KDHX DJs Issue 'No Confidence' Letter in Executive Director Amid Continued Strife

The volunteers say they are being silenced, while KDHX's president says "we are absolutely in the best financial situation the organization has ever been in"

May 19, 2023 at 10:30 am
KDHX is located in Grand Center.

Every Monday, a group gathers to protest outside KDHX’s Grand Center studio from 4 to 6 p.m. They’re members of Save KDHX 88.1, a Facebook group with more than 800 members devoted to protesting what they see as the failings of an institution they once loved.

The physical protest group tends to be small. But it’s a symptom of the larger ongoing unhappiness between KDHX volunteers and leadership that stretches back to 2014, when a move from KDHX’s small Tower Grove East studio to its current home at 3524 Washington Avenue landed the nonprofit more than $2 million in debt. Since then, there have been a series of disputes that have flared into the public eye — including both layoffs and a major reckoning over the station’s treatment of Black staffers in 2019.

Tensions escalated again this week after a few things happened at once: The group issued a letter of no confidence in Executive Director Kelly Wells; a board of directors meeting pitted Board President Gary Pierson against volunteers; and KDHX sent out volunteer contracts that suggest that DJs who speak out about the station will have their shows canceled.

“I’m really, really upset and frustrated with where we’re at compared to where I’ve seen us over the years,” says Andy Coco, a current KDHX DJ and the station’s production and technology director until early last year.

For some time, a group of current and former DJs, who are all volunteers, have been meeting to discuss their unhappiness with the station. Coco says after many talks, the group began considering writing a letter of no confidence and looked for points everyone could agree on.

The result was a letter signed by 29 current volunteers and 16 former. The group sent the letter to the KDHX board of directors Monday. 

In it, they write that Wells has “not only failed in this mission but has alienated the community that supports and relies on 88.1 KDHX.” The letter highlights what the volunteers see as eight missteps, ranging from PR debacles — such as one earlier this year, when KDHX fired longtime DJ Tom “Papa” Ray — to “failing to train and support new volunteers.” It ends by asking the board to remove Wells from her position as executive director and to do a national search for a new one.

Wells has previously faced calls for her resignation, notably in 2019 as layoffs and resignations accompanied calls for greater racial sensitivity.

Early this month, on May 9, Board Director Gary Pierson sent out a letter to all volunteers, available on KDHX’s website. The letter seems to try to quash the outcry following Ray’s dismissal. Pierson tells the RFT he created his letter after he “saw things that were being circulated,” presumably an early version of the no confidence letter.

Pierson’s letter states that the board will not respond to social media posts, petitions or protests. He writes, “Not only are such actions undertaken by volunteers not consistent with the values and principles of KDHX, but in some cases, they may also violate the volunteer agreement.”

On a video call with the RFT  Thursday, Pierson says that the letter was intended to steer people toward an established conflict resolution process, to remind them that the board was already holding listening sessions and “to inject a little bit of my actual affection and love for the organization in there, too.”

But some volunteers felt the letter was meant to chill their speech and that the established conflict resolution process wasn’t available to everyone and didn’t involve “authentic dialogue.” 

Compounding these concerns is that, for the first time in many years, the station is requiring that DJs sign an annual volunteer producer agreement by May 31. 

It includes a section, “Producer Prohibitions,” that lists offenses that could result in “suspension or immediate dismissal.” One of the final prohibitions: “Airing KDHX internal business and/or conflicts on KDHX channels or social media.” 

Coco says there is a “culture of fear” at KDHX. “I think it just has to do with the idea that [the DJs are] all feeling like they are going to be removed, like Tom,” he says. 

One current DJ, who didn’t want to use a name because “I do enjoy doing my program” voiced concerns about having to filter their social media language.

“I face termination if I go out there with my name,” another DJ says. 

Yet another says, “That new agreement seriously compromises and stifles the voice, expression and opinion and musical ability of every volunteer DJ at KDHX.”

On the Thursday video call with the RFT, Wells says the volunteer agreement has been updated but is largely unchanged from previous years. What is different is that KDHX hadn’t before asked the DJs to sign it annually. 

She acknowledges that the line about airing KDHX business has been updated, though.

“That language has shifted a little over the years,” Wells says, noting that back in the day it only referred to “on-air” commentary. She continues, “We adjusted that this time to say social media, and I will be clear in saying this agreement was reviewed and updated earlier this year, far before any of the current frustrations were brought to light.”

Coco acknowledges that he worked on revising the agreement before he left his staff position and that some of the language was added in after a former DJ made an anti-trans post on Facebook that went viral.

