Sarah Fenske | St. Louis Public Radio

Sarah Fenske

“St. Louis On The Air” Host/Producer

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.

Ways to Connect

July 1, 2020 J. Courtney Sullivan
Provided by the author

This interview will be on “St. Louis on the Air” over the noon hour Thursday. This story will be updated after the show. You can listen live.

Readers of J. Courtney Sullivan’s bestselling novels — “Maine” and “The Engagements” among them — know that she has a knack for probing the interior lives of women. Whether her protagonist is the stern matriarch of a traditional Irish Catholic family, a copywriter toiling in a determinedly male-first world or a college student just finding her way, Sullivan nails her interior monologue. Each character feels true to her own unique self — and so spot-on, you can’t help but think she must be the stand-in for the author … until, of course, you get inside the head of the next one.

In Sullivan’s new book, “Friends and Strangers,” her gifts of empathy are very much on display. But they’re coupled with a new focus on power dynamics, and the privilege that many women choose not to examine too closely.   

June 22, 2020 Ali Araghi
Provided by the author

Ali Araghi’s debut novel, "The Immortals of Tehran," spans four decades of Iranian history — from what would prove to be the nation’s final shah taking power to the 1979 revolution. It’s a sprawling family saga, with a dose of magical realism and a few surprising twists. Who would believe the surprising role meddling cats played in Iran’s tumultuous 20th century? 

Araghi is an Iranian-born translator and writer, but he’s spent the last four years living in St. Louis, where he is a Ph.D student of comparative literature at Washington University. He explained on St. Louis on the Air that he was inspired to incorporate cats after a chance encounter on the streets of Tehran.  

June 22, 2020 Joe Monahan Walter Smith
Provided by Confluence Discovery Technologies

COVID-19 remains a mystery in many ways, but as it continues to rampage through the world’s population, some things are becoming more clear. One of them is that cytokine storms — a “deranged immune response” to the virus, in which the body literally attacks its own cells instead of the invading coronavirus — appear to be one reason some patients end up extremely ill.

A drug developed in St. Louis aims to combat those cytokine storms. Called ATI-450, it was originally developed by Confluence Discovery Technologies in 2013 with the idea of helping people suffering from autoimmune diseases, particularly rheumatoid arthritis.    

Public Safety director Jimmie Edwards defends the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department on Jan. 29, 2019 against charges that officers are obstructing  Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner's investigation in the death of Katlyn Alix.
Andrew Field | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards said Monday that he believes body and dashboard cameras will help to “close the trust gap” between the police and the public.

Last Wednesday, the city approved a $5.7 million contract to outfit its police officers with body cameras and dashboard cameras. City officials said some officers could be wearing cameras within a month.

And while Jeff Roorda, the business manager of the St. Louis Police Officers Association, has argued that his union has a say in how cameras are implemented, Edwards pushed back on that. The collective bargaining agreement holds that the city has to discuss such changes in equipment, he said. That doesn’t mean they have to be negotiated.   

June 17, 2020 City Museum
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis’ beloved City Museum has long prided itself on having very few rules — “don’t run” being one of them. But when the 600,000-square-foot playland reopened Wednesday after months without visitors, it had a host of new policies and procedures in place. 

Those new rules are designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, even while allowing guests access to the giant tunnels and slides that have long been the museum’s raison d’etre — well, most of them, anyway. In addition to some features being closed, now visitors have to reserve their spots ahead of time. If they’re over 9 years old, they have to wear masks. And the museum will be given a complete cleaning between groups of visitors.

On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, general manager Rick Erwin discussed the difficulty of bringing order to a place that has long promised near-total freedom. 

June 16, 2020 EyeSeeMe
Provided by EyeSeeMe

Racism isn’t just a topic in the streets, as St. Louis has joined cities across the nation in marching against police brutality toward people of color. It’s also a topic at bookstores and libraries, as readers increasingly seek out books that examine and critique racism. 

