Tom 'Papa' Ray Speaks Out After KDHX Firing

After more than 30 years on air, the Vintage Vinyl owner was let go from his volunteer position Tuesday

Mar 1, 2023 at 2:31 pm
click to enlarge Ray outside Vintage Vinyl after being let go from KDHX.
Courtesy Tom "Papa" Ray
Ray outside Vintage Vinyl after being let go from KDHX.

After more than 30 years behind the microphone, Vintage Vinyl record store owner Tom "Papa" Ray will no longer DJ on the community radio station KDHX (88.1 FM).

Ray hosted the show Soul Selector, highlighting soul, blues and R&B on Mondays from 4 to 7 p.m.

Ray announced his departure from the station on Facebook, saying he was fired on a Zoom call with KDHX executive director Kelly Wells. Ray said in the post that his firing stemmed from his disagreements with and criticism of Wells.

Ray tells the RFT that his discord with Wells was long in the making. 

Last August, longtime KDHX host John McHenry passed away. For almost 30 years McHenry had hosted the station’s Blursday rhythm and blues program. But, Ray says, after McHenry died at age 75, weeks passed without the station issuing any sort of statement or memorialization.

Ray says that he sent Wells a "terse" email about what he saw as an oversight and was told that she would only meet with him if a consultant acting as a neutral facilitator was present.

"She wouldn't say how much money the station has spent on consultants," Ray says. "It really wasn't my place to ask that."

The RFT reached out to KDHX via the station's media relations email as well as by phone, but has not heard back. Wells also did not respond to a message today. (Editor's note: See update at the bottom of the story with a statement from Wells received soon after publication.)

In September, Ray says Wells again offered to meet with him with a neutral facilitator present. According to Ray, she told him that agreeing to the meeting was the only path forward for him at KDHX.

"We had that meeting," Ray says. "It really didn't resolve anything."

Among Ray’s other gripes were that the station had no presence at last summer’s debut Music at the Intersection, despite the fact that other radio stations operated booths at the festival and that it was nearly in KDHX's backyard. Ray also said that he was once given malfunctioning equipment for an appearance at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Monday night, Ray says that there was a Zoom meeting with Wells and longtime station volunteers. The meeting was scheduled during Soul Selector, but Ray got a fill-in host for his show so he could attend. He'd hoped to voice some of his concerns, but he said the meeting was "so scripted and choreographed that literally you couldn't ask a question or say anything."

"She's built this station so basically she can't be questioned about any of her questions or behaviors," Ray says. 

On Tuesday, Ray was called into a Zoom meeting with Wells and the president of the KDHX board of directors, Joan Bray.  

"The moment it started, Kelly started reading a prepared statement saying my services were no longer needed and I had done my last radio show at KDHX," Ray says. 

Both Wells’ ascension to the director’s role and her years in it have been marked by turmoil.

In 2014, KDHX fell behind on its quarterly payroll taxes after expenses mounted from the move from its long-time Tower Grove East headquarters to its current home in Grand Center. The following year, nearly half of the board of directors of the station resigned and Executive Director Beverly Hacker was fired after 22 years on staff. 

That’s when Wells, a longtime employee, was brought in as interim executive director, a promotion that soon became permanent.

But the problems continued.

In 2019, staffers described to the RFT “a culture of dysfunction,” saying that employees who questioned leadership often faced retaliation or even termination. They alleged a “staggering rate of turnover at the station in the past year,” saying that at least eight employees quit or were fired from an organization that only listed ten staff positions in total.

Musician Syrhea Conaway, a now-former member of the station’s programming committee, criticized Wells’ approach to diversity, equity and inclusion, noting that at least five employees or volunteers of color had bad experiences under her leadership. Wells, she said, had "no business being leadership at KDHX, or anywhere … It comes down to, in my opinion, just poor leadership. Poor management skills. No emotional intelligence."

Said former event coordinator Darian Wigfall, “Kelly is going to kill that organization if left to her devices."

At the time, Wells had said the station was moving into a new phase of examining what it meant to be a true community organization, which involved diversifying staff and programming. "And we've entered into an uncomfortable space of trying to figure out how to do that," she said. "And that's what we're learning through right now and what we're continuing to pursue."

As for Ray, he has been a St. Louis institution for decades. With Lew Prince, he began Vintage Vinyl at the Soulard Farmers Market in 1979, and the shop became a must-visit for music lovers and touring bands alike.

Prince left the shop in 2015, but Ray has no such plans, telling St. Louis Public Radio in 2020, “My retirement plan is to drop dead on the floor of the store, talking to somebody about music, and I hope it doesn’t mess them up too much.”


One hour after publication, Wells reached out on behalf of KDHX with this statement:

"Tom Ray has contributed his time and talents to serving the community through his volunteer role at KDHX for more than 35 years. We are grateful for and honor his legacy and commitment. We wish him well as he continues his journey.

"In 2020, KDHX committed to transforming this organization. The transformation was cocreated with our partners —- listeners, donors, staff, and volunteers. Through this process, we collectively developed a new purpose statement, a set of organizational values, and a strategic plan to guide our work and operationalize our commitments. In implementing this strategic plan and living into our values, KDHX has made a number of organizational changes, including the separation from Tom Ray. This decision was not made lightly, nor was it the comfortable or easy choice for anyone. The process of making the decision and the actions we took were aligned with the values and actions our community helped create in 2020.

"We understand that change can be uncomfortable. We are building a foundation at KDHX that is grounded in our values of stewardship, independence, partnership, integrity, discovery, passion, and joy so that we will be resilient into the future as we work together to build community through media."

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