When asked if KDHX would suspend a show if someone who signs the policy subsequently airs grievances with the station on social media, Wells laughs. 

“Well, I will say our goal will always be to seek a path toward resolution,” she says, adding that some situations might involve liability for the organization. “We’re not in the business of taking people off the air. We’re in the business of saying, ‘Let’s continue to understand each other and be in dialogue and work together. So that is our goal here, and that is precisely why that policy is new at KDHX because we want to send the signal and say, ‘Dialogue can happen first.’”

Monday night was KDHX’s monthly board of directors virtual meeting, which is open to anyone who emails Wells for credentials far enough ahead of time. It includes a public comment portion at the end for approved speakers. That’s where the group of volunteers delivered its letter of no confidence.

Just as Wells began to open the comments portion, Pierson jumped in to say that the board won’t allow comments about personnel decisions or “criticizing individuals or blaming people that you do or don’t like.” He added a little later that the board wouldn’t be responding to questions. 

When Wells couldn’t find the first scheduled speaker, she quickly moved on to volunteer Caron House, who read the letter of no confidence. Another member of the group behind the letter quickly emailed copies to the board, and the letter was also posted on a KDHX Slack channel.

As House reached the end of the letter, Pierson interrupted and asked her to stop. He said that the board would not listen to “attacks on any specific personnel” and that he would verify that with each subsequent speaker and just move on to the next if anyone acknowledged that they planned to mention an individual.

That interaction set the tone for the remainder of the comments. As each began, Pierson asked if they intended to talk about KDHX personnel by name or title — and, if so, he stopped them. 

“I deserve to be heard,” one person said before being cut off.

Everyone else got a chance to speak, but Pierson spoke over them if they got close to the forbidden topic. The commenters talked about KDHX’s finances and what they perceive as a lack of transparency, about the size of the board, about the lack of community advisory board meetings and the relationship between volunteers and donors. 

More than any other topic, they talked about how they feel they’ve been treated and how Pierson prevented the previous volunteer from speaking. 

One said, “I feel marginalized.” When Pierson started talking over him, the speaker continued, “When you over talk me, that shows me you disrespect me. … You’ve alienated the community.”

Another said, “The volunteers have been treated terribly in recent years. We are not consulted on changes made to our contract or why those changes are made. We're told we've lost editorial control of our shows. I feel like I can't plan anything or do anything unless I get it approved by somebody else.”

Yet another: “This started off as a grassroots organization, with democracy at its core, in some ways, and that is no longer the case.”

Finally, the last finished, and Pierson adjourned the meeting. 

Talking with the RFT on Thursday, Pierson and Wells attempt to refute many of the concerns brought up by the volunteers. The board, they say, can have up to 15 members according to the bylaws, but that’s not mandated by law. They say the community advisory board exists and is “in a process of reinvigoration” to better serve the community, and KDHX and is compliant with Corporation for Public Broadcasting requirements. Wells says there are “about eight” members. (Currently, no meetings are listed on KDHX’s website, and the no confidence letter states there have been no meetings for three years.) Additionally, Wells says programming decisions remain with the DJs. They note that one of the letters’ gripes, the lack of a music director, has actually meant less oversight.

KDHX, Wells and Pierson say, is in good health. There has been internal growth, Wells says, in the form of organizational resources like the employee handbook and volunteer agreements that have been updated through “an equity lens” in accordance with a strategic plan laid out in 2021. There are also new policies, like a hybrid and flex work agreements, that she says make KDHX a more accessible place to work.

She also claims there’s been an increase in listeners and donors, including a seven percent increase in the number of individual supporters. Audited financial statements publicly available on the KDHX website show a decrease in total noncurrent liabilities of $81,308 and a decrease of $71,734 in current liabilities since the end of 2021. 

Those same statements also show a small decrease in individual gifts, from $840,747 in 2021 to $818,388 in 2022. Nielsen Topline Ratings show that KDHX’s market rank has decreased from 2.3 in January 2023 to .6 in April 2023.

Pierson says KDHX has reduced its debt by more than $2 million since the move to Grand Center. 

“None of us can go back and change those decisions that led to there being a lot of debt. All we can do is try to work on doing that now,” he says. “The board’s worked really hard at that, a lot of volunteers have worked hard on that, a lot of donors have been very generous about that. And we are absolutely in the best financial situation the organization has ever been in.” 

