Column: How we, as Jewish leaders, feel about WMNF now

Published April 18, 2019

Editor's note: This column is in response to the events that led WMNF-88.5 radio station general manager Craig Kopp to resign. Also, read Kopp's own view.

By Jonathan Ellis and Aliza Norstein

Special to the Tampa Bay Times

Recent events at community radio station WMNF are causing great concern for the Tampa Bay Jewish community. As has been reported in the Tampa Bay Times, one of the station founders, Rob Lorei was fired by general manager Craig Kopp last month. After a huge public outcry, the board reinstated Lorei and this past week Kopp resigned.

In addition to being overruled by his own board, Kopp cited a major reason for his resignation was that WMNF "has become such a closed system that even anti-Semitism can be tolerated." Kopp was referring to the fact he offered the Tampa Jewish Community Centers and Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas and Pasco Counties a once-a-week hourly program to balance some of the views espoused on the WMNF public affairs show "True Talk." Kopp says that program takes a pro-Palestinian viewpoint on issues like peace in the Middle East.

Local attorney Laureen Jaffe, a Tampa JCCs and Federation board member and annual campaign chair who is also the regional volunteer leader of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and Mike Deeson, a 12-time Emmy-winning reporter and 2015 Florida Journalist of the Year, were asked to co-host the program by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Tampa Jewish Federation and JCCs, which is representative of the greater Jewish community in Tampa with participation from most of the local synagogues, the Tampa Rabbinical Association, the Pinellas and Pasco JCRC and various other Jewish organizations.

After putting together a pilot show, entitled "The Third Opinion," Kopp reported that the WMNF program committee members rejected the show saying among other things, "It was too professional" — they really said that; and the hosts espoused "conservative views that could be heard on Fox news"; the program committee also said, "WMNF advocates for peace, social and environmental justice through independent media and programming neglected by the mainstream. The views and opinions of the hosts of the proposed show are not neglected by the mainstream; their views are the mainstream."

In addition, Lorei pointed to the fact there is already a Jewish program on the air, Sunday Simcha, which plays Jewish music. The soon-to-be departing host of the program, Steve Schwersky, who worked on the show for 13 years, is an ardent defender of Israeli policies and constantly butted heads with management. In looking to recruit a replacement for Schwersky, WMNF determined that a new host should not be discussing political issues and the person who accepted the role, Joy Katzen-Guthrie, has agreed to those terms and will focus primarily on Jewish music and cultural issues. We think she's a great choice and know she'll do an outstanding job, but this is a much different program than the one we were proposing.

In his response to Kopp's resignation letter, Lorei wrote that the hosts of the Sunday Simcha had always been free to decide how much time to devote to music, talk and interviews. That's not how Schwersky sees it. A few years ago, the Sunday Simcha was cut back from two hours to one. Schwersky said, "I am convinced that the show was reduced to one hour in order to limit my opportunities to defend Israel's right to defend itself." He added that "the WMNF culture does have a toxic side" and that he has "personally experienced anti-Semitism from management, other programmers and many listeners."

WMNF's mission statement says in part, "We embrace diversity, tolerance of others' opinions, and freedom of expression. WMNF celebrates and promotes the creative, cultural and political vitality of the local community." Clearly that is not true when it comes to the Jewish community!

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Contrary to Lorei's opinion, we fully recognize that there's a diversity of perspectives in the Jewish community and the pilot program and the plans for the ongoing show reflected that diversity. In fact, the Tampa JCRC — whose members represent a very broad range of political perspectives — worked diligently in selecting the co-hosts to reflect that diversity. They cast a broad net and received input from a large number of people in the community about possible co-hosts and ideas for the show.

Even the title for the show also reflected that diversity and is based on an old joke: "Two Jews, three opinions."

When the pilot was completed, the co-hosts and other Jewish community leaders asked to meet with the WMNF program committee before the show was officially rejected to elaborate on the plans for the program, refute some of the criticisms of Lorei and others and to receive any constructive criticism. Unfortunately, rather than allow the Jewish community a forum to respond to WMNF's concerns, the meeting request was denied. WMNF's questionable and/or false criticisms, paternalistic view of anti-Semitism and refusal to recognize issues that concern the broader Tampa Bay Jewish community is precisely the reason WMNF should have allowed this show on the air!

The actions of WMNF demonstrate that its mission statement is singular in its application and applies only to those viewpoints that align with the political perspectives of certain individuals. In his resignation letter, Kopp further exposed what he considers the anti-Semitic atmosphere at the station, saying "The turning point for me was a post from a listener on the WMNF Bulletin Board Facebook page. It was a meme of the Star of David made out of currency and the words 'Follow the Money.' "

Kopp continued, "When my wife, who is Jewish and the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, commented on this obviously anti-Semitic post, the listener replied, 'I am a Circle of Friends member of WMNF and feel we have freedom of speech and info to share with WMNF 88.5 FM radio and its News Department.' "

According to the Anti-Defamation League, there was a 57 percent increase in the U.S. in anti-Semitic acts in just 2017, the most hate crimes perpetrated against any group in the country. It was for this reason — to try to combat the scourge of anti-Semitism — that we accepted Kopp's offer to develop a pilot show, but at this point we are no longer asking the station to put it on the air and will be exploring other opportunities to broadcast the program.

We are not interested in being where we are not wanted, but people in the community should know what this station is about and what they are supporting before they contribute financially to WMNF.

Jonathan Ellis is chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Tampa. Aliza Norstein is chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Pinellas and Pasco Counties.