, has reinforced the value of WMNF and the impact we have in the local community, particularly in regards to news and public affairs. It also has heightened our commitment to support the Tampa Bay community and to give a voice to the under-served."

In a longer written statement addressed to "WMNF supporters, volunteers and listeners," the station said the situation "demonstrated a need to review a number of things about our operations" and that they would be "taking a look at our organizational design and other operational elements of the station to ensure we are built to thrive both now and for the next forty years."

"I work for the board, and the board has given me a vote of confidence," Kopp told the Times after the announcement. "So it's time to go to work."

Asked if he could co-exist with Lorei in a working relationship after this, Kopp said "the board has full confidence in our professionalism."

Lorei did not return calls for comment.

More than 150 people showed up at the station Monday night to attend a public board meeting, before board members went into executive session to discuss the grievance Lorei filed. Lorei spoke near the start of the meeting, calling the situation "the largest crisis that WMNF has ever faced."

Public comment in support of Lorei went on for hours, live-streamed on Facebook. Many who came to ask for Lorei's reinstatement, also criticized Kopp.

"It must have been very humbling for Rob to hear how much support he has and how beloved he is by the WMNF community," said retired Tampa attorney Shelley Reback, a public affairs programmer at the station for the last eight months. "It was almost like a group eulogy to him and his contributions to the community over 41 years, and it was beautiful."

Kopp told the Times this week the station has lost about $30,000 in recurring pledges because of Lorei's firing. At a board meeting, Reback said, they learned of an additional $14,000 loss from unfulfilled pledges from the last station pledge drive.

One speaker at Monday's board meeting read a letter from a friend who could not attend, a listener and donor who wrote that she was recently diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, and was withdrawing all donations, including a gift in her will to the Nathan B. Stubblefield Foundation, the nonprofit that operates WMNF.

"That's a half-million potential dollars," she said, "pending the reinstatement of Rob Lorei."

Lorei previously said he was fired for a list of eight items including not posting often enough on Facebook and low ratings. Several speakers on Monday noted that they do not use social media

"Ratings? What are ratings for?," shouted another speaker who was identified only as Peter. "Are we a corporate station? Ratings are for advertising, are we advertising? No!"

"If we are to communicate our mission to the community of Tampa Bay, which has four million people in it, I think that speaks for itself," Kopp said, when asked if a sizable audience matters at a publicly supported station.

Harbeitner discussed the issue of ratings with the Times.

"In recent market surveys Craig Kopp had done, it revealed to us that only two percent of the Tampa Bay community knows we exist," he said. "The board thinks that's unsatisfactory. The station was created to service this community and the under-served to be here for quality and justice and peace.

"I run across fellow activists who don't know about WMNF, and that is a problem. Ratings, as a goal, is a misnomer, but we need to find ways to increase the knowledge and awareness of WMNF as a participant and outlet for the community."

As far as what areas WMNF would be reevaluating, or what strategies might change, Kopp said he'd be having those discussions with the board, but that he had not spoken to them since Monday.

Lorei is also the host of Florida This Week, a political panel show he hosts on Tampa's WEDU Public Broadcasting System television station.

Times staff writer Sue Carlton contributed to this report. Contact Christopher Spata at cspata@tampabay.com or follow @SpataTimes on Twitter.