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Decision may come soon on Rob Lorei’s appeal over WMNF firing

The firing of veteran WMNF community radio personality Rob Lorei three weeks ago generated anger and promises of pocketbook retaliation from many listeners. But that hasn’t yet persuaded the board of directors at the eclectic station to reinstate him.

There may soon be a resolution to that issue though. The board could vote on Lorei’s appeal to keep his job at its March 18 meeting. Lorei can make a 10-minute presentation before any vote.

“I’m pretty sure we will know something definitive in the next week or two,” Lorei said. “My preference is to go back to work and do the job I was doing. But if not, I’ll have to go to Plan B.”

Lorei co-founded WMNF four decades ago and served as the station’s news director. He was known for his calm on-air demeanor and interviewing skills. Although the public often regards media personalities as shallow and biased, Lorei had the trust of his audience.

General Manager Craig Kopp abruptly fired Lorei on Feb. 18 and gave him 15 minutes to leave the building. Lorei said he was judged deficient in seven areas, but he disputed all except one point. He admitted he could do a better job with social media.

Listeners reacted harshly to the news and made their feelings heard. Many threatened to withhold future donations to the station. The timing of the dismissal was odd, considering that the station was about to launch a major pledge drive. About 70 percent of its revenue comes from listener donations.

In a letter to the WMNF Personnel Committee, Lorei noted, “Over the years I’ve raised millions of dollars for WMNF. By any objective measure, my department at WMNF is successful. If there was real misconduct on my part I could understand being summarily terminated. The circumstances here don’t rise to that level.

“What has happened in the last few weeks here at WMNF has been a disaster. Anyone who cost the station $30,000 in lost donations would have long since been fired under normal circumstances. What has happened since my firing has damaged the long-built trust we have with thousands of listeners.”

Tampa lawyer Thomas P. Scarritt sent a blistering letter to the WMNF Board. He noted he and his wife, Linda, have been station supporters for 35 years and called the firing “appalling.”

“We have marveled at the breadth and depth of radio work done by Rob Lorei, who you know was one of the founders of WMNF. I have had the honor of appearing on his show before, and I can tell you that he is one of the best-informed, respectful, skillful, and ethical interviewers I have ever experienced.

“It amazed me to hear him lead sensitive discussions in so many areas of local, state, and national life. He is a marvelously talented and articulate public servant.”

Lorei said he believes the station and board members received hundreds of letters, phone calls and emails on his behalf.

Ed Lehmann, the host of the station’s Postmodern Hootenanny show on Thursday nights, is a 40-year volunteer. His wife, Jennifer Hollowell, also has volunteered there for 30 years.

He added that the firing left him “flabbergasted.”

“Rob Lorei was the heart and soul of WMNF before it started and our credibility with listeners has fallen through the floor over this,” Lehmann said.

Hollowell added, “I am so angry.  First, why do our opinions not matter? And second, whatever happened to transparency?  WMNF’s history is one of openness and transparency.  Hiding the voices of the community does not fit into our model.”

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I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

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