The governing board that oversees West Virginia Public Broadcasting approved the termination of Executive Director Chuck Roberts Monday during a special meeting.
The Educational Broadcasting Authority discussed the matter in executive session. Members did not give a reason in open session for dismissing Roberts.
In an Oct. 7 email to staff, Roberts said the EBA told him that it had decided to go in a “different direction” for his position. Roberts was named executive director in 2018 and had worked for WVPB since 2000. Roberts and EBA Chair William File did not respond to requests for comment.
During the meeting, the EBA named Carl “Butch” Antolini interim executive director. Antolini previously served as director of communications for West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice. Prior to that appointment, he was director of communications for West Virginia’s department of agriculture.
Before working in government, he was executive editor for Beckley Newspapers.
File said during Monday’s meeting that Antolini “certainly does not profess to be an expert in all fields public broadcasting.” But File added that he believes Antolini “is ready to take on the task to serve as our interim executive director.”
“I don’t think Mr. Antolini’s going to have any problem adjusting to what needs to be done in the position of the interim executive director,” File said.
Antolini began in the role effective immediately.
“I am extremely grateful and excited to be given the opportunity to lead West Virginia Public Broadcasting,” Antolini said in a WVPB article. “Providing the public with objective, balanced and accurate news coverage, working with our educators to deliver the most up-to-date methods of instruction through broadcasting, and telling our state’s story are some, but not all, of the areas that we need to focus on at WVPB.”
The board will begin a search for a permanent ED for WVPB. “We hope to move on that fairly quickly,” File said. He added that there is no “definite timetable” for the hire.
The change in leadership follows criticism of recent appointees to the EBA by Gov. Justice, who has previously proposed cutting funding to the statewide network. The appointees include Greg Thomas, a GOP consultant, and Danielle Waltz, who previously served on the board of the conservative Cardinal Institute, which has called to end state funding for WVPB.
During a confirmation hearing for Thomas and Waltz in June, state Sen. Stephen Baldwin asked Thomas about tweets in which he had criticized the media. In one, he responded to the question “Is there a more useless group of people than Congress?” with “the media.” In another tweet, he responded to a WVPB article about flooding and climate change in the state with “the liberals never miss an opportunity to advance their globalist anti-WV agenda.”
“My interactions with public broadcasting, for the most part, personally, have been positive,” Thomas said during the hearing. “Do I like to make little comments on my personal Twitter about fake news? Sure, sure I do. I can’t imagine that is something I would do as a board member.”
Since joining the EBA, Thomas has retweeted a tweet by Andrew Sullivan that said, “At this point you have to assume that NPR knowingly lies to its listeners.”
When Waltz was asked about her time with the Cardinal Institute and its position on cutting funding for public broadcasting, she responded, “That was not a publication I drafted or approved. That was the opinion of the drafter. … I think you can be a member of a board and that may not necessarily be your opinion.”
She added that she thinks WVPB’s mission “is critical” and noted during the hearing that WVPB’s services are reaching only a portion of the state’s population, “so how do you reach out to more West Virginians?”
Baldwin voted against the appointments of Waltz and Thomas during the hearing and said, “I think we need champions of public broadcasting, not any sort of potential politicization.”
When asked during a COVID-19 briefing in June about the appointments, Gov. Justice said that there should be “diversity” on the EBA.
“Changing the board to be more balanced and everything, I don’t think the more liberal folks have total ownership of that board,” Justice said. “I don’t think the more conservative folks should have total ownership of the board in any way. I think it should be balanced.”
Brian Gallagher, chair of the Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting board, told Current that the impression that the governor is stacking the EBA with conservative appointees is inaccurate because he doesn’t believe the appointees “are cut out of the same ideological cloth.”
If Gov. Justice wanted to harm public broadcasting, Gallagher said, “he didn’t appoint five people with like viewpoints to do that.”
“I understand why people would be upset with how this has occurred and the lack of information about it,” Gallagher said, referring to Roberts’ termination and the EBA appointees. “But I’m a positive person, and I want to take a wait-and-see attitude that this will be fine.”