Carlton: The long, strange trip of Rob Lorei and WMNF

Supporters decried last month’s firing of the respected journalist, and the station heard them.
WMNF radio founder and host Rob Lorei. [Times file]
WMNF radio founder and host Rob Lorei. [Times file]
Published March 22
Updated March 22

Tampa’s WMNF has been called the little radio station that could.

And it just did.

Diehard supporters — does WMNF have any other kind? — rose up righteous against last month's firing of respected, well-liked local journalist Rob Lorei. They protested. They rallied. They signed a petition. They put their money where their mouths were.

And this week, Lorei won back his job as director of news and public affairs at WMNF 88.5, billed as "radio for the rest of us."

"Power to the people, man!" wrote a commenter on the Times website when the news broke.

Or in the parlance of this non-profit community radio station of eclectic music and public affairs on the left end of the dial: What a long, strange trip it's been.

And likely will be for the future of WMNF.

Lorei, 64 and one of the station's founders four decades ago, apparently got caught in the crosshairs. New general manager Craig Kopp — and only at a place this deeply rooted would a guy who's been there four years be "new" — said that Lorei's firing was an attempt to move WMNF into a "new world" beyond just radio.

Lorei said he was given a list of reasons that included not paying enough attention to social media.

Fans were stunned — how could there be WMNF without Rob Lorei?

This part was fun to watch: Supporters, some with conspiracy theories about the station going conservative or being sold outright, mounted an old-fashioned grass-roots groundswell. Some withheld donations that keep WMNF alive. More than 150 people packed Lorei's grievance hearing on a Monday night and spoke for hours. Some had thoughts on WMNF's mission.

"Ratings? What are ratings for?” said a speaker identified as Peter. “Are we a corporate station? Ratings are for advertising, are we advertising? No!”

And there's the trick: blending Lorei's belief in journalism, in afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, with Kopp's very large task of moving the station forward and bringing in younger listeners to keep it alive.

Kopp has talked of a survey that he says shows, as beloved as WMNF may be to its core believers, only 2 percent of Tampa Bay residents even know it exists.

Post-rehiring, Lorei tells me he wants to work with Kopp and on the social media aspects of the job. But for him it will always start with stories that give voice to the voiceless. He says he hopes to set a healing tone after what's been described as the worst crisis the station has faced.

The morning after his rehiring, people were already on Facebook vowing donations in support of the news.

Lorei would need a third job (he hosts a weekly political panel TV show over at WEDU) to buy every one of the people who spoke up for him a beer.

"Humbling is the wrong word," he says. "You don't know how to begin to thank people for saving your job. But I also think it shows the passion people have for WMNF."

Can't argue with that, or with the power in those voices.

Already he's seeing new stories, like one about health insurance for the unemployed. Monday morning, he'll be back on the air for a week that will include a parsing of local politics, a look at the latest shenanigans in Tallahassee and discussion of national and international news.

WMNF, same as it ever was.

Contact Sue Carlton at [email protected] .

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