KCUR is mourning the loss of Jen Chen, who worked as a producer on Central Standard until her cancer diagnosis last year. Jen died on March 6 at the age of 46.
After joining KCUR in 2015, Jen produced more than 200 shows for Central Standard. She worked mainly on our Friday arts and food programs, excelling at a job that requires constant vigilance and insight into what people in Kansas City are thinking about, talking about, creating and eating – literally how a city nourishes itself.
Lest anyone thinks this might be easy, Jen did the background research, secured the most erudite and entertaining guests and framed discussions on a dizzying array of food-related topics. They included breakfasts and happy hours; coffee drinks and cocktails; healthy vegetarian food and decidedly less healthy bar food. Through her curation, conversations about Chinese food, Latin American food, French food, Italian food, Middle Eastern food and South American food were as quintessentially Kansas City as conversations about grilled meats, fried chicken and one August show about dishes made from ripe summer corn.
But Jen didn’t just understand that the way to Kansas City’s heart was through its stomach. Having grown up in south Kansas City and graduated from Pembroke Hill, Jen grasped the quiet complexities of this place. A serious violinist growing up, she played in the Kansas City Youth Symphony Orchestra. She also had a special love for the heartachy country music of Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys, and for the ribald performance art of Ron Megee and David Wayne Reed and the drag queen Melinda Ryder.
Besides producing dozens of our Friday arts shows, she booked an equal number of our Portrait Sessions, conversations with people whose stories warrant a full hour on the radio. Thanks to Jen, we were able to engage deeply with people from vastly different corners of Kansas City and beyond: the expatriate singer Krystle Warren; Stowers Institute geneticist Scott Hawley; Donnelly College president Monsignor Stuart Swetland; Making Movies frontman Enrique Chi; Sunayana Dumala, whose husband Srinivas Kuchibhotla was shot and killed in a hate crime at an Olathe bar; and Ed Dwight, the first African-American to train as an astronaut for NASA – to name just a few.
This was Jen’s second job in Kansas City journalism. In the 2000s, she wrote the phenomenally popular Night Ranger column for the Pitch. Her job here, however, complemented her more mature role as a new mother. But she brought to KCUR the same wit and style that had made her writing for the Pitch sparkle so brightly.
Producing an hour-long radio talk show requires a unique combination of wisdom, curiosity, congeniality and grace, all of which Jen had to spare.
We already miss her terribly, but we’re grateful that we can still hear her voice in archival programs, or simply through her writing. After all, everyone who lives in Kansas City needs know How LaCroix Sparkling Water Went From Midwestern Staple To Status Symbol and that Overland Park's Snack Shack Is Unintimidated By Shake Shack's Arrival In Kansas City.
C.J. Janovy is KCUR 89.3's digital content editor. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.