Parenteau resigns Wichita position under staff pressure

By Steve Behrens

After six weeks of intense conflict with the majority of his staff, the president of Wichita’s KPTS, Zoel Parenteau, resigned his position Aug. 23 [1996]. His longtime v.p. of programming, Jim Lewis, resigned under pressure Aug. 8 [1996]. Parenteau will remain on staff as a v.p. and representative to the Kansas Public Broadcasting Council until July 1997, when he turns 65 and had planned to retire.

The board last week named Paul Longhofer, a former Wichita high school principal and assistant superintendent of schools, as interim g.m., effective Sept. 1. (Board member Tom Bashaw, a former radio station manager, had been slated to fill in before Longhofer was named.)

One major issue remaining between staff and management is whether KPTS will rehire David Brewer, a 25-year staff member whose resignation in April, after conflicts with Lewis, contributed to low staff morale. Brewer had been broadcast manager and Lewis’s main deputy, and now wants his job back, although he has been training his own successor. Board member Tom Bashaw says Brewer’s status is being considered by the board’s executive committee.

“The staff is still very strongly standing behind David Brewer,” says Candy Hoop, the station’s program support executive, who was a leader among staffers who complained to the board. She also acknowledges that the staff has achieved its objective of forcing Parenteau and Lewis to leave.

“I am so relieved that we are going to have a change in management and be allowed to move forward,” Hoop says as she arranges hosts for this week’s pledge drive.

Seventy percent of the staff–17 of 24 full-timers–signed a July 12 petition to the board, asking for an investigation of Parenteau and Lewis. The two top managers had harassed employees and made working conditions difficult and unpleasant, according to a staff statement. Present and former staffers and volunteers told the board that Lewis had repeatedly intimidated employees and used offensive language, and that Parenteau had turned a deaf ear to complaints.

Five board leaders held a hearing for staffers Aug. 3 but refused to let them speak to the full board, and on Aug. 8, the employees took their complaints to the local press. Lewis signed his resignation that day.

The dispute became a prominent story in the press, with debates between supporters and critics of the KPTS managers, in the Eagle‘s letters column and elsewhere in the city.

Rev. Ronald L. Reed, rector of St. James Episcopal, where Jim Lewis is a parish member, defended him during a Sunday service. “I know Jim really well, and from a character perspective he is one of those rare people I would stake my life on,” said the pastor.

Though the pastor admits not knowing the staffers or details of the KPTS situation, he believes that Lewis and Parenteau “bent over backwards too far” in dealing with staffers “who couldn’t demonstrate quality, competent work.” The managers “should have challenged these employees” and told them, “there’s the desk or there’s the door.” He’s convinced that staffers are lying about Lewis’s behavior.

A church must give “essentially unconditional support” to a member of its community when he faces such a difficult situation, Reed said.

When a parish member later questioned Reed’s comments, he recalls replying: “If you, God forbid, are ever tacked to the wall in public, I’ll be there for you, too.”

But some other civic leaders didn’t dispute the staff complaints. The Wichita Eagle editorialized that the KPTS Board must “develop a clearer conception of its own oversight responsibilities” and give employees a means of expressing grievances. “The way it looks now, the board empowered Mr. Parenteau and Mr. Lewis to run the station, but did not evaluate them periodically on their capabilities as managers of personnel.”

With the staff assembled in the KPTS studio Aug. 23, Parenteau announced his resignation and board Chair Norma Tucker introduced Bashaw as interim manager.

Parenteau, who had run the station since 1972, when it was two years old, told the Eagle that he quit to protect the station. “As long as I was in that position, the dust would never settle. The public deserves better. They are not responsible for internal difficulties. I wanted to put that behind us.”

The manager “contributed greatly to KPTS and it wouldn’t be where it is today without him, and we appreciate that,” Tucker told Current. Citing confidentiality of personnel matters, she would not comment on accusations against Parenteau and Lewis, or on severance agreements with them.

A board-appointed search committee including two staff members–Dale Goter, public affairs editor, and Dave McClintock, engineering operations supervisor–will seek a successor to Parenteau.

In her press release, Tucker completely divorced Parenteau from his staff: “He will offer no unsolicited advice nor will he initiate contact with anyone in order to influence in any way the business and operations of the station,” the release said.

Though the staffers won a change of management, they remain uncertain whether the board supports them, and some were disheartened when they heard the board, in closed session, appeared to loudly applaud Parenteau’s final appearance as their president.

KPTS also wonders what station supporters are thinking after nearly a month of controversy in the press. This month’s pledge drive, ending Sept. 22, may provide some feedback.

“I’ve talked with people in the community,” says Bashaw. “They’re confused as to what happened and who’s at fault, and this is bad because they don’t know what to do [about pledging].”

Hoop reports that underwriters are sticking with KPTS, and former pledge hosts are volunteering to return, now that Jim Lewis has left. Among them may be some volunteers Lewis dropped after conflicts during breaks in children’s programming–amateur clowns including Crunchy T and Stubbles.

LATER DEVELOPMENT

FCC declines to get involved but fines KPTS for not reporting gender discrimination complaints.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT