It's fund-drive week, and KWMU (90.7 FM) has 20 percent of its operating budget on the line. As the region's primary National Public Radio station, KWMU relies on the urban intelligentsia and news junkies who are its listeners to pony up donations to keep the station running. Most on-air announcers would have cited the news from Serbia, and KWMU's ability to deliver it in a timely and thoughtful manner, as the best reason to open up their wallets and checkbooks.
Instead, Bennett, KWMU's general manager, sings the theme from Rawhide. "Rolling, rolling, rolling" blasts out at 100,000 watts to 2 million potential listeners across St. Louis. In Bennett's hands, "We need your money, we need your money," becomes a circus barker's pitch for the world's largest prairie dog or a five-legged cow. She makes the fund drive funny, in the sense of both fun and weird, what with the contrast between Rawhide and the refugees in Albania.
Adding to the incongruity is her laugh. Vaulting and almost three-dimensional, Bennett's laugh seems to take on the properties of fiberglass insulation: airy and irritating. "You can hear that laugh of hers on the other side of a crowded room," says a fellow NPR station's general manager. "In fact, more than once I've found a hotel room in an obscure location where they were having a reception or something just by following Patty's laugh until I got there."
Bennett's laugh is just one manifestation of a personality that's cranked up a few notches higher than most. General managers of public-radio stations around the country call Bennett a "wild woman" and a "big personality big, loud, boisterous and interesting." An NPR employee calls her "a hoot." Bob Edwards, who with a dulcet voice and serious demeanor leads NPR's morning news magazine, Morning Edition, calls her "lively." Morning Edition newscaster Carl Kasell calls her "bubbly."
Some characterizations aren't so sunny. "Patty is a force of nature," says one former NPR board member. "She's got a real powerful personality, and I suspect that it would rub some people the wrong way.... And I certainly wouldn't want to be on her bad side, because I think it could be very unpleasant.... You would not want Patty gunning for you."
Controlling interestBennett keeps rescheduling our first meeting for three weeks. We finally meet at KWMU's office on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, whose curators hold the station's license. The office is like most except that KWMU pipes its broadcast into the foyer and hallways, even into the bathrooms, all day long.
Like the nonstop broadcast, Bennett's presence is impossible to ignore. A dervish of non sequiturs and fast, friendly talk, her speech bounces from subject to subject, with little connective tissue to hold it together: from her daughter to her lack of sleep, to how the station's youngest member is 11 years old, to how she and her husband want to run a bed-and-breakfast when they retire, to how her stepmother taught her to tell it like it is.
Bennett leads a quick tour of the facilities, chatting up a storm along the way, cheerfully joking with staff as she introduces them. She pauses at KWMU's conference room, where a gaggle of volunteers around the long table are answering the fund-drive phones. Out of the blue, Bennett busts a touchdown move, legs and arms akimbo, and crows, "Are you ready? Yeah!"
Some volunteers raise their heads and look puzzled. Others repeat Bennett's cheer, like fawning freshmen unsure what they're cheering for but sure that Bennett wants them to do it.
Control, of herself and others, seems to be a central issue for Bennett. Later, in her office, she's a good sport while a photographer shoots close-ups she jokingly calls for Oil of Olay and her pale skin is erupting into a patchwork of red blotches. She talks at length about her accomplishments and about the station's growing listeners and donors.
But we also have some questions about allegations by former employees that she screams and yells, that she makes inappropriate sexual comments, that she is hell to work for. When we begin to ask the first of the prickly questions, her demeanor does a 180. She bolts her tall body across the table, snatches the tape recorder, pushes at buttons to turn it off. Only then does she ask, "May I?"
The interview is over. So is her cheerfulness.
Two weeks later and a slew of voice-mails exchanged, Bennett agrees to meet again. We promise to bring neither tape recorder nor notepad. This will be an "off the record" lunch, an attempt to get to know her better and to explain the scope of the story we're interested in. This time, she doesn't reschedule.
She proposes the Bristol Bar & Grill, a popular spot for suits to see and be seen. At the appointed hour, she charges down the restaurant's crowded hallway, greets us with a big smile and busses each of us on the cheek, as if the tension of our last exchange has evaporated. She leads us into a private room, where, much to our surprise, Robert Peterson, program director; and Shelley Kerley, station manager and development director, are waiting.
