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KDHX fires 10 more volunteer DJs as leaders try to assert control over station in turmoil

KDHX, an independent and listener-supported radio station, is photographed on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, in Midtown St. Louis.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Leaders of nonprofit radio station KDHX severed ties with 10 DJs on Friday and informed another 12 that they must complete a mediation process to stay on the air. Station leaders say the move is part of an enhanced focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.

Updated at 7:10 p.m. Sept. 23 with comments from a dismissed DJ.

The leaders of nonprofit radio station KDHX dismissed 10 volunteer DJs on Friday and informed another 12 that they must complete a mediation process if they wish to stay on the air.

Station leaders say they are parting ways with volunteers who have resisted the station’s enhanced focus on anti-racism initiatives at the organization following claims of racism and sexual harassment reported in 2019.

“We’ve been pushing our organization in broader and more inclusive directions. It’s clear that some of our community are not on board with that,” KDHX board President Gary Pierson said. “We need to build the capacity to combat things like racist and gender discrimination, and patriarchy and all of those things. And the reality is that these individuals that we're talking about, it's just not consistent with those goals to have them be part of the organization anymore.”

Station leaders alerted the 22 DJs on Friday afternoon by email. Earlier this year, they pulled four other DJs from the airwaves, saying some had damaged KDHX by encouraging station donors to withhold their donations until they see changes at the station.

Private donations accounted for $1.1 million of the organization's $1.2 million budget in fiscal 2022, according to tax documents. Board members and the station’s 130 or so volunteers, including DJs and others, are unpaid. The station has eight full-time workers on staff.

Among station volunteers’ complaints are the three DJ dismissals and one suspension earlier this year. Station volunteers also object to what they see as chronic mismanagement of the organization, which hit hard financial times after an expensive move to a new location in 2013.

Many KDHX veterans would like more of a say in how the station is run, including the selection of new board members. Station volunteers say that problems stem in part from a top-down management style practiced by Executive Director Kelly Wells, and that station leaders have little appetite for dissent or interest in feedback. The station’s board backs Wells.

“This is a situation where a nonprofit has morphed into a creature that is 180 degrees opposite of the intentions, desires and profile that the founders of this radio station wanted,” said Tom “Papa” Ray, whose show “Soul Selector” was a staple of KDHX programing for decades. The St. Louis Media Hall of Fame inducted Ray in 2022.

Wells ended Ray’s program in March, after he declined to attend a mediated in-person meeting. Days later, he joined the DJ crew at WSIE, where he again hosts his three-hour show weekly.

The latest round of DJ dismissals include:

  • bobEE Sweet, "Uncontrollable Urge"
  • Caron House, "Wax Lyrical"
  • Christopher Lawyer, "Hip City"
  • Christopher "DJ X24" Schwarz, "Next Exit"
  • Hound Dog Brown, fill-in DJ
  • John Wendland, "Memphis to Manchester"
  • Michael Kuelker, "Positive Vibrations"
  • Paul “Grandfather” Stark, “Musical Merry-go-round”
  • Rich Reese, “Pop! The Beat Bubble Burst”
  • Roy Kasten, "Feel Like Going Home"

Some of the newly dismissed DJs said station leaders are using DEI complaints as a smokescreen to obscure their true intent: ridding the organization of volunteers who’ve expressed legitimate criticisms of station management.

“I want to stress that none of the 10 ever breathed a word of dissent about DEI and anti-racism goals. We objected to authoritarian management unrelated to the station’s goals,” Kuelker wrote on the social media platform X.

By Saturday morning, two DJs — Art Dwyer, "Blues in the Night," and Ital K, "Ital Rhythms" — had announced on air they were quitting their shows in solidarity with the dismissed DJs.

KDHX, an independent and listener-supported radio station, is photographed on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, in Midtown St. Louis.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Some longtime volunteers at KDHX say they're being left behind, while station leaders say they're pursuing a necessary shift in culture at the organization.

Changes afoot

Many of the fissures at KDHX have roots in the station’s move to its current Grand Center home and claims of a racist work environment that were publicized in 2019.

The move from Tower Grove East to a larger and more prominent location at the heart of the city’s arts district enhanced the station’s ability to stage live events and expand in-person programming. But it ultimately left the organization in debt after a capital campaign to fund renovations fell far short of its goal. In 2019, the authors of an anonymous letter alleged that Black employees and volunteers at KDHX endured racism at the station and accused Wells of mismanaging and harassing some personnel.

Station leaders defended Wells, who denied the accusations. But the complaints sparked a series of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

They include a new strategic plan completed in 2021, which identified anti-racism efforts as a key priority. “We recognize that a system of policies, practices, and procedures designed to benefit white people coupled with pervasive and consistent personal biases continue to harm non-white members of our community, and that we must address our role in the perpetuation of systemic racism,” the plan reads.

Some former volunteers say that they support the station’s DEI goals but that leadership has bungled the process.

“The entire thing changed. There was an intense focus on being correct with regards to DEI culture” after the 2019 accusations of racism, said former Director of Production and Technology Andy Coco, who resigned from his staff position in April 2022. He began working for KDHX in 2001 and said that successfully managing the technical aspects of the station’s move to a new location has been the highlight of his career.

“I can assure you that it never has been anything but inclusive [at KDHX]. Having a whole lot of white male involvement has a lot to do with music collectors, and has a lot to do with just the general circumstances of affluence — to be able to show up and do a volunteer gig two hours on-air and many, many hours off-air,” Coco said. “So there's just kind of a reality to what it looks like. But it’s always been inclusive. It’s always been diverse.”

