Sarah Fenske | KBIA

Sarah Fenske

Sarah Fenske joined St. Louis Public Radio as host of St. Louis on the Air in July 2019. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.
 
She won the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her work in Phoenix exposing corruption at the local housing authority. She also won numerous awards for column writing, including multiple first place wins from the Arizona Press Club, the Association of Women in Journalism (the Clarion Awards) and the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
 
From 2015 to July 2019, Sarah was editor in chief of St. Louis' alt-weekly, the Riverfront Times. She and her husband, John, are raising their two young daughters and ill-behaved border terrier in Lafayette Square.

This summer, we got a voicemail message from a listener. She said we talk too much about the newly opened restaurants in the city. She said we didn’t spend enough time on the tried-and-true eateries that have stood the test of time.

We realized she had a point. And so on Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, we put together a dream-team panel to remedy it. St. Louis Post-Dispatch food critic Ian Froeb, Riverfront Times food critic Cheryl Baehr and St. Louis Magazine dining editor George Mahe all joined us in studio to discuss local restaurants that have stood the test of time. 

St. Louis has the highest sales tax rates in the state of Missouri. Some parts of the city see rates as high as 11.679%. But the revenue doesn’t all go to the government. The areas with the highest tax rates may be as small as a few blocks — with extra taxes incurred by special taxing districts that operate largely without oversight from City Hall.

Missouri State Auditor Nicole Galloway took on the city’s poor oversight of these districts in an audit last month. And, on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, she said she’s referred one of them to law enforcement for investigation.   

A newly renovated building is now open in Grand Center. It’s called the High Low. And like many other buildings in Grand Center, it’s focused on the arts.

But unlike many of the others, it’s not a theater or a performance space. Instead, it calls itself a “venue for freedom of expression through spoken and written word.” In other words, it aims to be a literary hub for a city that’s long had an outsized impact on the world of letters.

Like many newer developments in Grand Center, the High Low is a project of the Kranzberg Arts Foundation. On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, foundation executive director Chris Hansen explained the impetus for what he describes as a “labor of love.”  

By the mid-1960s, Conrad Hilton’s brief marriage to Zsa Zsa Gabor was decades behind him. The hotel magnate was worth an estimated $100 million, but he tended to be tightfisted with both his ex-wives and his children. 

So how did a pair of St. Louis nuns persuade Hilton to give them more than $1.5 million — $12.6 million in today’s dollars? As Webster University professor emeritus Allen Carl Larson discovered, it took three years of correspondence, a shared faith and a deep mutual respect. And, yes, quite a bit of cajoling. 

“You are a first-class saleslady,” Hilton wrote Sister Francetta Barberis, president of what was then Webster College, in 1961. Indeed she was, as their letters charmingly attest.  

Maybe you know him from “The Daily Show.” Or maybe "CBS Sunday Morning.” Perhaps you saw him on Broadway (in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) or heard him on NPR (for “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me”). Or maybe you just read his first book, “All the President’s Pets.”

As that long roster of possibilities suggests, Mo Rocca has become a one-man “Jeopardy” category. (And, yes, he’s been on “Jeopardy” — the 2015 celebrity version.) And his new book, “Mobituaries,” has a similar polymathic quality. In it, he celebrates people, places and even things that have been unfairly forgotten or whose deaths didn’t receive the outpouring you might have expected: movie stars, movements, even the humble station wagon. In both the book and the successful podcast of the same name, Rocca aims to right the wrongs. 

What does St. Louis’ Robison Park have in common with the Wild West Chimpanzee Show at the St. Louis Zoo? Both no longer exist — and both are depicted in a new book showing off historic photos from the Gateway City. 

The book, “Scenes of Historic Wonder,” offers context for more than 150 snapshots of a city far different from the one today. Scenes include an 1865 shipwreck, a 1931 World Series victory and the Roosevelt High School Ukulele Club, circa 1935.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, author Cameron Collins joined us to discuss the book, co-authored by Jaime Bourassa and published by Reedy Press. This is Collins’ third book of local history, and he said that while the original idea for this one was a book of funny photos, he and his co-author labored to include the good, the bad and ugly.  

For two years, Jeff Jensen has been the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri, serving as the St. Louis area’s top federal law enforcement officer. Jensen’s office handles everything from racketeering cases to civil forfeiture — and, under Jensen, has made violent crime in St. Louis a particular focus.

That direction has come from his bosses in the U.S. Department of Justice, Jensen explained Wednesday on St. Louis on the Air. He said the prosecutors on his staff have seized the mandate. 

Still, the crime rate in St. Louis has remained high.  

Critics of airport privatization believe they are close to having enough signatures to force a public vote on any potential lease.