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 Nation or 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.'"
Even so, Graham talked about the KWMU position with his boss, with whom he had an open relationship. "He just started laughing," Graham says. "He said, "Boy, you're asking for a load of trouble.' He said, "Look, I'm not going to get in your way if you want to go back home and get into a bigger market, but do yourself a favor and call some people who worked there before.'"
But Graham was too excited about the position to make any calls. He got the job, returned to St. Louis and started work at KWMU in 1994. Soon after, he ran into another former KWMU program director at an industry event. "What a bitter, bitter guy," Graham says. "He was telling me, "Look, it (KWMU) was awful, it was awful.' And I thought, well, I've worked for bad bosses before, and you just go in, you do your job, you deal with whatever crap is thrown at you, you act like a mature adult and you just get it done. And the benefits really seemed to outweigh any problems."
That balance soon shifted. "It was chaotic; it was screaming, yelling," Graham says of Bennett's day-to-day management. "You would be briefing her on something .... and she'd see demons in every corner. It was like you never knew what to expect from her every time you went into an office with her."
His tense relationship with Bennett began to affect the quality of his work, Graham says. "I was becoming a different person. Instead of having ideas and taking initiative, I was thinking, "Well, better not.' And that's not the way to be a good reporter."
Part of the appeal of the new job was being able to work again with Emmons, his former boss. But Emmons had started to look for another job in large part because of Bennett. "There was a lot of what I didn't necessarily consider then but looking back on it, would consider now verbal situations that were bordering on verbal abuse, very undiplomatic ways of handling conflict," Emmons says. "A lot of times, professional disagreement would be handled publicly in front of other staff, and that was something that, as both a subject of and witness to, I was not terribly comfortable with."
He sent out his first application for another job well within a year. He quit in June 1995 and took a position as general manager of Northern Public Radio's five Illinois stations.
A year later, in 1996, Matthew Algeo was in Ireland and freelancing for NPR. He was also on the dole (he has Irish citizenship) and running out of money. Ireland was a great experiment in his life, he says, but by all normal measures, it was a failure. "There I was, 30, alone, on welfare, in a foreign country," Algeo remembers. "At that time, KWMU seemed like a reasonable alternative."
He joined KWMU as a reporter in December 1996. The "reasonable alternative" soon didn't seem so reasonable. He found Bennett's behavior "irrational, threatening and often bizarre." As time went on, he began waking up with butterflies in his stomach and hating the drive to work each day. "She would scream," Algeo remembers. "She would get into arguments with people, and you could hear them screaming."
The atmosphere was exacerbated by Bennett's sexual banter, which former employees say was primarily aimed at men. Algeo kept a list of incidents in which he was the target. "I came back from a trip one weekend; she asked me if I had gotten laid," he says. "The next year I did a story on the cockfighting referendum, and henceforth I was the expert on cocks." And after he attended a press conference involving MasterCard, masturbation jokes flew.
Graham remembers similar incidents, including one in which he and Bennett were looking at photos of the news staff. "She said, "Lester, what's that stain on your crotch?' And I thought, "What? There's nothing in the photo,'" says Graham. "And she just thought it was fun-loving, but really, it was just really inappropriate sexual banter that nobody appreciated.... Staff-wide, in the whole place, Patty made it clear that none of that was going to happen except when she wanted to do it."
The jabs occasionally extended to women. A former KWMU sales executive, who declines to be named, says that Bennett started a rumor that she (the sales exec) wasn't wearing underwear. "She saw me in the hallway, talking.... and I didn't have any panty lines. So she went into Lester's office and went on about how I wasn't wearing any underwear, and how that was inappropriate, and what did Lester think of me."
Graham remembers the incident. "I said, "I didn't notice.' I did not want to get involved."
Bennett sent the sales executive home several times for wearing "unprofessional" dress. But the sales executive says she was sent home for other reasons. "She didn't like any women who were assertive. Attractive was even worse."
