Online speculation swirled among unhappy KDHX community members in the hours leading up to today’s live on-air Q&A with Executive Director Kelly Wells and Board President Gary Pierson. Others shared earnest questions, some hoping that they might finally get straight answers.
“1.5 hours until they resign on air,” one person wrote on Facebook.
John Wendland, who’d been dismissed as a DJ the week before, replied: “Welcome to the current episode of ‘Controlling the Narrative’ presented by Gary Pierson and Kelly Wells!”
Wendland, it turned out, was on the money.
The two leaders’ chat, which stretched to almost an hour and a half, incorporated them reading a few questions they’d selected and touched on the fiscal health of the station (“as strong as it’s really ever been,” Pierson said), the strategic plan, allegations of racism the two had faced in 2019 and the decision to stay with the organization then, what they considered the difference between “dialogue” or “conflict” and “creating a culture of dissent,” and more. Throughout their remarks, the two acknowledged the current unrest — and even admitted some responsibility for the racial unrest at the station in 2019 — but stood behind their decisions this year.
“We continue to evolve and grow together,” Wells said at one point.
Earlier, she said she’d felt “pain” at losing the programmers.
“I'm definitely experiencing that sadness, not just this week, but throughout the last six or seven months,” Pierson said. “There's been a lot of pain and a lot of sadness around change. Change is one of the most difficult things for us to deal with.”
At times, the two spoke in somber tones, Pierson’s voice softer across the airways than those who’d heard him speak in board meetings or at Tuesday’s associates’ meeting might expect. Yet at other moments, the two laughed together, sharing how they’d send each other music picks.
They also played two songs: Pierson picked Abraham Alexander’s “Tears Run Dry” and Wells selected Rhiannon Giddens’ “Music and Joy.”
“Your musical selections are inspiring,” Pierson told her on air.
The Q&A caps off a week of unhappiness among volunteers and fans of the station following last Friday’s mass dismissals. Since then, turmoil has riled the already-riled-up listener community, which cheered on and mourned as DJ after DJ resigned on-air — and, conversely, encouraged each other to support those who choose to remain in their positions.
Less than 20 minutes before Wells and Pierson were scheduled to appear, a group of KDHX volunteers working to form a union, the League of Associate Members of KDHX, emailed out an open letter demanding that Pierson and Wells step down, that the DJs be reinstated and that the the board seat three new members that a group of 50-some associate members voted on Tuesday at a special meeting.
“We charge the management with ‘conduct not consistent with the vision for KDHX.’ Not the original vision of the station, not the vision demanded by the mission and values of KDHX and not even the Strategic Vision established by management,” the group wrote, adding that it did not believe that its demands would be answered.
“The question has come up of whether DJs have any rights — a right to be on the air, a right to strike, a right to have a say in the station’s management. The answers to these questions are not readily apparent,” it continued. “What is apparent is that all the DJs – the ones who were fired, the ones who have left in protest, the ones who remain on the air, the ones who are on strike — all of them are bound by — and bound together — by a sense of duty: a duty to KDHX; a duty to serve the community through music; a duty to support our fellow DJs and volunteers; and a duty to fight for the station in the right way — even if it isn’t always clear what that way is.”
The letter also identified 13 DJs who have resigned or gone on strike since Friday — Art Dwyer, Kevin Smith (Ital-K), Jeff Frelich (Professor Skank), Tim Rakel, Brian Lock, Mark “Sunnyboy” Mason, Kevin Straw (Mr. Roots), Glenda Volk, Matt Hietter (Matty Dread), Nick Cowan, Al Swacker, Jeff Corbin and Steve Pick — as well as the 13 who have been fired. (Kawaii Brown, a.k.a. DJ She BEATz, also appears to be leaving KDHX; on September 14, she announced on Facebook that she’ll be moving her show, She Healz, to Spotify.)
All of those let go, except for Ray, were terminated just months after signing a letter of no confidence in Wells in May. That letter followed Ray’s dismissal, but it also identified seven points of contention that ranged from KDHX ending its involvement with assets such as its performance space and Folk School to not holding Community Advisory Board meetings for several years.
During the Q&A, Pierson said the firings came after “efforts that were made, lawsuits that were filed, meetings that were held” following the dismissal of a single DJ earlier this year — but that they stand behind the decision and the reasons behind it.
It was a change for Pierson, who earlier alleged racism and resistance to new diversity, equity and inclusion efforts as the reason for the terminations, before walking back those allegations to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“It’s really hard to just, like, try to be open and try to be honest about where we’re going and to say things that are hard for people to hear,” Pierson said.
Wells responded by saying that she was acknowledging there were ways that she’d failed this year, but that she’d learn and improve from her mistakes.
“In that way failure almost becomes an oxymoron,” she said. “If what you’re doing is learning and growing through it.”
This story has been updated to add Ital-K's name.
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