That’s true nationally and locally. Nine of the top 10 books on the most recent New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list were focused on topics related to race. At EyeSeeMe African American Children's Bookstore in University City, sales are up significantly. “We’ve seen an exponential increase in desire for these books,” owner Jeffrey Blair said.

And at Left Bank Books in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood, staffers can’t even keep display copies of some books on racism in stock. Bookseller Danielle King says as much as one-third to a half of to-go orders (the shop is still only open for curbside or delivery) include a book about racism or a book centered on the black experience. 

The Mathews-Dickey Boys' & Girls' Club was founded by two baseball coaches and has worked to keep baseball alive in north St. Louis city.
Mathews-Dickey Boys' & Girls' Club

In 2016, Ed Wheatley retired from his job as an engineer at AT&T. But Wheatley has kept busy — to the point that Reedy Press recently published his third book in as many years. Wheatley’s “Baseball in St. Louis: From Little Leagues to Major Leagues” surveys the city’s rich baseball history, from the Major Leaguers who got their start here to the semi-pro and amateur leagues that flourished for decades.

In the book, Wheatley posits that the classic St. Louis question asking where someone went to high school works just as well when framed around the national pastime and asking where you played baseball. 

“It’s just kind of gauging the enemy, if you will,” he explained on St. Louis on the Air. “‘You played baseball. How good are you? What club were you with? Who did you play with?’ It’s all those same kinds of identifying answers as people ascertain when you ask, ‘Where did you go to high school?' It tells a lot about you.” 

May 28, 2020 Corey Bradford
Provided by Harris-Stowe State University

Corey S. Bradford Sr. chose a tough time to come home to the St. Louis metro. The native St. Louisan took office as president of Harris-Stowe State University on May 4 — an unprecedented time for higher education, which is grappling with both funding shortages due to the economic downturn and complications from the coronavirus.

And, indeed, the coronavirus complicated his move. On St. Louis on the Air, Bradford recalled living at a near-empty Chase Park Plaza Hotel for a week. So many people working remotely, he said, “delayed us from getting our furniture here in St. Louis.”

But Bradford feels up for the challenge. 

Bradford described his background as “very humble.” In answer to the all-important high school question, he said he graduated from the Academy of Math and Science, now known as Gateway Tech High School, before earning a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a master’s in applied math and statistics from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. 

June 9, 2020 Tory Sanders
Via Justice for Tory Sanders Facebook page

Three years ago, a Tennessee man made a wrong turn and ended up lost in rural Missouri. The man, Tory Sanders, sought help from local law enforcement — only to end up dead in a Mississippi County jail cell eight hours later. 

Sanders, who was black, had been tased repeatedly. Pepper spray had been blasted into his cell. In an altercation just before his death, a barrage of officers rushed into his cell and tackled him in what became a dogpile. Two top jail officials reportedly pressed down on his neck for more than three minutes even as a colleague urged them repeatedly to ease up, according to a lawsuit later filed by Sanders’ family. They didn’t listen until after Sanders passed out.   

Hundreds of activists gathered in downtown St. Louis to protest the death of George Floyd. May 29, 2020
Chad Davis | St. Louis Public Radio

As a professor of political science at Washington University, Clarissa Rile Hayward had a front-row seat for the protests and disruption that followed the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. She paid attention as activists blocked highways, demonstrated at a symphony performance and even interrupted brunch at fancy restaurants to agitate for the Black Lives Matter movement.

And she found herself thinking about what tactics work, and why. She believed that the conventional wisdom about such protests — that they only work if they present a “stark confrontation … between good and evil” in the words of noted sociologist Doug McAdam — was incomplete. She set out to develop a new model, one that accounts for protests that disrupt “elites’ agenda-setting,” and thereby transform the political calculus.   

Katherine Streeter for NPR

Three St. Louis siblings recently had their adoption finalized, even in the midst of a pandemic. The children, ages 7, 6 and 5, were adopted by an Oregon family, with the final hearing taking place by phone due to COVID-19 restrictions on in-person court hearings. 

