In 1977, New Letters magazine editor, David Ray, and his wife, the poet Judy Ray—who was originally from England and knew the power of the spoken word from BBC radio—worked with KCUR’s station manager, Sam Scott, to develop a half-hour radio show, featuring writers reading from and talking about their works. Originally recorded live in KCUR’s studios, New Letters on the Air became one of the first local programs in the country to be offered via National Public Radio’s new satellite distribution system in 1979, furthering the magazine’s mission to introduce writers and new writing to the world. Judy Ray worked with various members of UMKC’s English Department and KCUR on the show, until she began consistently collaborating with KCUR producer, Rebekah Presson, in 1982. Presson eventually became producer and host, taking the show in the direction of the interview format, rather than primarily spoken word, though readings were still a regular highlight within the interviews. Rebekah Presson worked with the magazine’s then managing editor, Robert Stewart (who also helped launch the show) and editor, James McKinley, until she left in the fall of 1995. Award-winning producer, Angela Elam, who had previously worked on literary programs at WUGA-FM in Athens, GA with The Georgia Review, was hired as the producer/host in March of 1996.
The program has recorded and broadcast* more than 1,300 programs by many of the world’s most prominent writers. In 2009, the NEA and the National Park Service awarded the program a “Save America’s Treasures” grant for a several years project that allowed New Letters on the Air to work with Marr Sound Archives to digitize nearly 25 years of reel-to-reel tapes, and to create a new website where shows could be heard by the public. The required match for this grant was generously donated by listeners, writers and members of the UMKC community. Now with the fall 2020 new website design, we have begun the process of reloading those extensive audio files for future listening.
Accolades for New Letters on the Air over the last decade include: 2010 New York Festivals International Radio Arts & Culture Award Finalist for The Cruelest Month, a special poetry compilation for National Poetry Month; 2011 Clarion Award from the Association for Women in Communications for Women’s Issues Radio with When She Named Fire—a show about women publishing poetry in America—and a 2013 Clarion Award for Best Radio Talk or Interview Program, now sampled in our Clarion Collection.