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By Dennis Brown
"She told me, 'No other opinion matters except Patty Wente's,'" a longtime KWMU employee recounted to the Post-Dispatch in 1990. "She is the kind of person who speaks in third person about herself."
Wente once more garnered media attention in 1999 after she fired the station's news director, Lester Graham. Two other members of the newsroom later quit in solidarity, complaining that Wente (at the time married and using the last name Bennett) upbraided employees for the slightest offense and routinely made improper sexual comments to staffers.
"I came back from a trip one weekend; she asked me if I had gotten laid," former reporter Matthew Algeo told the RFT in "Air Force," a June 23, 1999, cover story. "The next year I did a story on the cockfighting referendum and henceforth I was the expert on cocks."
"It was chaotic; it was screaming, yelling," said Graham. "It was like you never knew what to expect from her every time you went into an office with her."
Then, as is the case now, university officials have been quick to defend Wente and focus instead on the station's growing market share and ever-increasing budget.
"Is Patty universally loved?" asks Driemeier. "The answer is no. But then, each of us has our own management style."
Since at least 2004, however, the university has known about complaints that go beyond Wente's leadership quirks. In January 2004, Chancellor George received a sixteen-page letter from anonymous KWMU employees outlining a laundry list of accusations against Wente.
"The internal environment at the radio station, under the control of general manager Patty Wente is one of crisis, and the external image that is portrayed by her leadership is unsettling," stated the letter. "Ms. Wente presides over a 'reign of terror,' in which she instills intense fear in her staff members and creates an environment that is stifling, negative, highly unprofessional and at the very least, exhausting."
According to unconfirmed allegations spelled out in the letter, Wente:
• Frequently appeared intoxicated at KWMU events and reportedly embarrassed a number of employees and station donors during a 2002 fundraiser when she leaned over and asked guest Diane Rehm (host of the nationally broadcast The Diane Rehm Show), "So Diane, how's your sex life?"
• Engaged in nepotism hires of her ex-boyfriend's daughters, Kristin and Nicole Ritter, who allegedly spent workdays shopping, dining and drinking with Wente.
• Assigned staff to work that had nothing to do with KWMU, such as planning a mission trip for Wente's church that occupied several top station employees for days and cost the station an estimated $2,000 in lost work time.
The lengthy missive ended with a request that Chancellor George launch an investigation that excluded Don Driemeier's involvement. "[We] have serious concerns about breaches of confidentiality by deputy chancellor Driemeier when he has received information regarding the behavior and operation methods employed by Ms. Wente," wrote the authors.
"There is an intense fear of reprisal at the station and a history of broken trust. We believe our concerns must be examined by leaders who are trustworthy and willing to look, listen and take action."
So what did Chancellor George do with the letter? He passed it along to the very person the authors wanted to circumvent: Don Driemeier.
To this day, Driemeier says he cannot comprehend why the writers of the damning letter thought he was untrustworthy. He maintains that he looked into some concerns raised, such as Wente assigning staff members to help with her personal projects.
"Patty is a person who views that station as family," says Driemeier. "So, did she perhaps ask some people to help her get ready for a trip? Maybe. But Patty is the kind of person who would roll over to do anything for the people who work for her if they needed help. That is just the way families behave."
Other charges outlined in the letter went unquestioned. "Did I tell Patty about the letter? No, I didn't," says Driemeier. Many of the allegations were personnel issues and the authors stated in the letter, 'Now don't go directly to Patty with these things because she'll get tough with us.' It was a very difficult issue to get through, frankly."
Had the authors filed a formal grievance, Driemeier says, the university would have been compelled to further investigate. "We've had the grievance procedure in place for years and it protects employees from retribution," he adds. "But with this letter there was no one to follow up with. If you want people to delve into an issue, you've got to tell them who you are."
Grandmas and Pledge Drives
Laurie Swartz describes herself as a "die-hard fan" of public radio, especially the erudite discussions on programs such as NPR's Fresh Air and Morning Edition. So in 2004 Swartz thought she landed her "dream job" when she took a position in KWMU's sales department.
It would take less than a month before she began to reconsider her decision. Hired in March, Swartz says she was shocked to discover the way the station solicited funds during its annual spring pledge drive. Part of Swartz's job required that she invite underwriters to help solicit donations from listeners during the on-air pledge drive.
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