Moreover, the sales executive worried about Bennett offending clients. She remembers three times she had to save advertising accounts because Bennett had offended a client severely, she says. "She made a dumb-blonde-joke comment to a client it was something about her chest, about blond women, (how) the air that comes out of their heads goes into their chests. I mean, it was incredibly inappropriate. And (the client) almost pulled their entire account, and it was one of the largest that the station had at that time."
One of the main complaints that emerges is what employees term Bennett's "paranoia." "Any time two or more station employees are gathered at any place, she perceives that, if she's not there, as a threat," Algeo says. "She'll do what she can to stop it."
That's what Sue Lemai found out when she was hired at KWMU in January 1998 as executive assistant to Bennett, Kerley and business manager Sherry Hieken. During her first week, Lemai suggested getting together with her new co-workers for drinks after work, she says. "It was like, "Oh, no, we're not allowed to do that.' I was like, "Wait a minute, there's something wrong here.' You can't tell people what they can do after work," Lemai says. "I was told by other employees that people had been written up for it. It was very grade-school."
Although she wasn't excited about the administrative aspects of her new job, as a dedicated NPR listener Lemai was delighted to work for an NPR station. "Every time we move it's the first thing we do, find the NPR station. And I was also silly enough to think, "I'm working for three women. How cool is that they run the station.' I went to a women's college. I was thrilled."
Her enthusiasm eventually turned to dread. "I took the MetroLink to work every day, and we would get to the stop and I'd be like, "I don't even want to get off,' because ... you never knew what you were going to encounter.... If (Bennett) was in a good mood, you had a fairly decent day. And if, for whatever reason that you couldn't even trace, she was having a bad day, everybody was having a bad day. And so you would just sort of listen Is she laughing? Is she happy? and just try to lay low."
Four months later, saying, "Things aren't working out," Bennett fired her. That was fine with Lemai. "I felt like I had been given a "get out of jail free' card," says Lemai. "I wasn't going to quit myself, because I'm stubborn. I've had a bunch of jobs, and I've never not gotten along with anybody. So I kept thinking, "This can be done.'"
Unbeknownst to Lemai, her co-workers had been taking bets on when she would quit. When she was fired, they took her out to Blueberry Hill in the Delmar Loop to celebrate. "They were toasting me for getting fired," Lemai says. "What kind of twisted mentality is this when you get fired and your co-workers salute you?"
No recourseDespite these complaints, some employees, like Algeo, never confronted Bennett with their concerns. "Maybe in a weird parallel universe people can do that, but, no, I didn't," he says. "You look slightly uncomfortable and hope she gets the message."
What was holding him back? "Fear for my job," he says. "If I filed a grievance and won it, my working conditions there would be miserable, even more miserable than they were. And if I filed a grievance, no matter what happened, then you're the guy who filed the grievance."
Some employees say they tried to talk with Bennett about their concerns but were rebuffed. "She resented that I would approach her with problems I had with her management style," Graham said. "I would say, "Look I don't want to go to (reporter) Andrea (Murray) and tell her that her clothing is inappropriate, because I don't think her clothing is inappropriate. I don't want to tell people that listeners called in complaining that they stuttered.' And I would say, "What listeners?' And she would say, "You don't worry about that. You just tell her that listeners are calling in and complaining.' "
Graham says he complained to his supervisor, Robert Peterson, to no avail. "His stock answer was, "I know, Lester, I have to deal with her, too. But you know, Patty's Patty. That's the way she is,'" Graham recalls. "That's not what I was looking for."
The former employees say they felt that complaining to the university's human-resources department was not much of an option. They say that anytime they went to HR, for any reason, their confidentiality was broken and Bennett found out they had been there. "I remember a conversation," Emmons says, "and I can't remember who was involved, where Patty called me into her office and said, "Employee X, whoever it was, called over to human resources. Do you know why that is?' I pretty much assumed, because of that experience, that (talking to human resources) would not be something that would be productive for me."
In the end, the complaints were moot. Emmons quit in June 1995. Lemai was fired in March 1998. Graham was fired in June of that year, after which Algeo and reporter Andrea Murray quit in protest. The sales executive quit two months later.
The damage doneA handful of former KWMU employees still meet once a month or so for birthday parties, house parties, or to celebrate holidays. Regardless of the occasion, the subject of Patty Bennett invariably comes up. Although it's been a year or more since they were fired or quit, they speak about their time at KWMU, and working for Bennett, with an anger and frustration that go beyond standard-issue griping about a tough former boss.
But the real damage has been to the station's creativity and initiative, they say. "Now she's surrounding herself with people.... who are going to do exactly as Patty says," Graham says. "You've got a lot of people coming in, going through the motions, trying not to upset Patty, and hoping to get through the day without getting yelled at."
If negative publicity such as newspaper articles appear, employees are encouraged to write positive letters to the editor rejecting the articles' characterizations, Lemai says. "These are the same people who, when you're working with them, are whispering to you at the copier, "Oh my God, I can't stand this, she's a nut job,' and then once you get fired, it sort of reinforces that fear. They're like, "Oh my God, I could be next I better toe the line, because I have kids in the house and prep school to pay for and whatever, so I can't afford to be fired,' so they just go along and toe the line."
Bennett repliesAs mentioned earlier, the first time we attempted to bring up the allegations, Bennett ended the interview. Later, Bennett reacted to the allegations with a few tears. And a week after that with the comment, "Ultimately what is making us a success is that people want this type of programming; they like what they're hearing and they want more of it, and they're staying tuned to it now."
Later in that conversation, she denies the allegations. "I'm a happily married person, and I don't recall doing any of these things that are being brought up now, a year after, especially, an individual left," she says. "I do think that Lester Graham has made it very clear that he is angry and that he is going to rally support to try and do what he can to make sure that I am no longer the manager at KWMU."
Across the board, employees failed to alert her to their concerns, she says. "There are venues for employees to utilize to express concerns regarding misconduct, and if there were concerns, they should have been expressed the time the actions took place," she says. "And they were not."
And she never prohibited employees from going to lunch together or meeting after work, Bennett says. "Absolutely not, and I could care less who they go to lunch with."
Likewise, Peter Heithaus, director of human resources for the UM-St. Louis campus, says that no KWMU employee has complained to human resources since he took over in April 1998. Had an employee done so, he says, the office would have protected his or her confidentiality. Deborah Burris, currently manager of employee relations and employee development, acted as interim HR director for seven months before Heithaus's arrival. Only one KWMU employee complained to her during that time, she says. Moreover, Heithaus says, the rate of employee turnover at the station is normal and on a par with that for other university departments.
Will the real Patty Bennett
please stand up?
please stand up?Typical KWMU listeners live in places like Clayton and Creve Coeur, drive Saabs and Volvos, walk for exercise, and drink wine and microbrew beer, according to KWMU's market research. They are active foreign travelers and are twice as likely as all radio listeners to stay at bed-and-breakfasts. They read publications like U.S. News and World Report and Newsweek. One-third own stock options in a company they've worked for, and they are one-third more likely than all radio listeners to vote. They are three-and-a-half times more likely than all radio listeners to belong to an art or environmental organization.
In some ways, Patty Bennett fits right into her station's demographic. At 42, she's the same age as KWMU's largest group of listeners, who are 35-44 years old. Like 39 percent of KWMU listeners, she has a master's degree (in broadcast communications), and like two-thirds of listeners, she is married. She and her husband, Ray, spend the occasional weekend at a bed-and-breakfast, visit wineries and vacation annually in warm places like Cancun and Hawaii. She also took classical-piano lessons for 11 years.
But Bennett also reads Danielle Steel novels to escape the rigors of her work life, and she and Ray get to country-and-western dances when they can. Who'da thunk that a former Illinois 4-H'er would come to control the region's only radio station catering to the urban intelligentsia?
Bennett grew up in Champaign, Ill., where her father taught agronomy at the university there for 33 years. Growing up, she was a 4-H member for nine years. "This was your city 4-H your sewing, your cooking, your yeast breads," she says. Her mother was a 4-H leader who had previously taught home economics at the University of Wisconsin, where her parents first met.
