By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
A turf war between the top executives of WLRN and its non-profit fundraising arm has ended with one of them out of a job.
In early February, the board of directors of Friends of WLRN voted to fire executive director Michael Jalali following a personnel dispute with the public radio station’s longtime general manager John LaBonia, according to multiple sources.
“There was a level of dissatisfaction [with Jalali’s performance] by the board,” said Martin Karp, a Miami-Dade School Board member who serves as its representative on the Friends of WLRN board. “It escalated to the level where he wasn’t going to be able to continue as executive director.”
Karp, who was not present at the meeting when Jalali’s contract was terminated, said he created friction with LaBonia following his December decision to hire news reporter Kate Stein to produce programming for Friends to air independent of the news department. Part of Friends’ mission is to raise money for the public radio station, which is owned by the school board and has an editorial collaboration with the Miami Herald. All WLRN news staffers are either employees of the independently managed South Florida Public Media or freelancers. [An earlier version of this article misidentified employees’ status. None are government employees.]
Angry that Jalali did not discuss the personnel move prior to offering Stein a new position, LaBonia cut off Friends’ access to on-air talent to ask listeners for donations, according to former and current WLRN news staffers, who spoke to Florida Bulldog on condition of anonymity.
“The idea of the Friends ‘support’ organization as a producer of programming has always been a touchy subject,” said one former staffer. “In retaliation news personnel are not permitted to go on the air to solicit funds during pledge drives.”
The WLRN sources also said that Jalali, who was hired in 2016 and earned a $156,000 annual salary, had quietly begun campaigning with school board administrators and board members to have LaBonia fired from his $141,618-a-year job. [An earlier version of this article misreported LaBonia’s salary.]
Labonia, who’s been at WLRN since 2001 and sits on the Friends board, declined to comment. Also declining comment were Friends board chairman Dwight Hill and second vice chairman Joseph Goldstein.
The board’s six other members and Jalali did not respond to phone messages seeking comment.
Karp said he didn’t have issues with Jalali’s work performance and did not speak to him about LaBonia. “He would initiate meetings to keep me informed,” Karp said. “He was always proactive and focused on Friends’ mission, and the relationship between the station and the board.”
However, Jalali was having problems getting along with other Friends’ board members, Karp added. “When he hired the reporter, people started weighing in on other problems they had [with Jalali],” Karp said.
Despite producing some of the best and award winning radio news programming in the country, WLRN has been dogged by low employee morale in the newsroom and controversial personnel decisions in recent years.
In 2013, WLRN slashed hours for part-time employees paid through the school system right before the December holidays. The school board elected to reduce part-timers’ hours in order to avoid an Obamacare requirement that any employers who have part-time workers who put in 30 hours or more have to pay for their health insurance.
The same year, WLRN fired two well-known on-air employees, news director Dan Grech and anchor Phil Latzman, and LaBonia penned an open-letter to listeners apologizing for then-on-air host Joseph Cooper’s decision to cancel an interview with the author of a controversial book about five Cuban spies convicted on espionage charges in 2001. Cooper retired in 2017 after more than 40 years on the air, most of it hosting the immensely popular Topical Currents show.
In 2015, the Miami-Dade Inspector General’s Office received an anonymous complaint that LaBonia was blocking employees from reporting incidents to the school board’s human resources department and civil rights compliance office. A copy of the complaint obtained by Florida Bulldog states that, at the time, employees were attempting to find out why some of them were not covered by the public employees union contract with the school board.
“LaBonia regularly bullies and retaliates against employees who attend union meetings by reclassifying employees as independent contractors,” the complaint states. It also claimed that LaBonia indiscriminately cut jobs that were all full-time to part-time hours even though employees still put in more than 40 hours a week. The complaint was later dismissed.
Two years later, a separate complaint prompted an investigation into WLRN’s underwriting by the inspector general of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Its 2017 report states that the Miami radio station received $1.1 million more than it should have in television community service grants during an eight-year period. Investigators found that Friends, which handles WLRN’s underwriting work and accounting, overstated television underwriting revenues by nearly $9.5 million between July 2007 and June 2015 and understated radio underwriting income by the same amount.
While WLRN’s rank-and-file news employees have fought for fair pay and benefits, Friends’ is sitting on a large amount of money and has 10 executives raking in six-figure salaries, including two in the news department.
Vice President of News Tom Hudson earned $213,282 and Americas Editor Timothy Padgett made $114,367 in 2017 as Friends’ employees, according to the non-profit’s most recent tax return.
The same year, Friends raised $8.4 million, of which $5 million was used for grants to WLRN and to cover station expenses in support of news activities. The foundation generated a total of $11.5 million in revenue, had net assets of $18 million and spent $3.7 million on salaries in 2017.