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The University of Missouri-St. Louis is looking into questions surrounding the management and accounting practices at its radio station KWMU (90.7 FM). News of the university investigation reached employees of the National Public Radio broadcaster on April 14 in an e-mail from UMSL Chancellor Thomas George.
"Recently, some issues have been raised concerning KWMU that need to be explored, and I have taken steps to initiate a review of those issues," George wrote in a succinct, two-paragraph note.
The chancellor gave no timeline for the review and asked only that station staff cooperate with investigators. Last week, station employees began meeting with auditors from the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers as well as attorneys with the University of Missouri's Office of General Counsel.
UMSL spokesman Bob Samples declined to make George available for this story, but it is believed that part of the university probe will address "deficiencies" uncovered during a recent audit of the station. The findings in the audit include allegations that management used KWMU credit cards to pay for personal expenses and failed to provide documentation justifying other expenditures at the station.
"Management may also have the ability to approve transactions that are self-serving and conceal the nature of those transactions," warned auditors in a January 9, 2008, letter to the University of Missouri's Board of Curators.
Sources inside KWMU contend that an investigation into the station and its general manager, Patty Wente, is long overdue. During her nineteen-year tenure, employees claim the 51-year-old Wente has orchestrated misleading fundraising drives, assigned staff to personal work, and ruled with a "reign of terror" in which employees felt threatened to bring concerns to the university.
"The first time you meet Patty, you think to yourself, 'Wow, this woman is full of piss and vinegar.' She can be incredibly charismatic," says former reporter Tom Weber, who left KWMU in December for another job. "After a while, though, her behavior gives you pause. You come to realize that much of her energy lacks focus. Then when you see how it affects coworkers, you really begin to wonder about her."
Station employees say Wente's behavior outside the station — including a stalking allegation and a recent DUI arrest in Florida — serve to undermine KWMU's credibility as a public and tax-supported broadcaster. Worse still, they maintain, is that the university has known for years about staff concerns regarding Wente, but refused to look into station affairs until now.
"How the hell does this woman still have a job?" asks a KWMU employee, who — like many current staffers — feared for his job if he spoke on record. "That's something everyone would like to know."
The KWMU boss and well-paid state employee did not respond to repeated interview requests for this story. In fact, when a reporter showed up unannounced at the station last month to ask questions, Wente had her staff members serve as decoys as she snuck out the back door.
"No one is denying that Patty is a tough boss and colorful individual," comments UMSL spokesman Bob Samples. "But the question is: Has she violated university policy or laws in her capacity as general manager of the radio station? Right now, no one from the chancellor to the vice chancellor to the human resource department has any indication that she has."
Fear of Reprisal
Remember the classic 1998 Saturday Night Live sketch featuring the matronly NPR hosts and Alec Baldwin's "Schweddy Balls"? KWMU staffers say the same skit would never have worked if more people associated public radio with Patty Wente.
With her booming voice, high-pitched cackle and abrasive demeanor, Wente, say colleagues, is more Howard Stern than Edward R. Murrow. She is known to strut about the KWMU office in miniskirts, halter tops and what one staffer describes as a leather dominatrix outfit. Wente frequents tanning salons, drives a Chrysler Sebring convertible and loves a glass — or two — of red wine at her favorite off-campus retreat, Breakaway Café.
"I think the majority of St. Louisans who know Patty would say that she is a character," comments Don Driemeier, dean emeritus of UMSL's College of Business Administration and Wente's immediate boss from 1994 to 2004. "By that, I mean she is a unique personality. She knows people. They know her. She enjoys working a room."
Arriving at KWMU in 1989, Wente brought with her an impressive résumé. She'd recently spent years working in Washington, D.C., for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Before that, Wente served as general manager for radio stations in Oklahoma and Kansas. More recently, she held posts on the NPR executive board and currently serves as president of the industry group Public Radio in Mid America.
At UMSL, Wente wasted little time transforming a tiny classical-music station into a veritable FM powerhouse, with some 190,000 listeners now tuning in each week for KWMU's signature brand of "in-depth news and intelligent talk." "She's built a tremendous radio station," notes Driemeier. "In that sense, I'd say she's been very successful."
Yet Wente's history at UMSL has also been marked by controversy. Within the first eighteen months on the job, Wente fired or accepted the resignation of two dozen full- and part-time staffers. By September 1990 an apparent mutiny at the station prompted coverage in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, with KWMU staffers comparing their new boss to the U.S.S. Caine's Captain Queeg.