By Michael E. Miller
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"You're sniffing up the wrong tree," sighs an annoyed Ted Eldredge, station manager at WLRN-FM (91.3), Miami's National Public Radio affiliate. "There's nothing going on." Well, a few might argue that something in fact did go on this past February 28, when radio program manager and 26-year WLRN veteran Joseph Cooper was escorted from the station by police after an angry exchange with Eldredge, WLRN-TV (Channel 17) station director Angel Hernandez, and their boss, general manager John LaBonia. Asked about the incident, Cooper's mellow voice -- familiar to many from his hosting of the weekday afternoon Topical Currents show -- goes silent. Seconds turn over and die in the empty air. Then a slightly lower, slower voice resumes at the other end of the phone line. "It's not really something I want to comment on or confirm," Cooper finally says.
Police officials at Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which owns and operates the WLRN radio and television stations, confirm that a WLRN administrator asked a school-district police officer to come to the station that Wednesday because Eldredge, Hernandez, and LaBonia anticipated Cooper might react negatively, perhaps threateningly, to the news they were going to take him off the air temporarily. Ofcr. Imtyaz Dad responded to the request. His report on the incident included a memo written by LaBonia that described in detail what happened that day and what led up to it. Other sources involved with the radio station corroborate parts of the account.
What caused the ugly scene? Employees say it started when Cooper found out while on vacation that he would have to give up his office and move to a different one. The change was part of an overall station reorganization prompted by Labonia and Eldredge, according to Adiba Ash, who heads the school district's Office of Integrated Media Services and oversees the two stations. On February 27 Cooper allegedly left messages on the voice mail of Eldredge and Ash that, according to Ash, threatened to publicly expose his problems with the station's administrators if they so much as touched his office. Recalls Ash: "He was very angry, saying how could we do this to him. He told [Eldredge]: “You don't know who I know. You don't know what I can do.'"
So the next day, when Cooper was scheduled to return to work, the administrators planned to sit down with him and set him straight on a few things. As a precaution they asked for the school police presence. LaBonia wrote in his account of the incident that he was talking to Eldredge and Hernandez in his office when Cooper walked in just after 9:00 a.m. on Wednesday to angrily inquire why he was not hosting Topical Currents that afternoon. Eldredge asked Cooper to have a seat. "Mr. Eldredge informed him that based on the threats in his voice-mail messages, he was being relieved of his on-air responsibilities, but he could continue to perform his administrative functions pending the outcome of an investigation from Miami-Dade Schools Police," LaBonia wrote.
Eldredge also reminded Cooper that they'd talked about the office move three weeks earlier, and called his behavior then and now inappropriate and unprofessional. "Mr. Cooper became belligerent, agitated, and argumentative," LaBonia noted. Eldredge then told Cooper to take the day off and "reflect on his actions." Cooper "became even more belligerent [and] raised his voice to an inappropriate level," so LaBonia added his authority to Eldredge's command to go home for the day.
Cooper left the office, and LaBonia asked school police to check whether he had departed the building. Two officers and Eldredge trudged down to Cooper's office, where he was typing up a memo. Officer Dad advised Cooper that LaBonia had asked that he be escorted from the building. According to LaBonia's memo, Cooper once again "raised his voice and became noncompliant and verbally combative." When Dad attempted to reason with him, Cooper demanded the officer's last name, badge number, supervisor's name, and telephone number. The officer complied. Cooper reportedly then wanted him to write down all that information, which Dad did. Then Cooper claimed he hadn't been told to leave the building, so Officer Dad went back to LaBonia to verify what he wanted done. Escort him to his car, LaBonia affirmed. Back the officer went to Cooper's office, where an agitated Cooper allegedly grumbled, "I am typing a very important memo. Can I finish it?" Dad waited until Cooper finished the memo, and a cup of coffee, before escorting him out of the office.
According to LaBonia's account, the officer asked Cooper to lead the way, since he was unfamiliar with the layout of the WLRN building: "Mr. Cooper screamed, “You don't know the exit? I'm not telling you!' Officer Dad then followed the signs. At this time Mr. Cooper had another outburst: “Are you gonna put the handcuffs on me to escort me out? Look, the police are escorting me out of the building!'" Dad finally left Cooper in the parking lot.
Seems like a whole lot of fuss over office space. WLRN insiders attribute the blowup to the changes going on at the television and radio stations under LaBonia, their relatively new general manager. LaBonia says he reorganized the offices so the stations' managers would be centralized around his office. The 34-year-old LaBonia was hired away from WXEL-TV (Channel 42) in West Palm Beach a few months ago. He describes Cooper as "a good guy" who has just had to adjust to new management. "Whenever somebody new comes in, they have a new way of doing things," LaBonia allows. "I just wanted my managers around me. In no way was it meant to harm anybody or change content or anything."
The WLRN grapevine has it that one problem involves Cooper and administrators bumping egos. Another problem arises from the ongoing struggle over what the primary mission of the radio and television stations should be: professionally topnotch public broadcasting stations, or outlets for and tools of the educational bureaucracy that owns them. One former WLRN staffer who asked not to be identified claims that as difficult as Cooper can be, he's not alone in his ability to produce a dramatic tirade. "[Adiba Ash] is difficult," the former staffer believes. "Joe's been there forever, and he resents her because she doesn't have any kind of background [in radio]. He's a nice guy but very opinionated. That said, I think it was ridiculous for him to do what he did."
Alan G. Greer, chairman emeritus of Friends of WLRN, a fundraising and support organization for the stations, ascribes the Cooper incident to "an unfortunate confluence of events" or changes at the station that has made some long-time employees like Cooper uncomfortable. "I'm assuming this thing is a tempest in a teapot and won't have any legs in the long run," Greer says. "I like Joe, but I'm also concerned about the best interests of the station, and near as I can tell, there is not a systemic problem I should be worried about. There are changes, but change happens. I'm hopeful everything will be resolved amicably from Joe's perspective."
Greer won't speculate on the interpersonal details. "I don't know what happened," he notes. "Sometimes even the mellowest person gets triggered." For his part Cooper's immediate boss, Eldredge, says there's nothing to talk about. "It's an internal matter," he comments. "It's been handled. Joe's here, he's been working here for over twenty years, and he will continue to be here for the foreseeable future." (Cooper declined comment.)
LaBonia says he does plan to make other changes at WLRN, but most of those will concentrate on the television side. The station is working to meet a federally mandated deadline of May 2003 to convert to digital broadcasting. On a practical level that will mean WLRN will be gaining extra channels it can use or lease to other organizations. WLRN radio is undergoing a digital conversion as well, although at a slower rate. LaBonia also plans to produce more local programming on Channel 17. "We're looking at providing more culturally diverse programs, more public affairs," he reports. "We want to do more for the community we serve. That's part of why public stations exist, and a lot of them are getting away from that. Part of our core mission is to serve the public schools, but our mission extends beyond that."