Some longtime volunteers now feel left out of the new KDHX.

“They want to cast the people that built [KDHX] aside to find a new audience,” said Andrea “Drea” Stein, who was removed from her show in August after criticizing the station on social media and declaring that she would stop donating until she saw big changes. “And when they keep talking about diversity, equity and inclusion — I feel like I've earned my equity. And I also don't feel very included,” Stein added.

This week, a St. Louis Circuit Court judge denied Stein’s request for an injunction to restore her to the airwaves, but she is continuing her legal efforts.

Stein said that she supports DEI goals but that her feedback about the process has been disregarded.

“If they were to come to me and ask me to help find a bridge to reach out to the Black community and bring more people of color into the organization, I would bust my butt to do that,” Stein said. “I would mentor them. I would help them become as, I think, as powerful a DJ as I am. And gladly. But my input in any part of that process has been totally dismissed.”

Yet resistance to diversity efforts has created a “toxic culture” at the station, Pierson charged.

“There are people who are not on board with making KDHX a place that's safe for everybody, rather than for a few, and welcoming of everybody,” he said.

KDHX, an independent and listener-supported radio station, is photographed on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, in Midtown St. Louis.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
KDHX is an independent and listener-supported radio station in Midtown St. Louis.

Tension between staff and volunteers

Former DJs and their supporters say the move to take four DJs off the air earlier this year was motivated by personal animosity, in an environment where leaders play favorites and punish dissenters.

“The dismissal felt very personal. It just kind of ripped out my heart,” Stein said.

After parting ways with Ray in March, station leaders posteda public letter charging that he had “a long history of bullying, aggression and harassment toward certain members of the KDHX staff and even some board members.”

Ray said this week his show was canceled shortly after he advised Wells to “do her job” and post an online remembrance on behalf of the station for a longtime DJ who’d recently died. “I don't consider it bullying and harassing to call somebody on their failures,” Ray said brusquely.

Pierson said he is “fully confident” in Wells’ performance as executive director and suggested that criticisms of her management style could be rooted in sexism. She’s received emails calling her a “bitch” and urging her to leave St. Louis.

Station critics plan to meet Tuesday to take a vote of no confidence in two board members and symbolically elect their replacements. Pierson said that the station does not recognize it as an official meeting, but that he and Wells would attend if there are security protocols for attendees.

Wells and some board members said they have received many hostile emails and text messages. One email to Wells’ station email account reads: “I know where you live. We all do.”

KDHX leaders do not allege that the messages come from volunteers or that they were the reason for any DJ dismissals.

Some KDHX staff and board members have received hostile emails and texts.
St. Louis Public Radio
Some KDHX staff and board members have received hostile emails and texts.

Other complaints

Station supporters’ list of other issues with station leadership is long.

They wonder why KDHX had no presence at the 2022 Music at the Intersection festival, a centerpiece event in Grand Center from which KDHX’s studio is visible to concertgoers.

Stein said her messages to station staff often sit unanswered for weeks, and volunteers participate in board elections merely as a “rubber stamp.”

A board meeting this week was typical of a process in which volunteers have little say in the direction of the station, said Francine Case, a longtime listener and donor who decided to stop giving after Ray was removed from the airwaves.

It started late, had technical difficulties and featured a long statement by Pierson but offered no opportunity for volunteers to register their dissent, she said.

“They bully. They don’t listen to us at all. And we’re upset,” said Case. “It was so horrible, so unprofessional,” she added.

Coco disagreed with the board’s decision to lease the first floor of KDHX’s Grand Center building to the Kranzberg Arts Foundation in 2019, calling it a “declaration of mismanagement and failure.”

The first-floor space had previously been touted by station leaders as a centerpiece of the new facility — a source of revenue from a cafe there and a venue for community programs and a live performance series that was a member perk, encouraging donations.

While live, in-studio sets from musicians traveling through St. Louis on tour were a longtime feature of KDHX programming, Coco said, the studio that hosted those broadcasts now sits idle. The station has a new strategic plan but few of the extra programs that once made it distinct, he said.

Coco also was distressed by KDHX leaders’ decision to eliminate the station’s Folk School, a program for budding musicians. They began winding it down as part of the strategic planning process and ended it in June. A statement on the KDHX website explains the change: “‘Folk’ music is a niche that not everyone connects with as a way to learn to play music. Folk School programming served only a small portion of the KDHX communities.”

To Coco, that decision further eroded KDHX’s involvement in the local music community.

But these and other changes are best understood in the context of a difficult but necessary culture shift at the station, Pierson maintained. The goal, he said, is for KDHX to represent all of St. Louis better than it has in the past.

“We believe we have to go in that direction. And if that means there are people that are not a part of that anymore, we can still celebrate their legacy and their contributions and their involvement,” Pierson said. “But whether someone is the newest person or the longest-standing member, it's the same yardstick.”

After resigning from his staff job, Coco continued to host his weekly show and help out with technical issues around the station. Wells took him off the air last month, shortly after he criticized station management in a news article, on the grounds that he urged supporters to withhold donations.

Coco disputed that, saying that withholding donations is a bad idea he does not support.

“The dreams that we had built there are crumbling,” he said. “Nobody can speak up, because they're scared of losing their show.”

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.