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Silhouettes profiles Randi Zimmerman

By Tiffany Razzano
Published Aug. 22, 2022

Taking on the general manager role at WMNF earlier this year, Randi Zimmerman’s career has come full circle – and she couldn’t be happier about it. After all, Tampa Bay’s community radio station is where the educator and journalist got her start on the air. Now, she’s ready to guide the station as it continues to grow and connect with listeners throughout the region.
“This job hits all my buttons. I’m this weird combination of people person and a numbers person,” she said. “So, I get to talk to people. I get to be technical. I get to work the board. I get to hug people and hearten people and elevate their stories and I get to run the numbers. And I was handed this station that’s in really great shape, that is doing amazing things, that needs, basically, just a little bit more help to get over into that next generation.”
A native New Yorker, Zimmerman was raised in Kew Gardens, Queens and graduated from the Bronx High School of Science. As a teen, she was interested in science and theater, especially the technical aspects of producing shows. “I was one of those AV nerds. But you can’t make money in theater, even in New York, right? So, I went to learn about producing television and radio and then went into producing commercials. Then business, public relations, stuff like that,” she said.
She spent about a decade working in New York after high school “in advertising, public relations, cable television. I worked at Lifetime before it was anything, when we were still pushing buttons, instead of, you know, having an actual remote control.”
In 1990, she moved to Florida. She had family in the state – a great aunt in Brooksville and her grandmother on the East Coast – and was also drawn to its affordability. “I wanted to be able to afford to buy my own home,” she said. “I wanted that opportunity, which wasn’t going to be available to me anytime soon living in New York, working in television and radio.”
Zimmerman didn’t know what to expect when she landed in Tampa but found it to be “a city on the verge, getting ready to become something big.”
She added, “And that seemed very exciting to me to be at the beginning of things.”
At the same time, the Tampa Bay area was also “basically one big small town,” she said, “which is also kind of cool.”
When she first moved to Tampa, she worked in the corporate world, but decided to go back to college to become a science teacher. Living in Safety Harbor at the time, she first attended St. Petersburg Junior College, then the University of South Florida.
At USF, she met Nell Abram, a journalist, DJ and volunteer at WMNF. As they got to know each other, Zimmerman shared her background in commercials, public relations and radio production in New York.
Abram told her, “Well, come to my community radio station where we need some professional skills.”
“So, I started in the news department here because of Nell Abram. Just met her in a class,” Zimmerman said.
She was already familiar with WMNF. As a “news junkie,” she’d already discovered the station not long after moving to Florida after learning that it aired “Democracy Now.”
“It was like, ‘This is great. My people,’” she said. But she couldn’t quite figure out the station’s schedule. “It wasn’t always talk and sometimes it was music. And sometimes it was polka music and sometimes it was rock music and sometimes it was blues music. It took me a number of years to really figure out what was going on.”
Once she began working with the station, it clicked for her. “I knew the station, but I didn’t really understand the station until I was here,” she said. “And then I was hooked. I just did everything. I volunteered doing news. I would do fund drives and answer phones and stuffed envelopes. My mom raised me to be very politically active anything. So, it was great having a cause.”
Zimmerman immediately saw the potential in WMNF’s newsroom. “It was really clear that the newsroom could foster all of these wonderful voices,” she said.
Though her previous experience in radio and television focused on technical production, at WMNF, she shifted gears to broadcast journalism, taking on the role of headline news anchor in 1998 and embracing her role in radio activism. Being on air is “a necessary evil,” something she’s still not fully comfortable doing decades later. “But I have to get on air. Not because I like it or I’m enamored by it, but because I’ve got these great stories,” she said.
Sheila Cowley, who was an engineer at the station at the time, once told her, “You’re not really a journalist. You’re really a storyteller.”
“And that’s absolutely true. I’m really a storyteller,” Zimmerman said. “I write poetry – for myself – I do all that stuff. So, just this idea that here, I’ve got this microphone and because I have a microphone, people are willing to talk to me. And I love people. I think people are just really interesting and we often ignore just this heroic stuff that goes on all around us all that time that is not talked about. And here I had this opportunity to turn on a microphone to record people and elevate their stories to something that everybody could relate to.”