Since June 2018, a group calling itself STL Not for Sale has been circulating petitions for a ballot initiative requiring any airport lease to be subject to a public vote — that’s even though Mayor Lyda Krewson would prefer to leave the matter to the Board of Aldermen.

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Josie Grillas and Chris Ottolino of STL Not for Sale said they are now working with the union-rights organization Jobs with Justice. The groups are working together to analyze the petitions they’ve gathered and see how close they are to ensuring they have enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot. 

Ten years ago, a trio of recent law school graduates formed a nonprofit law firm. They called it ArchCity Defenders. And they had a novel idea: wraparound services, not just legal representation, for the people who needed it most.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Michael-John Voss explained that he and his co-founders, Thomas Harvey and John McAnnar, were inspired by the Jesuit tradition at St. Louis University School of Law. After taking classes in public interest law, they found themselves working on projects representing those too poor to afford lawyers.

“We saw the fact that the existing entities that were supposed to serve the indigent population were overburdened and overworked,” he said. “And there was no communication between the civil and criminal organizations that are supposed to serve this population. We thought, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do this.’” 

Last month, Tom Townsend died at 60, just two weeks after being diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of cancer. Just one year before, Townsend had survived being shot in an attempted carjacking. He was a much-loved figure in St. Louis.

One big reason for that was the organization he founded: Pianos for People. A retired advertising executive, Townsend had devoted the final seven years of his life to helping underprivileged students access both free pianos and free lessons in playing them. 

But Pianos for People continues its work. And on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, executive director Matt Brinkmann explained how he’s helping to carry on without Townsend.  

There’s good reason the U.S. Treasury Department selected Harriet Tubman as the new face of its $20 bill. Tubman lived one of the nation’s most remarkable lives. Born into slavery in Maryland, she escaped by making her way to Pennsylvania — on foot. And then she returned, again and again, to rescue family members and other slaves via the Underground Railroad. 

The St. Louis comedy scene is a busy one. Just about any night of the week, you can catch local comedians honing their sets at open mic night, improvising madly on stage with a troupe of their closest friends or battling each other with wit and good humor as local drunks cheer.

For the past three years, a three-day comedy festival has brought those disparate elements together. The Flyover Comedy Festival launched in 2017 and returns to the city’s Grove neighborhood beginning Nov. 7. It’s a showcase for local talent in the scene and also a chance for big names to show off their best stuff.

The exploration of the potential privatization of St. Louis Lambert International Airport continues — request for qualifications submissions from interested companies were due today. 

The city of St. Louis will now begin screening potential bidders to gauge whether they can financially and operationally move forward in the process. But now both St. Charles County and St. Louis County have entered the debate on airport privatization. They want the Port Authority to study regional control of the airport and whether privatization is a good idea. 

The first-ever STL Startup Week begins Nov. 1, celebrating a growing entrepreneurial scene in a city once better known for beer and brick. An integral part of St. Louis’ startup scene: women. A total of 45.2% of local startups are female-owned. That’s more than any other city in the country.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, a trio of movers and shakers discussed the area’s startup success. Phyllis Ellison, vice president of partnerships and program development for Cortex, explained that the area has developed an entire infrastructure to help new companies succeed. 

Children who lose a parent or a sibling make for a surprisingly large group: Researchers believe one in 14 kids in the U.S. will suffer such a devastating loss before they turn 18. Surviving parents or guardians may be left coping with their children’s grief even as they themselves deal with the loss.

Enter Annie’s Hope. Founded in 1997 as the St. Louis Bereavement Center for Young People, the organization seeks to help entire families in their mourning process. It hosts an annual camp, family support groups and other services for those who’ve suffered a loss. 

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Becky Byrne, founder and executive director, discussed the organization’s work. She was joined by 10-year-old Riley Mitchell and his father, Brandon. When Riley was 4, his mother died suddenly. He was enrolled in a support group soon after, and at 6, began attending the Annie’s Hope camp. 

For more than two decades, Jeannette Cooperman has been one of the most insightful and elegant writers chronicling St. Louis. As a staff writer at the Riverfront Times for a decade, and then for the past 14 years at St. Louis Magazine, she’s explored everything from food to politics to con artists. And she’s done it all with sympathy for the human condition and breathtaking turns of phrase.

Cooperman joined St. Louis on the Air on her final day at St. Louis Magazine. She’s leaving for a job as a staff writer at the Common Reader, a journal of essays housed at Washington University. But first, she fielded compliments from listeners and questions about her remarkable body of work. 

Jane Smiley recently came back to St. Louis for her 50th high school reunion. But unlike many of us, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist wasn’t content simply to explore what had changed around town. Smiley also wrote an essay about the city, and her travels here, for The New York Times.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, Smiley discussed her essay, detailing her abiding love for St. Louis, particularly its foliage and its wonderful old houses. 

