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UMKC Budget Cuts Throw Future Of Radio Show 'New Letters On The Air' Into Question

Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3
The University House, on the UMKC campus, at the corner of 51st and Rockhill Road, houses BkMk Press, New Letters, and New Letters on the Air. It's where Dr. Clarence Decker, the early president and founder of the magazine, formerly The University Review, once lived.

The university, faced with financial challenges from the pandemic, cuts staffing for the radio show and publisher BkMk Press.

Budget cuts at the University of Missouri-Kansas City threaten three longstanding literary programs, including the radio show "New Letters on the Air."

"Our unique trio, of the magazine, press and radio show, has been ranked the number one literary operation by the Missouri Arts Council, but as we all know, 2020 is particularly challenging," said NLOTA host Angela Elam during the latest show. The half-hour literary program is produced at UMKC, distributed to stations across the country and airs Sundays at 6:30 a.m. on KCUR 89.3.

The show launched in 1977 as the radio companion to the literary magazine, New Letters. Both literary programs along with BkMk (Book Mark) Press, which was founded in 1971, are housed at the University House on the UMKC campus.

According to Elam, plans are starting to take shape to "dismantle" this literary trio.

UMKC College of Arts and Sciences interim dean John Herron called the two staffers at BkMk Press, managing editor Ben Furnish and an assistant editor, to give them their two-week notice.

As for the radio show, Elam, an assistant teaching professor in the Communication Studies program, received a copy of her 2020-2021 contract with increased teaching duties and no mention of her role with the radio program, which she's hosted since 1996. Assistant producer Jamie Walsh also received two-week notice.

In November 2019, Steve Paul wrote for KC Studio about a reprieve for New Letters, one of the oldest literary magazines in the United States. The magazine was founded in 1934 as University Review, and it's been published as New Letters since 1970.

The future of the radio program and the literary press was uncertain, but Herron told Paul last year that "Our goal is to keep New Letters around for as long as it has been around.”

In March, longtime editor Robert Stewart, who served as editor-in-chief with the magazine for 17 years, retired. Christie Hodgen, a tenured professor on UMKC’s creative writing faculty, took over Stewart's duties, as editor-in-chief of New Letters, BkMk Press and "New Letters on the Air."

"She's a brilliant writer, she's well-connected to the literary world," said Stewart. "I think she'll be fabulous."

In recent months, UMKC has experienced additional financial pressures during the coronavirus pandemic. According to an April 15 email sent to faculty and staff, UMKC Chancellor C. Mauli Agrawal said he expected a net revenue loss of $10 to $15 million for the rest of the fiscal year 2020, which ends on June 30.

KCUR reported in April that Agrawal said budget cuts could lead to layoffs, furloughs, and other staff reductions.

Hodgen wrote in an email to KCUR that she was not available for comment because the final details, particularly for BkMk Press, were still being decided. For now, Elam is asking listeners to send an email to telltheprovost@umkc.edu to share their support for the program. A fundraising campaign started in 2019 already provided a financial boost.

Herron and John Martellaro, UMKC's director of strategic communications, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Herron is scheduled to start as the new head of the Kansas City Public Library in early July.

KCUR is licensed to the University of Missouri Board of Curators and is an editorially independent community service of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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