In the newsroom, she was given the chance to experiment. “I got to be creative and develop not just straight on interviews, but longform radio documentary, half-hour pieces, and that was very fulfilling,” she said.
She did live field coverage of the 2000 election and also lent local perspectives to news coverage of stories with national and international interest, with a focus on social justice, for Florida Public Radio, Pacifica and BBC. During her time with WMNF, she also collaborated with Mitch Perry and Abram as a founding co-anchor on the WMNF Evening News. In 2001, Zimmerman was honored by the station for her work with the award for “Exceptional News and Public Affairs Programming.”
Outside WMNF, she also worked as the first headlines editor for Free Speech Radio News, an international syndicated news program.
While working in journalism, educating others was also remained important to her. She recruited and trained younger community members to produce news and public affairs for WMNF. She also developed a course, Practicum in Broadcast Management, for the University of Tampa.
She also worked as a substitute teacher in Hillsborough County before landing a position as a science teacher at Brandon High School.
By 2005, she was ready for a change, though. When her spouse was accepted into an MFA program at Pratt Institute in New York City, Zimmerman got a New York City Teaching Fellowship. She taught for the New York Department of Education while earning a master’s degree in middle childhood education with a focus on science from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.
In the classroom, she was known for leaning on her creative and communications background to engage students, such as having them perform plays about rocks and minerals. She also coached young science teachers in Title I schools, helping them understand how to interact and communicate with a diverse student body.
She went on to work as an education researcher with Rutgers Graduate School of Education in 2013.
Zimmerman returned to Florida in 2018. The reasons for making her way back to Florida are simple, she said – “snow and taxes.” She also knew it would be an easy transition, as her family “already had a community here,” between her spouse’s relatives and her WMNF friends and colleagues.
Eventually, she reached out to the station about volunteering. She didn’t want to go back on air but knew she could use her skills and experience to improve training documents and policies for reporters.
Weeks later, Rick Fernandes, then the general manager, quit. Zimmerman was slated to be part of the hiring committee tasked with finding his replacement. “I printed out the job description…and I’m reading through the papers and I’m like, I can do all of this,” she said. “I asked my friends what they thought about me applying for the job and they said, ‘We think you’d be perfect.’ So, I (applied) and I got it.”
One of her biggest focuses since taking on the position at the end of February has been “bringing community back into community radio.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many volunteers weren’t allowed into the station. “To keep everybody safe…(we) had to not let a lot of people in,” she said. “Unlike other not-for-profits, this isn’t just stuffing envelopes. It’s not a typical volunteer job. We’re called community radio for a reason, right? People lost their community and it hurt their feelings and it’s been very hard for some of those folks to come back. So, we have to make extra efforts to make people comfortable about coming back to the station. COVID is still going on.”
The station has also focused on doing more outreach events and connecting with the community in person. (And yes, “Heatwave is coming back,” she said.)
Additionally, there are specific audiences the station has never been able to reach. “There are a lot of communities that never felt very connected to WMNF, so I’m working very hard to reach those people as well,” Zimmerman said.
At the top of her list are St. Pete residents. The station has been hosting more events at the Palladium and other venues in St. Petersburg to connect with those living there.
The station is also now working closely with nonprofit groups to offer them free podcasts and teaching them how to produce these shows. WMNF is also reconnecting with the Pacifica network to offer some of its local program to them. “Florida is one of the hotbeds of the country,” she said. “People are very interested in what we would think of as local politics, but people are trying to figure out what makes us tick. So, we have this opportunity to really expand our national audience with the good stuff that is happening here. We have top-notch journalists doing incredibly good shows.”

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