Feature

Noisemaker in hand, headphones on, Patty Bennett lifts her face in supplication to KWMU's superabsorbent industrial mic. NATO is bombing Serbia, but Bennett has other things on her mind.

It's fund-drive week, and KWMU (90.7 FM) has 20 percent of its operating budget on the line. As the region's primary National Public Radio station, KWMU relies on the urban intelligentsia and news junkies who are its listeners to pony up donations to keep the station running. Most on-air announcers would have cited the news from Serbia, and KWMU's ability to deliver it in a timely and thoughtful manner, as the best reason to open up their wallets and checkbooks.

Instead, Bennett, KWMU's general manager, sings the theme from Rawhide."Rolling, rolling, rolling" blasts out at 100,000 watts to 2 million potential listeners across St. Louis. In Bennett's hands, "We need your money, we need your money," becomes a circus barker's pitch for the world's largest prairie dog or a five-legged cow. She makes the fund drive funny, in the sense of both fun and weird, what with the contrast between Rawhideand the refugees in Albania.

Adding to the incongruity is her laugh. Vaulting and almost three-dimensional, Bennett's laugh seems to take on the properties of fiberglass insulation: airy and irritating. "You can hear that laugh of hers on the other side of a crowded room," says a fellow NPR station's general manager. "In fact, more than once I've found a hotel room in an obscure location where they were having a reception or something just by following Patty's laugh until I got there."

Bennett's laugh is just one manifestation of a personality that's cranked up a few notches higher than most. General managers of public-radio stations around the country call Bennett a "wild woman" and a "big personality — big, loud, boisterous and interesting." An NPR employee calls her "a hoot." Bob Edwards, who with a dulcet voice and serious demeanor leads NPR's morning news magazine, Morning Edition, calls her "lively." Morning Edition newscaster Carl Kasell calls her "bubbly."

Some characterizations aren't so sunny. "Patty is a force of nature," says one former NPR board member. "She's got a real powerful personality, and I suspect that it would rub some people the wrong way.... And I certainly wouldn't want to be on her bad side, because I think it could be very unpleasant.... You would not want Patty gunning for you."

Controlling interestBennett keeps rescheduling our first meeting for three weeks. We finally meet at KWMU's office on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, whose curators hold the station's license. The office is like most — except that KWMU pipes its broadcast into the foyer and hallways, even into the bathrooms, all day long.

Like the nonstop broadcast, Bennett's presence is impossible to ignore. A dervish of non sequiturs and fast, friendly talk, her speech bounces from subject to subject, with little connective tissue to hold it together: from her daughter to her lack of sleep, to how the station's youngest member is 11 years old, to how she and her husband want to run a bed-and-breakfast when they retire, to how her stepmother taught her to tell it like it is.

Bennett leads a quick tour of the facilities, chatting up a storm along the way, cheerfully joking with staff as she introduces them. She pauses at KWMU's conference room, where a gaggle of volunteers around the long table are answering the fund-drive phones. Out of the blue, Bennett busts a touchdown move, legs and arms akimbo, and crows, "Are you ready? Yeah!"

Some volunteers raise their heads and look puzzled. Others repeat Bennett's cheer, like fawning freshmen unsure what they're cheering for but sure that Bennett wants them to do it.

Control, of herself and others, seems to be a central issue for Bennett. Later, in her office, she's a good sport while a photographer shoots close-ups — she jokingly calls for Oil of Olay — and her pale skin is erupting into a patchwork of red blotches. She talks at length about her accomplishments and about the station's growing listeners and donors.

But we also have some questions about allegations by former employees — that she screams and yells, that she makes inappropriate sexual comments, that she is hell to work for. When we begin to ask the first of the prickly questions, her demeanor does a 180. She bolts her tall body across the table, snatches the tape recorder, pushes at buttons to turn it off. Only then does she ask, "May I?"

The interview is over. So is her cheerfulness.

Two weeks later and a slew of voice-mails exchanged, Bennett agrees to meet again. We promise to bring neither tape recorder nor notepad. This will be an "off the record" lunch, an attempt to get to know her better and to explain the scope of the story we're interested in. This time, she doesn't reschedule.

She proposes the Bristol Bar & Grill, a popular spot for suits to see and be seen. At the appointed hour, she charges down the restaurant's crowded hallway, greets us with a big smile and busses each of us on the cheek, as if the tension of our last exchange has evaporated. She leads us into a private room, where, much to our surprise, Robert Peterson, program director; and Shelley Kerley, station manager and development director, are waiting.

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