Radio Active: What has Patty Wente done to create such a meltdown at KWMU?

May 7, 2008 at 4:00 am

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.

"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.

As a way to entice those listeners to call in to the station, KWMU often uses "challenge grants" in which underwriters match listener donations with additional gifts. A typical challenge grant, for example, might have a business pledge up to $5,000 in matching funds during a one- or two-hour slot during the pledge drive.

But many of the challenge grants from underwriters simply did not exist, says Swartz. Instead, KWMU presented money that the underwriters already paid for advertising as new gifts made specifically for the challenge grant.

"It was like finding out that Santa Claus didn't exist," posits the 34-year-old Swartz. "We'd have grandmas calling into the station to ask if the challenge grant was still on the table. Meanwhile, it was all bogus. There was no challenge grant. The money was already spent for underwriting."

Swartz says many underwriters unwittingly went along with the ruse, but others openly questioned the practice. "They'd ask, 'Wait a second, does this mean I owe the station another $5,000?'" recalls Swartz. "We were supposed to tell them not to worry. We were simply 'leveraging' their underwriting."

By October 2005 Swartz had grown so frustrated with the deceptive challenge grants that she scheduled a meeting with UMSL's Bob Samples. It was then that she discovered that other station employees had also complained to university officials about the challenge grants, only to have their concerns ignored.

Hillary Wicai Viers, a former KWMU reporter who left the station in 2003 for a job with American Public Media's Marketplace, confirms that prior to her departure she met with Chancellor George to discuss the challenge grants and Wente's use of the station's staff for personal projects. The challenge grants were also mentioned in the 2004 anonymous letter to the chancellor. Finally, the topic also surfaced in a letter Kathleen Unwin — KWMU's former corporate accounts manager — sent to the university upon her resignation in 2003.

Unwin, who now works as a public broadcasting consultant, says the challenge grants were a major factor in her decision to leave KWMU. "Raising funds in this manner is absolutely not the norm in public broadcasting, and it was no secret that getting the practice changed was my number-one concern and priority," says Unwin.

"In September 2003 I wrote a detailed exit strategy to Ms. Wente to get it in writing and on the table. When I kept raising the flag, the relationship became more and more tense. Ultimately, I decided the stress of the situation was not worth it any longer."

In her meeting with Samples, Swartz says the UMSL spokesman nonchalantly mentioned that the university had "heard rumblings" in the past about the challenge grants. "When I asked him how it wasn't fraudulent, he bristled," remembers Swartz. "He referred to the challenge grants as being perhaps 'misleading,' but not fraudulent."

Swartz later recruited her husband, St. Louis attorney Matt Ghio, to look into the challenge grants. He, too, questioned their legality and soon enough produced Missouri Revised Statute 407.020, which expressly prohibits "deception and false pretense" in the solicitation of funds for charitable purposes such as KWMU.

Swartz says that it was only when she mailed Samples a copy of the law that the university finally took action.

Today, Samples downplays the debate surrounding the challenge grants and stops short of calling them bogus or even misleading. "The listener may have believed that if they gave $40, someone else, such as business or private donor, was also going to pull $40 out of their pocket, whereas that money was already committed to the station," says Samples. "I discussed it with a few people and the general feeling was that it gave the wrong impression. So we talked to Patty and had it changed."

The Bad Apple
Patty Wente's exploits extend far beyond St. Louis.

"Speaking for myself, I've observed her to seem inebriated or under the influence when she's addressed the NPR board," notes Mark Vogelzang, president of Vermont Public Radio and member of the NPR board of directors. "What's most dismaying is that her behavior is such a glaring contradiction to what we expect in public radio."

Vogelzang says he's heard directly from former KWMU staffers about her screaming and belittling the staff but says it's not NPR's job to get involved with station management. "We're not the licensee," says Vogelzang. "Direct control of the station lies with the university, and viewing it from afar, it seems they've been remiss in not addressing the personnel problems at KWMU."

In recent years, incidents within Wente's personal life have also caused alarm. In November 2005 a stalking petition for order of protection was filed against her in St. Charles County following the drowning of her former boyfriend, Alan Ritter. Wente had helped Ritter get a job at UMSL as a construction manager in 2003.

The pair dated off and on until 2004, when Ritter married another woman. According to court documents, though, it was Wente who played the part of the bereaved widow — calling Ritter's family and friends and demanding to have a private viewing of the body. By late November, Wente's hysterics were enough for Ritter's actual widow, Ann Ritter, to file an order of protection. The case was dismissed prior to a scheduled hearing in January 2006.

"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.

Unlike other stations in the University of Missouri system, KWMU also benefits from the support of a separate fundraising arm, Friends of KWMU. Last year the nonprofit Friends Board provided the station with more than $1.6 million in funds collected during on-air pledge drives.

Attorney and microbrew owner Tom Schlafly, a board member and major underwriter of the station, describes Friends of KWMU as akin to a booster club that lacks any oversight over the station. "I've been on other boards like KETC (Channel 9) and KDHX (88.1 FM) that are governing boards," says Schlafly. "Friends of KWMU is not that way."