Her mother is absent from a family portrait in Bennett's office, which shows Bennett, at about 20 years old, smiling and arm-in-arm with her three sisters and their father on a Florida beach. The subject of Bennett's mother is an emotional one; she died of cancer on Patty's 11th birthday. "I was never able to say goodbye to my mom," Bennett says. "And that really affected me for the last 32 years of my life, not having had the opportunity to say goodbye. Because she wanted it that way. The two younger girls, she didn't want them to know what was going on, because she didn't want them to be burdened with that. Now that I'm a mom, I think I understand it, but I didn't understand why she didn't say goodbye, and I couldn't say goodbye. In her own way, she probably did at her own time, but I didn't know it. So I'm very big on closure."
Her father raised Bennett and her three sisters and eventually remarried. Bennett associates him with phrases like "Put your best foot forward. Throw your shoulders back. Throw your head in the air. Be proud." Bennett describes him as "a World War II guy. He got a Purple Heart."
At 19, she entered the University of Illinois, then transferred to Sangamon State University now the University of Illinois-Springfield where she earned bachelor's and master's degrees. Her first job out of school was managing a low-watt station in Wichita, Kan., where she supervised the reading of literature for elderly people losing their vision.
Bennett then managed the University of Oklahoma's station in Norman for two years. That landed her a job with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) in Washington, D.C., in which she ensured that new radio stations met the requirements for federal funding.
After two years, she was ready to move on. "I made a limit for myself," Bennett says. "I didn't want to get Potomac fever." Besides, she had married, borne a child and divorced; then a single mother, Bennett found that the grind of cross-country travel with her 2-year old daughter, Jesse, often in tow, was taking its toll.
St. Louis offered the general-manager position at KWMU, and along with it a chance to return to her Midwestern roots. It would also offer Ray Bennett, whom she met in 1993 while country-and-western dancing and subsequently married.
Plugging into the NPR feedThere's no question that the KWMU Bennett came to in 1989 is dramatically different from the KWMU she continues to shape today. Under her 10-year tenure, the station has racked up whopping increases in both listeners and funds raised, public radio's primary indicators of success. The question is: How much of the credit for that success is due to Bennett, and how much is due to NPR?
In 1989, KWMU was an underperforming classical-music and news station with a deficit of more than $100,000. "There were four or six classrooms that they operated out of and a studio," Bennett remembers. "And it was smoke-filled, and it was ... I don't even know words to describe it," she says, trying to be diplomatic. "There was a lot of potential." The station's programming was eclectic, with national news, classical music, jazz and local shows like Baby Face Leroy's Blues Show.
At the time, public-radio stations, especially those in major markets like St. Louis, were finding that they had to specialize their programming in order to compete, says David Giovannoni of the radio research firm Audience Research Analysis. "On a very crowded AM/FM dial, you've got to focus on one thing and do it extremely well," Giovannoni says. "Otherwise you will never rise above the noise of the medium."
In 1996, NPR facilitated specialization toward news by selling a package of shows that enabled managers like Bennett to establish a consistent schedule of news/talk throughout the day.
Having traveled the country with CPB and served on the NPR board, Bennett was familiar with the trends toward news and specialization. More important, KWMU's research and focus groups showed that the St. Louis market was ripe for both. "KMOX was floundering," Bennett says. "I don't think that's the case right now.... The Post-Dispatch I think there was some uncertainty there and ... they're trying to rebuild something there. And so there is a real void in people's lives right now. People really want news; they want their fix. So the niche was there."
The real shakeup came with the threat of a federal funding cut, Bennett says. "(It) made us think, "Oh my God, we've got to position ourselves for a glide path to zero dependency.'"
And so in 1996, Bennett switched KWMU to an all-news format. Largely as a result, the station has increased both the number of listeners and the amount of funds raised. Since 1987, the number of people listening to KWMU during each 15 minutes of the day has almost tripled, to 8,600. KWMU's share of the St. Louis audience has increased to a high of 2.4 that is, 2.4 percent of the listening audience. Moreover, the number of people listening each week is also at a record high of 121,900, according to Arbitron's winter 1999 survey. Those listeners often become members, and as a result, KWMU's individual membership has grown by 150 percent, from 4,000 to more than 10,000. Similarly, corporate support has nearly tripled, from $127,660 to $375,000.