St. Louis-based foster care recruiter Edna Green, who works for the Foster & Adoptive Care Coalition in Brentwood and the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, played matchmaker for the Oregon family and the three youngsters. She described the process on Friday’s St. Louis on the Air

Their siblings’ newly adoptive mother, Celeste Scott, also joined the program from Oregon. 

Andrea Purnell will host the event from an otherwise empty Powell Hall. [5/17/20]
Regional Arts Commission

When was the last time you saw the St. Louis metro’s most prestigious arts organizations all sharing the same bill? If you can’t remember, you may want to tune in Sunday. 

That evening, more than a dozen local organizations including the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Muny and Repertory Theatre St. Louis will perform a telethon-style benefit concert under some very unusual circumstances — not limited to the event’s host, actress Andrea Purnell, performing her role from a near-empty Powell Hall. Other participants stitched together their pieces virtually, editing submissions by individual performers to create ensemble pieces. 

May 27, 2020 Gail Brown Delores Brown
Provided by Gail Brown

It’s not just parents of young children trying to balance caregiving with other responsibilities during this pandemic. People whose loved ones suffer from dementia are also finding themselves under increased stress. Adult day centers are closed to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Many therapists and other support staff no longer offer in-person visits. And people with Alzheimer’s or other cognitive impairments may not realize why masks are necessary, much less remember the explanation from hour to hour.

Gail Brown is the primary caregiver for her mother, Delores, who has Alzheimer’s. She knows those challenges well.   

May 20, 2020 John O'Leary
Courtesy of John O'Leary

As a 9-year-old, John O’Leary nearly died. He was playing in his garage in St. Louis when he accidentally set off an explosion. He was left with third-degree burns covering his entire body — and even had to have his fingers amputated.

O’Leary recounted the story of his near-death and ultimate survival in his book “On Fire,” which became a national bestseller. And now he’s back with another book: “In Awe: Rediscover Your Childlike Wonder to Unleash Inspiration, Meaning, and Joy.” 

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, O’Leary explained his thesis: that we start life with all the right tools for happiness, only to have childlike senses such as “wonder” and “expectancy” drilled out of us. 

CoderGirl offers free weekly meetings that are meant to bring women with an interest in computer programming together with female mentors who can guide them.
Courtesy of LaunchCode

More than 260,000 Missourians filed claims showing they were unemployed as of May 2. It’s a staggering number, and it’s likely only to grow.

For Jeff Mazur, executive director of the tech training nonprofit LaunchCode, the numbers are a wakeup call. In his view, workforce training programs have failed to keep up with the realities of the modern workplace.

As one example, Mazur points to the local job training programs funded through the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act program. Workers seeking to learn what opportunities they’re eligible for have generally been required to show up for an in-person conversation at a job center, he explained on St. Louis on the Air.   

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page prepares to answer questions from reporters on April 30, 2019.
Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis County officially opened for business today. But after nearly eight weeks of coronavirus-related stay-at-home orders, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said it won’t be business as usual, much less party time. 

Reduced capacities, masks and barriers between customers and employees will be “our new normal,” Page previously explained. And for now, other St. Louis County businesses remain closed entirely, including gyms, swimming pools and bars that do not serve food. 

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Page explained that he believed the county was ready to reopen thanks to a 14-day dip in COVID-19 hospitalizations.

May 15, 2020 Laura Keller
Provided by Laura Keller

As executive director of the St. Louis Fire Department Foundation, Laura Keller is tasked with helping the department in any way she can. Lately, that’s meant helping purchase much-needed protective equipment for firefighters, who remain on the front lines even as the coronavirus spreads across the U.S. 

And Keller recently did that work under challenging circumstances: She herself was diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the same coronavirus that firefighters need protection from. While she’s now recovered from the disease, her illness shows the reality that firefighters now face daily: The coronavirus might be lurking at every stop they make.

The columns at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
St. Louis Public Radio file photo

Four years ago, Dan Kolde sued the University of Missouri. His clients, a California-based nonprofit called the Beagle Freedom Project, had sought to obtain records about the dogs and cats the university was using for research. 

