Before her dismissal, Virginia Currents host May-Lily Lee had been with the program for 21 years. Photo by Chris Smith
In harmony with the violins and lapping Chesapeake swells that welcome viewers every week, May-Lily Lee's melodic voice personified WCVE's Virginia Currents . But in August, Richmond's public TV station unceremoniously yanked the award-winning newsmagazine's host and senior producer after 21 years with the program.
Earlier this month, Lee thanked WCVE, her employer of 25 years, for "the best job in Virginia," remaining stoic on the reasons for her departure. "I've never been interested in adversarial or schadenfreude stories," she said. Daphne Maxwell Reid is taking her place as host.
Privately, however, Lee is a bit more exasperated about her treatment by a station that had been her home since 1987. "I was confused from the beginning, as I am now. In an overall sense, this has all been perplexing."
In emails, WCVE President and CEO Curtis Monk has attributed Lee's termination to her decision to work for "direct competitor" Virginia Public Radio. But other correspondence around Lee's departure suggests that she had her supervisor's permission to work for VPR.
"Because it's a personnel matter, it's something that's hard for us to comment [on] — for the protection of everyone involved," says Bill Miller, general manager of WCVE Radio, who was acting as interim CEO during Monk's recent medical leave.
Lee was fired on Aug 15 via an email from Monk that concluded a week of on-and-off interaction between Lee and WCVE executives, including Monk and Virginia Currents executive producer John Felton. But the sequence of events started June 26.
That's when Felton first informed Lee that her pay would drop from more than $40,000 a year to $7,500 annually. Lee received this news shortly after she signed on with Virginia Public Radio to host a new show called Virginia Conversations . Lee, who was among dozens of former WCVE staffers converted to contract employees about five years ago, says she had received permission from Felton prior to taking the VPR gig.
Felton, in a July 19 email to Lee, made it clear that the decision to decrease Lee's pay — as was the case with her reclassification as a contractor — was "100% a financial issue only," and the same email also asked Lee to host "a long form issue-oriented studio program special."
That message was sent just a minute before another in which Felton responded to an email from Lee informing him that she wanted to do "more radio shows for VPR beyond August, same terms as we discussed." Lee had asked if "that still works for all," and Felton replied, "Absolutely, I hope this is fruitful and rewarding for you and your career. ;)"
Lee heard nothing more until the morning of Aug. 6, when, she says, with no prior warning, Felton left a voice message informing her that she would have to quit the VPR program or face a termination of her contract with WCVE and Virginia Currents . The ultimatum came with a demand that she decide within 24 hours.
Lee says she was blindsided by the deadline, a sentiment echoed in an email she sent to Felton, Monk and Miller that same day.
"Knowing that I have done many projects over the years with other broadcast entities while with WCVE (Channel 12, Channel 8, etc.) and in the absence of a non-compete [contract] as a part-timer, I was certain this would not be a problem … it made sense to me financially as I need to now supplement my new $7,500/year income from Virginia Currents with more freelance work," Lee writes, asking for "feedback" and suggesting that her "intention is to work on both projects as I was green-lighted to do."
Here, the story becomes one of he said, she said, with Monk in emails saying that Lee failed to respond to the ultimatum, while Lee insists that her calls and emails were not answered. In an Aug. 7 email, she writes to Monk, Felton and Miller that she's "following up on my email from yesterday" as she asks "to meet about this."
On Thursday, Aug. 9, Monk replies with an email: "On Tuesday, John called you twice and asked that you respond. I called once — encountered a full mailbox — and subsequently sent you an email requesting that you respond to John," Monk writes. "Accordingly, we must assume that you do not wish to continue to host Virginia Currents given our requirement that you not host another program for a competitor. Please consider this a termination of your role with Virginia Currents."
In response, Lee emailed Monk that she would quit VPR to stay with Virginia Currents. Following an Aug. 13 meeting at WCVE with Monk, Felton and a human resources rep, Lee got her final termination email from Monk on Aug. 15.
The subtext of the entire brouhaha may come down to a battle of the airwaves more than a battle over May-Lily Lee's loyalties.
Roanoke-based National Public Radio-affiliate Radio IQ first extended its broadcast reach into the Richmond region in 2010, and along with it came Virginia Public Radio, a content provider used by public radio affiliates all over the state and once used by WCVE. Publicly, WCVE made little hay of the station's arrival. But internally, the station's management is less friendly toward its public radio cousins.
In his Aug. 9 email, Monk says "hosting a weekly program with [Virginia Public Radio] and continuing as host of Virginia Currents [are] mutually exclusive activities."
It's a strange ultimatum, Lee notes, since one of her fellow producers on Virginia Currents — also a part-timer with WCVE — does regular contract work with WRIC, Richmond's ABC affiliate television station and a direct competitor of WCVE's television presence. Lee says it was not made clear to her by WCVE officials how her radio work competed with her television work. (Since her dismissal from Virginia Currents, she has continued with Virginia Conversations at VPR.)
Additionally, while WCVE is the only NPR affiliate in Virginia that does not still use VPR content, Miller, in his role as general manager of WCVE Radio, acknowledged that as a content provider, VPR is a distinct entity from the Roanoke radio station where it is based, in that its content is available for all statewide NPR affiliates.
"We don't currently acquire any content from them," Miller said, acknowledging that their role is not dissimilar from that of American Public Media, which is not a network like NPR but a content creator that has a relationship with NPR, which distributes its programs. "I'd view them as an in-state content provider."
In explaining Lee's departure, Miller restated the station's explanations to Lee.
When Miller was asked about a group of Lee's supporters, the Friends of Virginia Currents, who had in the midst of the controversy pledged $40,000 to pay Lee's salary, so she could remain on the show, Miller said, "Really? $40,000?. …I really can't speak to that at all. It's not information that's crossed my desk."
But it crossed Monk's. The group sent a letter to WCVE's board on Aug. 7 pledging the money. Monk replied on the board's behalf on Aug. 9 — the same day he initially fired Lee.
Rebuffing their offer, he wrote, "May Lily [sic] decided to pursue another opportunity," ignoring the group's knowledge that Lee tried to pick Virginia Currents over VPR. Monk then offered to accept the $40,000. The group declined.
Miller was unable to address the reasoning behind Monk's decision on Lee. Instead, Miller praised Lee: "She was with us for a long time and did a lot of credible work."
Meanwhile, " Virginia Currents goes on," Miller said. But in Lee's absence, could the program's opening violin strains sound any more melancholy?