But how much of that success is thanks to NPR? During roughly the same 10-year period, NPR's audience overall has almost doubled. In 1990, NPR had 395 member stations, says NPR spokesman Michael Abrahms, whereas today it has 608.
And like Bennett, managers in other major markets such as Ann Arbor, Mich.; Charlotte, N.C.; Phoenix, Dallas and Seattle have seen similar increases in fundraising and listeners after switching to all-news or partial-news formats. KJZZ in Phoenix switched in August 1995 from contemporary jazz during the day to news, says general manager Carl Matthusen. "The last drive that we had the music block in there, we did $17,000 across the week in those six hours," he says. "A year after the change, we did $54,000."
So what else has KWMU done besides plug into the NPR feed and ride the wave? For one thing, Bennett has squeezed extra mileage out of NPR's popularity by instituting outreach events, such as live broadcasts of Science Friday, Whad'Ya Know and Talk of the Nation, that connect national shows to the St. Louis market, says Ray Suarez. "I mean, I wish there were 20 more stations like KWMU that saw that as part of the way that you cement the role of the program into the daily lineup."
Moreover, KWMU's news department alerts Suarez's show to local issues that may have national repercussions, such as the watershed, and corporate mergers and relocations. "They're very willing to find ways to put St. Louis in the national spotlight," Suarez says, "and I gotta tell you, I'm on 156 stations, and there aren't more than a dozen like KWMU when it comes to that kind of thing."
The station attempts to match NPR and Public Radio International's quality by producing 14 percent of its own programming, including news, weather, traffic reports and commentaries and three talk and music shows each week: Cityscape, an arts and culture program hosted by Joe Pollack; St. Louis on the Air, a local talk/call-in program hosted by Mark Manelli; and Jazz Unlimited, hosted by Dennis Owsley.
In the development department, Kerley has expanded the station's arsenal of fundraising tools beyond mugs and T-shirts to include telemarketing, buying and trading mailing lists of likely donors, cultivating a base of $1,000-plus donors and instituting online pledging. As a result, KWMU has been able to sustain increases in NPR fees, as well as UM-St. Louis' reduction of support from 50 percent of the station's budget in 1989 to 12 percent today.
This success has earned Bennett the respect of her colleagues. She's been elected by fellow general managers to two three-year terms on the prestigious 17-person NPR board, 1990-93 and 1995-97. "Some people say it's sort of a popularity contest," says Kim Hodgson, general manager of WAMU in Washington, D.C., and chair of the board during Bennett's tenure, "because the people who are best known and who have made the best impression in regional and national meetings are the people who tend to get elected.... But people always thought that Patty was a good listener when it came to station interests and concerns."
Bennett was also elected current secretary of Public Radio in Mid-America. In addition, the Public Broadcasting Management Association recently gave her its Award of Excellence for deflecting the Ku Klux Klan's attempts to underwrite programming at KWMU.
Bennett's local reputation among KWMU board members and volunteers is equally positive. Mary Phelan, who sat on the board for six years and was board president, has a great deal of respect for Bennett's leadership: "She is a strong personality, no question, but I think it takes that kind of strength, probably, to make the progress that has been made at that station. And I think it's important to realize that there are people there that have been with her for quite a long time and seem to be perfectly OK."
Current board president and four-year board member Stephen Glickman praises Bennett's ability to bolster the station's fiscal strength with creative fundraising events. "The numbers speak for themselves," Glickman says. "You can fundraise and people give money, but are you giving something back in return? And I think, from wine-tasting to exposing personalities from National Public Radio to record sales, there are a lot of things that speak well of diversity and touching everybody's needs rather than just saying, "OK, we're on the air and we want you to give money.'"
Current employees say they are content with KWMU's work environment, calling it "fast-paced," "busy" and "congenial." Kerley, the station manager and development director, says that the most difficult aspect of Bennett's management style is her fast pace. "Any place that has a strong leader, very energized, it's sometimes hard to just keep up," Kerley says.