Those records were indisputably open to the public under Missouri’s Sunshine Law. What fell into dispute was the cost. The Beagle Freedom Project had made their request as narrow as possible, asking only for records the university was required to maintain for federal inspectors. Still, the university announced it needed $82,222 from the nonprofit to produce them.  

Alison Frank Johnson | Provided by the publisher

Walter Johnson’s new book reframes American history so that St. Louis sits at the center. No more looking at the nation as if it’s that New Yorker cartoon where everything important happened in New York City or Los Angeles, and the vast middle was mere flyover country. In Johnson’s telling, the St. Louis story is the American story — and it’s a messy, often ugly, one.

The book is titled “The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States.” Discussing it on St. Louis on the Air, Johnson explained that he came to the topic almost by accident. 

The Winthrop Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Harvard University, Johnson had written two well-regarded books on slavery in 19th-century America. Then he found himself at Washington University giving a keynote address in October 2014, two months after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. His visit coincided with a “Weekend of Resistance” — and plunged the historian, and Missouri native, into a far more recent history.   

Screenshot, File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Screenshot, File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio

In March, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a lawsuit against Branson-based televangelist Jim Bakker. His office alleged that Bakker had touted a product called “Silver Solution” as a treatment for the coronavirus. Consumers, Schmitt suggested, could be victimized by the false information.

But a former Missouri attorney general says Bakker is the real victim.

Now a partner at the St. Louis law firm Dowd Bennett, Jay Nixon is the state’s former governor, as well as its attorney general from 1993 to 2009. He is now representing Bakker in the lawsuit.

On St. Louis on the Air Friday, Nixon explained that Bakker has a First Amendment right to urge viewers of “The Jim Bakker Show” to get their bodies ready for the end times, even if the methods of doing so might not hold up to secular scrutiny.   

May 7, 2020 Geoffrey Soyiantet
Courtesy of Geoffrey Soyiantet

In Swahili, the word “vitendo” means action. And taking action is what Geoffrey Soyiantet had in mind when he founded Vitendo4Africa in St. Louis 10 years ago: action to help connect and empower African immigrants in Missouri, action to preserve their culture.

A native of Kenya, Soyiantet moved to St. Louis 16 years ago after graduating from college in Nairobi. Now he works full time as Vitendo4Africa’s executive director, seeking to provide the support and community he wishes he had been able to find as a newcomer to the Midwest.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, Soyiantet explained that he initially struggled. “It was a big challenge,” he said. Even language was a barrier, as Soyiantet was proficient in English, but had learned to speak in the British way.   

May 6, 2020 Yaqui's Covid Days
Nate Burrell | Courtesy of the photographer

For more than 10 years, Nate Burrell has trained his camera lens on musicians. The St. Louis-based photographer has produced indelible concert images and also shot album art for an array of rising stars in the scene, including Pokey LaFarge and Kevin Bowers.

But last month, with the coronavirus shutting bars and music venues, Burrell turned his eye to a different subject. Captured in a two-week dash around the city, his “Covid Days” project shows the city’s residents outside shuttered businesses or closed-up offices, their faces masked.

April 29th's Legal Roundtable discussion featured Bill Freivogel, Catherine Hanaway and Mark Smith.

The coronavirus pandemic has upended American life, and with that comes a host of legal questions — questions now being tackled by St. Louis-area lawyers in both state and federal court. 

Does your employer have an obligation to protect you from COVID-19? A group of workers at a Missouri pork processing plant have sued over that very question. Does the government have the right to make you stay home? An Illinois state representative won a preliminary legal victory over his own governor suggesting that maybe, unless certain procedures are followed, it does not. And should China bear responsibility for COVID-19 spreading across the globe? Missouri’s attorney general thinks so; he hopes to make his case in court.

April 28, 2020 Judith Heumann
Courtesy of Beacon Press

A rundown camp in the Catskills ended up fomenting the disability rights movement. That’s the remarkable story told in the acclaimed “Crip Camp” documentary, which was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama and is now on Netflix. 

