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With The End Of New Letters On The Air, Kansas City Loses A Claim To Literary Fame

Jamie Walsh (L) has acted as New Letters on the Air's associate producer for a decade. Angela Elam has hosted since 1996.
Steve Kraske
KCUR 89.3
Jamie Walsh (L) has acted as New Letters on the Air's associate producer for a decade. Angela Elam has hosted since 1996.

The pandemic hasn’t only wrecked local industry, it’s arrested the beat of the city’s heart—the arts have taken a hit in the form of losing nearly every type of performance and exhibition.

And now the crowning constellation of the literary arts has darkened as well.

For decades, the University of Missouri-Kansas City has housed three literary arts organizations: New Letters Magazine, "New Letters on the Air," and BkMk Press.

Citing its budget crisis, UMKC has discontinued funding for "New Letters on the Air" and BkMk Press and rolled New Letters Magazine into the English department.

“To our knowledge, we are the only literary enterprise in the country to combine a magazine, radio program, and book press—a point of distinction and pride for our university and region,” says Christie Hodgen, UMKC professor of English and editor of New Letters.

BkMk Press was founded 50 years ago by late professor Dan Jaffe. It publishes about six books a year, including full-length collections of poetry, short fiction, and creative essays from regional and national writers.

At the end of June, with nine book contracts in the pipeline, the university gave BkMk’s small staff its two-week notice.

After KCUR’s reporting raised awareness of the impending closure of the press, many concerned Kansas Citians came forward with enough donations that the university will allow the press to stay open long enough to honor its contracts.

A written statement from College of Arts and Sciences interim dean Kati Toivanen notes: “This will also give us additional time to seek another home for the press or to identify a more self-sustaining funding structure. We welcome any support, ideas and partnerships that would allow the tradition of this distinguished press to continue.”

BkMk editor Ben Furnish says, “Sometimes people say that university publishing is a peripheral activity or a business sideline, but if you look at the mission statement for the University of Missouri, you have that it is committed to the preservation, dissemination, and creation of knowledge. And publishing is right at the heart of a university’s mission; it’s not in any way peripheral.”

Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3

"New Letters on the Air" has not been offered a stay. Angela Elam will host two final shows: Sunday, July 26, will feature “favorites” and a conversation with the show’s long-time associate producer Jamie Walsh, and Sunday, August 2, is a retrospective by Elam.

Then, for the first time since 1977, the show will be off the air.

Since at least the early 1990s, "New Letters on the Air" has been aired on 40 to 50 NPR and non-NPR stations a week across the country and locally on KCUR 89.3. The broadcasts are stored in the Public Radio Satellite Systems Content Depot.

“It was the seventh independent show that went up on the new NPR satellite," Elam says.

Ron Jones, director of programming and community engagement at KCUR, says the station is looking at potential solutions.

“It’s really sad to see 'New Letters on the Air' go away,” Jones says. “The show’s showcased some of the best writers of prose and other forms of literary work, including that of local writers.”

Furnish says that the three literary enterprises were founded at a time when Midwestern writers had a very hard time being noticed or taken seriously nationally—they are largely to thank for that no longer being the case.

“We make sure that literary publishing has a seat at the table for our region, even though we publish writers from all over the country and some from abroad,” Furnish says, “we’re still active in the publishing field and our work gives our regions some representation.”

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.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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