She said she loved growing up in Webster Groves, where she lived until she was 11. “The wonderful thing about Webster is that it has all different kinds of neighborhoods all kind of smashed together, and so as you’re walking along, you’re seeing all these different houses, all these kinds of people,” she said. “It was a fascinating place to grow up and explore.”

Smiley added that she wasn’t one of those kids who dreamed of fleeing St. Louis for the big city. “I appreciated it even at the time,” she said. 

Dayton, Ohio-based Persistent Surveillance Systems developed its aerial surveillance system to help the military in Fallujah. The company’s CEO, Ross McNutt, has compared it to “Google Earth, with TiVo capability.” Now a pair of wealthy donors are offering to help St. Louis implement the system and use it for three years without cost. 

McNutt said Tuesday on St. Louis on the Air that he believes the technology could make a big difference in a city that’s struggled with crime.

“We believe this will help major cities reduce their major crime rates dramatically,” he said. “And when you look at the United States, there are two major cities that stand out above all the rest: St. Louis and Baltimore.”

The late, great jazz composer and bandleader Duke Ellington once said, “Whether it be Shakespeare or jazz, the only thing that counts is the emotional effect on the listener.” 

In the summer of 1956, Ellington found himself seriously digging the bard. Inspired by his encounters with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival while on tour in Stratford, Ontario, he composed a 12-part suite titled “Such Sweet Thunder.” The title comes from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but the title track is actually about “Othello.” This work, suffice it to say, is complicated.

A collaboration among Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, Nine Network of Public Media, Jazz St. Louis and the Big Muddy Dance Company, the new production of “Such Sweet Thunder” incorporates Ellington’s music with Shakespeare’s words. It premiered Thursday in Grand Center. And on Friday, Gene Dobbs Bradford, president and CEO of Jazz St. Louis, and Tom Ridgely, executive producer of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, shared the story behind this new “Such Sweet Thunder” on St. Louis on the Air

Here’s a sobering statistic from the animal advocacy nonprofit Red Rover: Only 10% of domestic violence shelters accept pets. That means many people fleeing abuse find themselves giving up animals with whom they’ve formed meaningful bonds. And sometimes, those animals themselves are at risk of experiencing abusive behavior. 

Such was the case for Jill and her 10 year old lab-mix named Scarlet. Like Jill, Scarlet is also a domestic violence survivor of the same situation. 

In May 2016, New York-based journalist Meaghan Winter made a trip to Missouri, one that would ultimately inspire her new book. While watching the Republican-dominated state Legislature in Jefferson City push through bills on abortion, guns and voter IDs in a single day, Winter realized just how outmatched Missouri Democrats had become. What was once a purple state had become solidly red — with GOP legislators handily passing legislation that just years before might have been considered extreme. 

Winter’s exploration of the roots of that phenomenon, as well as her prescription to Democrats eager to reverse it, is the subject of “All Politics Is Local: Why Progressives Must Fight for the States.” Before kicking off her book tour, she joined St. Louis on the Air to discuss what she found in her research.

The discovery of a dead baby in a south St. Louis freezer this summer was one of those macabre stories that had the nation riveted. Adam Smith told KSDK that he was cleaning out the freezer after his mother’s death from cancer when he made the grisly discovery. He said the container holding the tiny corpse had been in the freezer for decades.

The story drew national attention from all the usual suspects, but then everyone moved on. Everyone, that is, except Ryan Krull. The freelance writer and faculty member at the University of Missouri-St. Louis pushed below the surface to get a tale that is, in many ways, even more sad and surprising than the initial discovery. It is the latest Riverfront Times cover story.   

In June 2014, Walter Rice was arrested by Ferguson police for allowing his 2- and 4-year-old sons to urinate outdoors at a city park. The married father of four, a Metro bus driver, had never been in trouble with the law and had chosen a secluded place to let the boys relieve themselves. He nevertheless found himself charged with two counts of parental neglect. His wife was also arrested after their older child attempted to film Rice being taken away by police. Ritania Rice was charged with interfering with an officer, failing to signal and three other low-level offenses.

The case drew widespread outrage after the Rices’ attorney, Javad Khazaeli, detailed their treatment in a lawsuit. But to Khazaeli, one of the most shocking facts was that the officer who arrested the couple, Eddie Boyd, remained employed as a Ferguson cop despite a long history of similar allegations of abusive policing. He has been named in numerous other lawsuits and even cited in the U.S. Department of Justice report into the Ferguson Police Department.

