By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Allison Babka
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"She has shown up at our home. The Lake St. Louis police know about her," Ann Ritter wrote in her pleadings to the court. "My husband used to work at UMSL and had to leave because she won't leave us alone. She has damaged his car in the past and called my home threatening and harassing me...[She] has continued to call my husband's cell phone."
In November 2007 Wente's name again showed up in court documents when a Florida trooper noticed her rented Saturn swerving down a Sarasota County road. A breathalyzer test registered Wente's blood-alcohol level at 0.106. Wente was arrested and spent the night in jail, according to the police report. She pleaded not guilty and the case is still pending.
A week after the arrest, an anonymous tipster e-mailed the incident report (complete with a mug shot of Wente) to UMSL administrators and the University of Missouri's Board of Curators, which holds KWMU's broadcast license.
UMSL's Samples confirms that he and other university officials were made aware of the stalking allegation and DUI arrest. "You're talking about the time she wanted to go to a funeral and was banned?" says Samples. "I just don't see how these things have anything to do with KWMU."
KWMU employees, meanwhile, believe Wente's actions embarrass the station and could scare off donors. "The university holds up KWMU as one of its crown jewels and one of the great things it provides the community," notes former KWMU reporter Tom Weber. "To that end, they don't want anything coming out that may tarnish that image."
"Everyone wants the bad apple ousted, but the fear is that funding will dry up," says another former staffer who worked at the station for several years in the early 2000s. "What should have happened is the university should have cleaned house a long time ago and been a better steward of this public resource. The alternative is you take it to the public and they get disgusted."
KWMU employees note that investigations at other public radio stations have led to regime changes. In 2005 the longtime general manager of Boston's WBUR (90.9 FM) — which produces NPR programming such as On Point and Here and Now — resigned following an anonymous letter to Boston University officials alleging nepotism and patronage hires.
In 2006 University of Michigan auditors discovered accounting irregularities at Michigan Public Radio that later led to two station managers ultimately pleading guilty to misdemeanor embezzlement, according to media reports.
Other than Don Driemeier's facile review of the station following the anonymous letter sent in 2004, it's unclear whether UMSL has ever investigated KWMU. The school considers employee grievances confidential and refused to confirm if any station employees had filed claims against Wente.
At a meeting at his campus office this past March, Samples preferred to highlight Wente's accomplishments over the past two decades. "In the end, she transformed what was a sleepy station staffed mostly with part-time hobbyists into a top-flight news and talk station staffed with full-time professionals," says Samples.
The spokesman also recalls that when Wente inherited the station in 1989, it was struggling for donations and was more than $300,000 in debt. Today the station's budget tops $4.5 million and employs 34 full-time employees and another 15 part-timers. Along the way, Wente has survived one battle after another.
Samples notes that Wente and the university were sued for racial discrimination following the 1990 firing of an African-American employee. Then, in the late 1990s, the Ku Klux Klan filed suit against the station when Wente refused to let the group underwrite programming on the station. Wente and the university won both lawsuits.
"Those kind of fights can take a personal toll on someone," says Samples, who still recalls the picketing and heated rhetoric that accompanied the suits. "You have to be a tough person to survive something like that. When people say they love the station, you've got to give Patty some of the credit. She is the architect."
Living It Up
As KWMU's income has grown, so too has the compensation UMSL pays Patty Wente. Last year the university extended the KWMU general manager a $12,000 bonus on top of her $106,000 salary — placing Wente's annual income above that of better-known state employees such as Secretary of State Robin Carnahan and Attorney General Jay Nixon.
Wente's station also enjoys far more university support than the other three public radio stations in the University of Missouri system. Last year UMSL provided KWMU with $1.1 million in funding and support equal to approximately 25 percent of the station's operating expenses. By comparison, KCUR (89.7 FM), Missouri's second-largest NPR station with just 15,000 fewer listeners than KWMU, received about half as much funding last year from its sponsor, the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
"That's probably the biggest difference in how we operate," says KCUR's development director Parker Van Hecke, whose station counted on UMKC to cover just 16 percent of its $3.5 million budget last year. "We get much less direct support from the university. But each station receives different amounts from the university. In St. Louis they just have a different relationship with the school."
In addition to its annual support to the station, UMSL has also provided KWMU with additional finances over the years, including a $281,000 loan in 2005 that's not scheduled for final repayment until 2010. The university anticipates providing KWMU with an additional loan this year as well.