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The dog-and-pony show begins. Bennett ceremoniously stands, dons oven mitts and pulls out a plaque commemorating her latest accolade, the Public Radio Regional Organization's "Potholder Award," given for her handling of the Ku Klux Klan's suit to underwrite programming at KWMU. (The suit was ruled in the station's favor and is now under appeal in the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals.) Peterson is next, handing out colored charts that show increases in the station's listeners. Kerley follows with statistics charting the station's growth in fundraising.
Lunch over, Bennett agrees to meet again and to let us tag along as she goes about her official duties. During the next few weeks, she is by turns gracious and defensive, and also always in control and at the center of attention, or at least trying to be, whether she's shooing stragglers into KWMU's live broadcast of the NPR show Talk of the Nationor hosting a dinner at the upscale St. Louis Steakhouse.
About 20 underwriters and major donors are at the dinner to meet and greet Ray Suarez, host of Talk of the Nation.Though not a household name, Suarez is heard on 156 of NPR's 608 member stations. To news junkies, he's the radio equivalent of royalty. Suarez is "trotted out" on these occasions, as he says, "to be famous," and he's doing an admirable job of it. If he's compelling on the air, he's even more so in person.
But it's Bennett who is working the room. A server passes by with a plate of steak knives, and Bennett instantaneously morphs her face into mock horror-film shock. Wineglass in hand and sporting a fresh haircut, with a Barbara Bush outfit draping her large frame, Bennett distributes copies of Suarez's new book. She urges each guest to sit next to Suarez to have his or her copy signed. As waitstaff heft platters of steak and scampi, she begins a roomwide discussion with Suarez. "What's your next book about?" she asks. "What was your favorite show?" She opens the floor for questions.
Attendees such as Fred Hammer, a faithful station supporter, and long-time underwriter Mark Waldman, president of Laurie's Shoes put on intellectual game faces. They ask Suarez for his thoughts on suburban sprawl and racism as if, together, they and Suarez could chip away at the nation's problems, one clink of silverware at a time. Somewhere in the dialogue, Suarez mentions that he'll soon turn 40.
At this, Bennett emits a snort, loud and sarcastic, then doubles over with laughter.
The conversation screeches to a halt. The bewildered diners are unsure how to take Bennett's jab, because Suarez does look about 40. But as host of a live talk show, Suarez is used to finessing the unexpected, even if it's at his own expense. "Excuse me!" he says brightly. Balance is restored. The diners turn back to The Word According to Ray. Bennett, for a rare moment, is upstaged.
"You don't want to work there"If Bennett is a scream in public, loud and funny, sometimes awkward and embarrassing, it's a different story if you work for her day-to-day, say former KWMU employees. Bennett's strong personality creates a toxic workplace that oozes with paranoia and sexual innuendo, they say, and although her behavior is not so egregious as to incite legal action, it makes working for her a challenge.
"I have a great job, a great husband, a great dog, and I love my life," a former KWMU employee now says, a year after quitting her job. "But it brings me to tears when I stop and think about what I went through there."
"Nobody can really understand just how weird it is around there unless you actually work for her," says Lester Graham, who was KWMU's news director until last June, when he was fired for insubordination, stemming from a disagreement with Bennett over mileage expenses. Graham had worked for KWMU for more than four years. "When you explain it, you think, "Well, yeah, so, there are bad bosses,' but it's deeper than that. I've had bad bosses before, but they've all had a certain degree of reason and logic about them, and you may disagree with the decisions they made, but you understand why they made them and you go on," says Graham, who is now producer at the Great Lakes Radio Consortium. "This is not like that."
Graham was news director of WNIU/ WNIJ in Rockford-DeKalb, Ill., in 1994 when he heard that a news-director position was opening up at KWMU. It sounded like a great job, and the location was right. Graham was eager to return to St. Louis because both he and his wife have family on the Illinois side of the Mississippi, and he had grown up listening to St. Louis radio and watching St. Louis TV.
With a job like that up for grabs, he was hurt that Tim Emmons, then program director at KWMU and his former boss at WNIU/WNIJ, hadn't tipped him off about the position. So, Graham says, he called Emmons on it: "He turned to me and he said, "Lester, you don't want to work there.'"
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