Bill McClellan has been entertaining and enlightening the readers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 39 years, all but three of them as a columnist. In recent months, even as he battles cancer for a second time, he has continued to file regular dispatches that probe the city’s past and its future with insight and good humor.

McClellan joined us on Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air to talk about the future of daily newspapers, the columns he’s lived to regret and the reason he continues to write, despite enduring regular chemotherapy treatments. 

“It’s fun. I still have this thin veneer of being a reporter. It’s getting thinner and thinner, admittedly,” he said. “But I can still call people up and say, ‘Why did you do this?’ And I can still go to trials. If I didn’t have this thin veneer of being a reporter, I’d just be another nosy old guy.”

“Soul Train” was on TV. Groovy teachers were teaching “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” to the high school English classes. David Bowie stopped by Kiel Auditorium to promote a little album called “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” Was there a more idyllic time to be a teenager than Creve Coeur in the early 1970s? 

For Jonathan, the protagonist of James Brandon’s new young adult novel “Ziggy, Stardust and Me,” it isn’t quite that simple. Sure, the music is incredible. But Jonathan is gay. And in St. Louis in 1973, that means intense and even painful therapy.

Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air included a conversation about the novel, which has its hometown launch party Wednesday evening. Brandon, a St. Louis native who makes his fiction debut with “Ziggy, Stardust and Me,” discussed his book as well as his personal journey on the show.

Dr. Benjamin Rush is not yet the subject of a Ken Burns documentary, but he surely ought to be. The Philadelphia physician was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, an anonymous polemicist who helped inspire the Boston Tea Party and the editor of Thomas Paine’s wildly influential “Common Sense.” And, as detailed in a new biography by Stephen Fried, he both treated and became a close friend to several U.S. presidents. He personally brought Thomas Jefferson and John Adams back together after their friendship seemed permanently ended.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Fried discussed “Rush: Revolution, Madness, and the Visionary Doctor Who Became a Founding Father.” Published last year, the book is just out in paperback. 

For two and a half years, the city of St. Louis has been exploring the idea of leasing St. Louis Lambert International Airport. An army of consultants has been toiling — largely behind closed doors — to put together a request for qualifications. They hope to attract a private company willing to pay big money up front in hopes of profiting off future airport operations. While other cities have flirted with the idea, the leasing of a major U.S. airport is unprecedented. 

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, two high-ranking city officials joined the program to discuss the state of the privatization conversation: Paul Payne, the city budget director and chairman of the airport working group, and Linda Martinez, deputy mayor for development.<--break->

In January 2018, the Impossible Burger first arrived in the St. Louis market. The meat-free patty was just like the real thing — it even bled. It became an immediate sensation. But it was soon snapped up by Burger King for its “Impossible Whopper.” After a hugely successful rollout right here in St. Louis, its popularity made the Impossible patties too popular for many locals to obtain. 

But they still had plenty of options. Some have experimented on their own to create tasty meat-free concoctions. Others are turning to more local alternatives. 

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Todd Boyman, CEO of Hungry Planet, discussed the way demand for the Impossible Burger is driving interest in his products, which include animal-free versions of everything from beef to crab. 

All the world’s a stage, Shakespeare instructed us in his beloved romantic comedy “As You Like It.” And in its new production of that very show, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis plans to put that to the test in both the streets of Pagedale, Missouri, and the farmland of Calhoun County, Illinois. Its remix of the classic play, titled “Love at the River’s Edge,” transports audience members across the Mississippi River to examine the urban and rural divide. 

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis executive producer Tom Ridgely discussed the new production along with its director, Kathryn Bentley.

“It’s unusual. This is a whole new ballgame for us, too,” Ridgely said. “But it all goes back to what Shakespeare in the Streets is all about, which is about trying to bring visibility to communities around St. Louis. How we can use theater to bring people together, to bring them across some of those boundaries they’re not used to crossing, and maybe have them listen to the stories of the people who live there, is what Shakespeare in the Streets is all about.”

Fentanyl has become an international scourge. It’s been blamed for a spike in drug overdose deaths in Missouri as well as around the world. It’s both contaminated many recreational drugs and become a substitute for heroin in many American cities. And yet the Chinese factory responsible for manufacturing most of its precursors has received funding and lucrative tax breaks from the Chinese government.

Through years of research, St. Louis journalist Ben Westhoff has become one of the foremost experts into the international fentanyl trade. On Thursday, he joined St. Louis on the Air to talk about his new book, “Fentanyl, Inc.: How Rogue Chemists Are Creating the Deadliest Wave of the Opioid Epidemic.” Westhoff discussed how his investigation followed the drug from its manufacture in China to the streets of St. Louis – and the terrible impact that synthetic, laboratory-made drugs are having on communities around the world.

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