Ken Davis, operations manager, assistant programming director and fundraising producer, says that Bennett plainly spells out his duties. "That's one of the things that I'm most happy about. I came from a place where they weren't. So, in general, it's pretty easy to know what it is you're supposed to be doing."
Bill Raack, news director, has no complaints, either. "I haven't had any run-ins with her, or any problems with her since I've been news director. So I've found her to be fine."
Five ways of looking at a managerAs far as the university is concerned, Bennett is doing a great job, says her supervisor, Donald Driemeier, who is deputy to the chancellor at UM-St. Louis: "There is an impact upon the image of all the things that are going on at the campus that is enhanced by the quality of the radio station....
"Everybody has a different management style, and my job is to say, "Is a person's style within the broad range of acceptable management?' And this doesn't mean that you would be the same manager that Patty is, or that I would be, but is her style within a broad range of acceptable management? And I think my answer has been yes."
Lester Graham has a different theory on Bennett's management style.
"Here's the pop-psychology explanation: I think she's a very insecure person, and she compensates for that by being very dictatorial," he says. "It seems to me she's borderline paranoid about being questioned or taking input from others, and she has an incredibly short attention span.... Everything has to be resolved very, very quickly for her. So she creates these crises, one right after another. Because she's in command, she's very tenacious and very strong, which in a manager is a good thing, but at the same time she's completely tactless and really quite ignorant about what's going on, because she doesn't ever quite take the time to understand an issue."
As one of Bennett's most senior and most long-term employees, Kerley says that she has adjusted to her boss's fast-paced management style. "The people (like Bennett) who have a strong vision and a strong outward personality, that's sometimes the challenge, and adapting," says Kerley. "In every workplace, you have to figure out how to adapt your style to fit the style of the people you work with, if you're going to be successful, anywhere."
But Torey Malatia, general manager of WBEZ in Chicago, says that in public radio, managers have to adapt to employees. Having worked in print media and commercial radio, Malatia says that public radio requires an inclusive and collegial approach in which decisions are mulled over as a group.
Why? "This isn't the lucrative job at the end of the rainbow for someone who's looking to really make a killing professionally," Malatia says. "For many broadcast professionals, public radio is still sort of like being marooned on a desert island. You don't really have a huge audience; you don't have a decent salary; you don't have great opportunities to advance in huge corporate structures, where you can jump from radio station to radio station making more and more money. What attracts you to public radio is ... very much more a personal passion.
"And secondly, as a result, public radio attracts people who are very smart, and very thoughtful, and really are very creative folks, and they really have a lot to offer. Not that commercial-radio people don't. But I think that public-radio folks are likely to think about the whole station and its service and what it's trying to do, rather than just the job that they were hired to do.... Those things mean that you're dealing with a more enfranchised kind of individual."
For her part, Bennett fancies herself a management expert. Among the few books on her office shelves are the Human Resources Policy Manual and Employee Problem Solver. She says she hopes to write her own book on how to deal with employees, and she's already got the title picked out: The Right to Manage. "If (managers) were hired to manage, they have the right to manage," she says. "When you're challenged, if you need to be tough, it's OK to be tough.... But I don't think you have to be hard, either. I think it just depends on the circumstance and the people involved. Some people like to bully managers, and I don't think it's a professional thing to do, to bully managers and get them to retreat. I don't think that's fair, either."
Tired from a week of early-morning fundraising, Bennett's guard is down. With each question, she becomes more at ease. Just for a moment, the spin doctor is out. So what kind of manager is she?
She leans back in her chair and squints her eyes, and just for a moment her voice drops with the weight of sincerity: "I'm a driver." BY SUSAN KELLEY Bennett on the job: "Some people like to bully managers, and I don't think it's a professional thing to do, to bully managers and get them to retreat. I don't think that's fair, either." Former KWMU news director Lester Graham: "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. This is not like that." "If managers were hired to manage, they have the right
to manage," Bennett says. "When you're challenged, if you
need to be tough, it's OK to be tough.... But I don't think
you have to be hard, either."AirForceShe's been called bubbly, boisterous and bizarre. How Patty Bennett helped turn KWMU into a public-radio powerhouse, and why former staffers think she's hell to work for.