When asked how KDHX has reduced its debt, Pierson points to successful donation strategies such as car donations. Wells also says the station has “applied the idea of multiplication by subtraction.” 

What she means is that KDHX has ceased to operate certain programs: the Folk School, the Magnolia Café and the Stage at KDHX, which is now rented to the Kranzberg Arts Foundation. Wells says these were “hard decisions,” but that ultimately KDHX is putting “resources into other things like radio programming.”

This is a point of contention with the volunteer group, which writes that Wells has “failed to exercise true stewardship over substantial capital investments” in its no confidence letter. 

Coco says that, for the board, the liability reduction is Wells’ main selling point. “She has reduced all liability with regard to their financial obligations by shutting everything down that was taxing us,” he says and also says that she cut off projects or programming where there might be a DEI problem. “She’s the golden child for that.”

Many DJs seem to feel that the board is out of touch and perhaps the real issue.

“It angers me that we're identifying her as the problem because she's a manifestation of a bigger problem of a board of directors that has their head up their ass, and her management going unnoticed,” Coco says. He voices frustration at several instances where Wells told him he was in “somebody else’s lane” when he would pick up work that was not being done. 

One DJ slams the board as “inept, worthless, useless, pathetic.” When asked why the letter was pointed at Wells, another DJ says that she is in control.

“We used to have a presence on the board,” the DJ says. “She eliminated that. If we’ve got a complaint or an issue about the board, it has to go through Kelly Wells, and it’s totally at her discretion … if we wanted to introduce somebody to the board, it would have to be approved by [her].”

One thing no one disputes is that everyone involved loves KDHX — even Wells’ detractors acknowledge her passion. Equally undisputable is how alienated many of the volunteers are. 

“She's a charming and charismatic and very committed individual,” one DJ says. “Her eyes light up as she talks about KDHX’s values. And so that's part of the dynamic here. We have Kelly Wells smiling. And Gary Pierson, baring his fangs at volunteers.”

Coco says, “All anybody wants is to do good programming and be involved and to collaborate.” That energy came together during the meetings that resulted in the letter. “It's bittersweet because it's like I'm getting an affirmation of my suspicion of how neglected they feel,” he says. 

Wells and Pierson refute some of the group’s complaints surrounding volunteer recruitment and support. They say the organization stopped bringing the volunteers in for in-person training during the pandemic but it has been restarted. 

“The amount of time that just myself and other board members and staff have spent reaching out to the community in the last several months is immense,” Pierson says.

Wells sees the KDHX community as larger than those who have signed the letter. She also says that they’ve tried to do outreach. To that end, they’ve added a Q&A to the KDHX website that answers some of the most frequent queries. 

“A lot of folks remember KDHX when we were a grassroots organization in south city, and we understand that,” she says. “That's in the nostalgia that is really meaningful to a lot of folks, the idea of kind of the good old days of KDHX. And also KDHX has grown up quite a bit over the years … a lot of the accessibility and connection that folks felt and remember about those days when we were smaller, we want to be able to extend that accessibility to KDHX to a growing and broader audience, and to more of the communities that we serve.”

The loss of the connection of the old days is indeed an issue for many volunteers. DJs talk about how they used to intermingle, convivial, with the staff in one space. They say volunteers are now not allowed into the fourth floor of KDHX — the staff space. They feel isolated.

Some say there is no support for them as DJs and that their staff point of contact has been unengaged and unhelpful when they do off-station events. One DJ who did not sign the letter describes excitement about a community coordinator position that was outlined in the strategic plan and then disillusionment when the role was never filled.

“The mission of KDHX is something I philosophically and almost spiritually stand behind,” the DJ says. “And that mission being one of building community through media, bringing people together through music, that mission has continually been thwarted by the structural limitations imposed by the board and the staff.”

When different groups look at the same circumstances and draw totally different conclusions, what can be done?

Different members of the volunteer group say the way forward begins with Wells resigning, or with Wells staying but with a different board. Some say that both Wells and the board should go. 

Others feel there might be no solution. 

Coco is one. “Can it come back? Can it be what it was, now? I’m back to no,” he says.

Wells obviously has a different perspective.

“Obviously, this letter is hurtful,” she says. “I think most people would experience some pain from a letter like this. I also feel resolved, and I feel like there’s an opportunity here.” 

She talks about the passion people bring to KDHX, about the people who didn’t sign the letter and the importance of the organization’s mission. 

“I think things like this, saying we're willing to [work together], can change the world,” she adds. “This is a place we can show up where we are. That's hugely important. It's all we can do.”

This story has been updated.

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