The documentary has won raves for its unflinching depiction of how Camp Jened brought together young people with wide-ranging disabilities and allowed them to experience life without their parents. The community they formed and the self-reliance they cultivated within it led to the landmark 1970s protests that opened doors for disabled people — and, ultimately, to the Americans with Disability Act.   

April 24, 2020 Tim Youd
Courtesy of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis

Tim Youd is an artist, but his medium may surprise you. Youd types. The Los Angeles resident uses old-fashioned typewriters to painstakingly retype classic works. He originally set out to complete 100 novels in 10 years, typing them in unusual places including cemeteries, churches and writers’ residences. In March, he finished his 66th.

In 2018, Youd presented “St. Louis Retyped” at the Contemporary Art Museum, typing works by T.S. Eliot, William S. Burroughs, Stanley Elkin and Marianne Moore at meaningful spots around town. That included CAM itself, as museum-goers looked on.   

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft.
The Missouri Secretary of State.

Missouri Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft said today on St. Louis on the Air that he is convinced the “plain language” of state law does not allow voters to cast an absentee ballot simply because they fear the coronavirus. 

“There is no mention of someone that is scared of becoming sick … in which case it would not apply to a fear of the coronavirus,” he said.

But he vowed to have personal protective equipment in place for upcoming elections — and said he will not repeat Wisconsin’s mistakes. 

Bill Greenblatt | UPI | 2012 photo

In Missouri, you may only vote by mail if you apply for an absentee ballot — and cite one of just six specific reasons detailed in state law. Among them are illness or disability, or the fact you’ll be traveling out of the area. “Fear of contracting COVID-19” is not listed among them.

The ACLU of Missouri argues that should, in fact, be sufficient cause for receiving an absentee ballot. Working in concert with the Missouri Voter Coalition, the organization filed a class-action lawsuit last Friday against the state of Missouri, the Missouri Secretary of State and a few local boards of election. It argues that the “illness or disability” clause in state law should apply to those staying at home to avoid the coronavirus, since it specifically mentions “confinement due to illness” as a qualifier.   

April 17, 2020 Andy Boyle
Mandy Dempsey | Provided by the author

Sometime between his childhood and his late 20s, Andy Boyle got fat. In that, the Chicago-based journalist was far from unusual. An estimated 71% of Americans are overweight or obese. But after Boyle lost nearly one-third of his size, he began to explore the reasons he’d gained so much weight — the reasons, indeed, so many Americans have done so. And then he began to ask what we can do about it. 

The result? “Big Problems: A Former Fat Guy’s Look At Why We’re Getting Fatter and What You Can Do to Fix It.” It’s Boyle’s breezy, funny, yet oh-so-serious look at the forces that fatten us up and the societal changes that would give us fair fight against them.  

April 14, 2020 Vivian Gibson
Iris Schmidt | Provided by the author

In 1959, the city of St. Louis demolished more than 5,500 housing units in the Mill Creek Valley neighborhood, which stretched from St. Louis University to Union Station. It was the city’s largest urban renewal project — or, as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called it at the time, "slum clearance."

But for Vivian Gibson and her seven siblings, Mill Creek wasn’t a slum. It was home. Gibson’s new memoir, “The Last Children of Mill Creek,” explores growing up in the bustling African American district, where indoor plumbing wasn’t a given but close connections thrived. The eight siblings and their two parents shared 800 square feet of space, living in Mill Creek until a year before it was razed.   

April 13, 2020 Yinka Faleti Michelle Sherod
Provided by the candidates

Yinka Faleti began preparing for a run for office long before the coronavirus pandemic upended life in Missouri. But now he finds himself as the Democratic nominee for Missouri secretary of state even as he navigates a situation common to many St. Louisans in this bizarre time — working with his wife, a director at Wells Fargo Advisors, to care for and educate their four children at home.

It’s not easy. Faleti’s communications manager says they were recently on a 1 a.m. conference call. 

And home-schooling duties are just one way COVID-19 has shaken up Faleti’s schedule. Now, instead of angling for meet and greets, he’s trying to connect with donors on social media. He recently hosted a virtual town hall on Facebook.