West Virginia Public Broadcasting chief steps down in latest shakeup at news outlet

Aug 15, 2023, 2:25 PM

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The executive director of West Virginia Public Broadcasting has stepped down after one year on the job, the latest sign of upheaval at a news outlet recently shaken by a reporter’s allegation that she was fired for writing an unfavorable story about a division of the state health department.

Butch Antolini, former communications director for Gov. Jim Justice and the state Department of Agriculture, didn’t give a reason for his resignation in a brief letter submitted to the board chairman of the West Virginia Educational Broadcasting Authority on Friday. The EBA, which comprises 11 voting members, including Justice and seven Justice appointees, accepted the resignation at a meeting Monday.

The board then appointed Eddie Isom, Public Broadcasting’s chief operating officer and director of programming, as interim director, according to a recording of the meeting aired on YouTube.

Antolini joined Public Broadcasting in October 2021 as the interim chief. He was appointed to the job permanently in May 2022, at a time when Justice was critical of the way all news media covered his failed attempt a year earlier to lower income taxes and increase sales taxes. Justice led a shake-up of the department, replacing five of the EBA’s eight appointed positions. The authority fired then-Executive Director Chuck Roberts and appointed Antolini to replace him.

In December 2022, part-time reporter Amelia Ferrell Knisely lost her job after she wrote detailed stories about the alleged abuse of people with disabilities within the state agency that runs West Virginia’s foster care and psychiatric facilities. The department cares for some of the most vulnerable residents in one of the poorest U.S. states. Legislative leaders described Knisely’s departure as “disturbing.”

Knisely said she was told to stop reporting on the Department of Health and Human Resources after leaders of the embattled agency “threatened to discredit” the publicly funded television and radio network. She later learned her position was being eliminated.

Knisely said her news director told her the order came from Antolini, who declined to comment at the time. Other officials denied any effort to influence coverage. West Virginia Educational Broadcasting Authority chairman William H. File III said Antolini told the board “he was not coerced or pressured by anyone.”

Knisely’s departure came during a tumultuous time for West Virginia news media. Days before she left WVPB, three reporters for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Charleston Gazette-Mail said they were fired after publicly criticizing an editorial decision by their company president, Doug Skaff, a Democrat in the state House of Delegates. Skaff approved and led a favorable video interview with Don Blankenship, a coal company executive convicted of safety violations connected to one of the worst coal mining disasters in recent U.S. history.

The departures left a diminished Capitol press corps to cover the three-month legislative session that started in January. Two other Public Broadcasting journalists have since left.

Antolini’s job prior to his appointment as executive director of the public broadcasting authority was as Justice’s communications director, and before that, communications chief for the state Department of Agriculture. Before that, he was general manager and executive editor of the Beckley Register-Herald.

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West Virginia Public Broadcasting chief steps down in latest shakeup at news outlet