KDHX critics seek leadership change as listeners confront a newly unfamiliar schedule
In one room of his Granite City home, Ital-K stores the spoils of more than 40 years collecting reggae music. One wooden cabinet holds thousands of CDs. Nearby, bookshelves are filled with vinyl records. Bob Marley looks down from several large photos on the wall.
From this room, Ital-K broadcasts at least once a week on internet radio station English Pound Radio. He’s cataloged his collection, so when he wants a particular deep cut, he can find the song in moments.
“There's a million songs that could come right after the song that’s playing. I'm picturing them on vinyl. I'm picturing them on CD. I'm picturing where I have it. And if I can put my hands on it, boom, I put it into play,” said the DJ, whose legal name is Kevin Smith.
For 15 years, he put his deep musical knowledge to work for KDHX listeners. He quit in protest last month after months of conflict with station leaders.
According to the program schedule on KDHX’s website, his old time slot now sits open. It’s one of 25 that remain unfilled after station leaders parted ways with a dozen DJs this year. About a dozen more quit in solidarity, some live over the air. Others promised to stay away until the dismissed DJs are allowed to return.
The result is 70 hours a week for which there is currently no on-air host listed.
The community radio station built a national reputation by offering expert curation from experienced DJs, some of whom had hosted their shows for as long as 30 years. Now longtime listeners grapple with a program schedule that is suddenly unfamiliar.
“They’re experts in the music that they play,” said Ital-K of the departed DJs. “They know the St. Louis history. They’ve got their audience. They’re part of people’s families.”
All of the music on the station, a KDHX spokesperson said this week, is still "curated by a human volunteer." There are 54 DJs currently with the station, he added.
To KDHX leaders, the departed DJs allegedly formed an old guard that chronically resisted changes at the station, including efforts to recruit a more diverse group of volunteers and employees.
“Under no circumstances will the station meet this group’s demands,” board President Gary Pierson said of station critics in a statement earlier this month. “The volunteers who were removed will not be reinstated no matter how many ‘strike.’ Volunteers are not entitled to be a part of any organization they are actively causing harm to, including our station.”
A changing sound
Pierson said the station is marching toward a new era, with new blood and an increased emphasis on diversifying its DJ pool.
The newest KDHX programmer is DJ Kut, a 30-year veteran of St. Louis clubs and airwaves whom the St. Louis American described as “a legend on the turntables” in 2020, when 95.5 FM The Lou cut him loose. He had hosted a show on the leading Black station for nearly a decade.
Although KDHX programming is musically diverse, including sounds from around the world, the attendees of a recent volunteer meeting were overwhelmingly white. Few appeared to be younger than middle age.
The fired DJs weren’t on board with an enhanced focus on diversity, equity and inclusion or were otherwise insubordinate, Pierson asserted when he announced the dismissals in September.
Many newly displaced DJs strongly denied the accusations and say Pierson's assertions were the first they heard of any alleged dispute with the station over DEI. Some argued Pierson was weaponizing the language of DEI to clear out volunteers who voiced legitimate complaints.
The authors of an anonymous letter in 2019 charged the station leadership with fostering a racist environment. Executive Director Kelly Wells and Pierson both considered resigning at the time, they recently disclosed on the KDHX airwaves.
“As a middle-age white woman, it's the scariest thing that can happen, right? I got called out for being racist,” Wells said.
Resigning would have been the easy way out, she said. Wells stayed in place with the support of the board. Pierson, who joined the board in 2014, later succeeded Paul Dever as its president.
Station leaders went “almost kicking and screaming” into a process of rooting out racism at KDHX after the 2019 accusations, Wells said.
“When I look back on 2019, I realize I'm a different person than I was in 2019,” Wells said. “And this organization is a different organization than we were in 2019.”
Finding a way forward
Many unhappy volunteers, including some of the departed DJs, say Pierson and Wells have to go before the station can move beyond its present crisis.
“I think they’ve lost touch with the community,” said Rich Reese, one of the fired DJs. “They don't accept any kind of criticism. You know, part of being a leader is accepting when you've done something wrong and correcting it and changing your course if need be. But it doesn't seem like they're willing to do that.”
Volunteers voted last month to unseat two KDHX board members and add Kip Loui, Darian Wigfall and Courtney Dowdall to the board. Pierson briefly attended the meeting. He announced that the board viewed the gathering as illegitimate and that any votes taken would have no legal standing, before a meeting facilitator cut him off.
KDHX dissidents have since said they will ask a court to compel the board to recognize the election.
“The station continues to implement its community-informed strategic plan to harness the power of music for the St. Louis community and beyond,” Pierson said this week in a statement responding to an interview request. “Like all nonprofits, our organization has a process to elect new board members, which we will continue to follow.”
Station critics want the board to expand — KDHX bylaws allow for up to 15 members, but there are currently only six.
Like so many time slots formerly occupied by longtime DJs, the other board seats remain unfilled.