Nonetheless, Schlafly remains a champion of the station and says he knows nothing of staff complaints about Wente. "I don't know about her behavior," says Schlafly. "I like the product and support the station, but it doesn't surprise me that there are politics involved behind the scenes."

Ditto the response from attorney Ken Suelthaus, who served as president of the Friends Board from 2003 to 2004. "I think there are going to be malcontents in any organization," says Suelthaus. "Patty has been there quite a while, and it takes a big effort to keep a station like that going."

Besides serving as ambassadors to the station, the Friends Board also furnishes Wente with a credit card with a $15,000 per month spending limit. Billing records obtained though a Sunshine Law request reveal that the KWMU manager spares few expenses when it comes to wining and dining on behalf of the station.

In recent years Wente has picked up $700 tabs at Busch's Grove, $400 bills at Cardwell's at the Plaza and dozens of $100-plus receipts at some other fine St. Louis-area restaurants. When she travels on station business, Wente uses the Friends Board credit card to stay in boutique hotels such as the W in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.'s L'Enfant Plaza.

Charges to clothing stores and nail salons have also found their way onto Wente's Friends of KWMU credit card. In March 2007 Wente went so far as to use the credit card to finance a trip to Southern California in which she rang up $10,000 in bills at the luxurious Beverly Wilshire Hotel and The Spa Resort in Palm Springs. University records show Wente repaid the Friends Board a few months later in June 2007.

Liz Green, president of Friends of KWMU, says she and fellow directors have never so much as raised an eyebrow at the way Wente uses the card. She maintains that Wente always repays the board for personal expenses and says the four-star hotels and fancy meals are just a cost of doing business.

"When you travel to someplace like Washington, D.C., it's sometimes very difficult to find a hotel that most people would consider reasonable," comments Green. "And when someone like Diane Rehm comes to St. Louis, where are you going to have her stay and eat?" Besides, she adds, all of KWMU's audits have been "sound, good and perfect."

Apparently, Green never received the letter that KWMU's most recent auditor sent the University of Missouri's Board of Curators. The five-page document dated January 9, 2008, spells out a number of internal control deficiencies with the station's accounting practices, including the failure of KWMU management to provide receipts that prove the credit card was used for legitimate station business.

"The expense documentation that we examined for the Friends of KWMU company credit card was lacking approval and support of business purpose," noted the auditors. "At a minimum, documentation should include the date and time of expense, expense amount, and business purpose for the expense."

The auditors were so alarmed by the use of the credit card for personal expenses that they suggested all future station expenses be made through the university's voucher system and not the Friends of KWMU credit card.

Left unanswered in the letter was a question on the minds of many KWMU staffers.

"Why does a woman who earns $118,000 need to place personal items on the station credit card?" asks a station employee. "The answer, of course, is because she can get away with it. She's accountable to no one."

Uncertain Future
Since it first hit the airwaves in 1972, KWMU has operated out of the same bunker-like building on the UMSL campus that it shares with the university's criminology department and sundry professors' offices. These days, the accommodations are so tight that KWMU was forced to attach a mobile home next to its office to house its ever-growing staff.

If it becomes a reality, Patty Wente's legacy at KWMU will be the station's $12 million new headquarters. Featuring a swooping steel-and-glass exterior, the station will include state-of-the-art studios and an on-site theater for hosting live shows.

And while few KWMU employees deny that the station is in desperate need of new office space, many have begun to question Wente's track record in raising funds for the building. After five years of quietly soliciting money for the project, KWMU has raised $7 million in pledges but needs another $5 million to bring the building to fruition.

Meanwhile, KWMU employees worry that the station is spending money on the campaign almost as quickly as it is collects funds. From 2003 to 2006, KWMU paid two separate consultants more than $100,000 to assist with the fundraising for the project.

In July 2006 the station put the consulting contract out for bid for a third time and awarded the work to Florida-based consultant Michael Ostroff, who charges the station a monthly fee of $19,500 — not including expenses. Billing records show that in the months and weeks prior to Ostroff winning the bid, Wente approved at least three separate contracts, paying his firm $22,500 to review the capital campaign.

Reached by phone, Ostroff describes his workings with KWMU as a "typical consulting relationship" and maintains that the capital campaign is going well. "I can tell you that we are extremely pleased with the community's response in supporting KWMU and the kind of programming it offers," says Ostroff. "We couldn't be happier with the kind of results that the campaign has delivered since we've been involved."

The consultant says there's no deadline for the fundraising to end, and KWMU's most recent projections don't have the building slated for completion until sometime in 2010. In light of the university's review of the station, some KWMU staffers now wonder if Wente will be around for the ribbon-cutting.

UMSL's Samples, meanwhile, says it's premature to speculate on the outcome of the investigation. And if history is any precedent, it's a good bet Wente will remain at KWMU for a long time to come.

"You create and maintain a station for the listeners, not for the employees," he says. "And Patty has created a quality product. The university is proud of that."