KDHX Volunteers Vote to Oust 2 Board Members After Mass DJ Firings

Board President Gary Pierson tried to stop the meeting, but organizers say the law is on their side

click to enlarge Associate Members of KDHX held a meeting to take a no confidence vote on two board members yesterday in the Central Stage space.
Jessica Rogen
Associate Members of KDHX met Tuesday night in the Central Stage space.
A group of approximately 50 KDHX volunteers voted to remove two members of the station’s board of directors and voted on three new directors at a special meeting last night. The moves by the community radio station’s associate members come after days of unrest after Executive Director Kelly Wells and Board President Gary Pierson dismissed 10 volunteer DJs and put another 12 on notice.

KDHX’s bylaws allow associate members to elect one director annually for a three-year term — and members say they believe they also have the power to unseat that representative if they choose. The associate members had two such members on the board, Franc Flotron and Ray Finney, and both received votes of no confidence.

The group also nominated, interviewed and voted on three replacements: Kip Loui, a musician ingrained in the St. Louis scene; Courtney Dowdall, a longtime listener and donor with board and nonprofit experience; and Darian Wigfall, who was KDHX’s events coordinator before departing in a wave of what many viewed as racially motivated staff reductions in 2019. Official results of the vote were not public by the time of publication.

The RFT sent a list of questions to Pierson through KDHX’s strategic communications consultant but did not hear back by the given deadline.

There is some question, however, as to whether the DJs have the legal right to remove board members and re-elect replacements midterm. A handout given to all attendees laid out meeting conduct and, on the back, cited portions of the Missouri Nonprofit Corporation Act that allow for calling a special meeting and removal of directors voted in by members. 

Caron House — director of grants at Fontbonne University, one of the station’s ousted DJs and the former chief development officer for KDHX — served as facilitator for the meeting. She noted that the group had served notice to the board by certified mail asking for a regular meeting. When that was ignored, she said they followed protocol to call a special meeting.

click to enlarge About 50 associate members were in attendance.
Jessica Rogen
About 50 associate members were in attendance.
As for the removals: “We do have rights under the Missouri statute, so we can take this to court.”

Board Director Gary Pierson took a different view. He burst into the meeting a few minutes before House made her comments to contest the validity of the gathering.

“I'm here to state that this meeting is not a validly called meeting of the corporation. It is not a legal meeting,” he said, speaking over an associate member who was mid-question and then House, who called out that he was violating Robert’s Rules of Orders. 

“I'm also calling your attention to the fact that as the president of the Board of Directors, the bylaws dictate that I or whoever serves in that position — ” he said before his remarks became too difficult to hear. “Therefore this is not valid.”

“You’re out of order,” House responded.

After Pierson departed, House continued: “OK, and with those comments, I think we’re ready to begin.”

Though the staff and the board of directors had been issued invitations to attend, none aside from Pierson appeared to be present. The two members who faced the no confidence vote also did not attend.

Before the meeting, Pierson voiced concerns to the associate members about safety, writing in an email obtained by the RFT that the board and staff had received “numerous threats and harassment” and asking if there would be security. In response, House told the RFT that they had hired two security officers to be present. 

Despite the expressed concerns, the mood of the meeting was calm and even amiable, even during Pierson’s interruption. During the discussions before each no-confidence vote, several associate members even spoke in favor of the two board members.

Ron Edwards, one of the “1987 class” (a description used to denote a founding DJ at the station), noted Flotron’s history of supporting the DJs. But others, including Roy Kasten, who’d been removed as a DJ on Friday, said that Flotron frequently seemed out of it. Another added that he’d attended about only 40 percent of the bi-monthly board meetings of late. 

He was dismissed with only two votes to retain him. It was much the same for Finney, though he received less support, as no one in the room seemed to know him. People who had observed recent meetings noted that he rarely, if ever, spoke, though his attendance was better.

Loui, Wigfall and Dowdall in turn were nominated, seconded, thirded and brought up to introduce themselves to answer the three questions that House had intended to put to Flotron and Finney (as well as a few from the room): How they’d envision their “role and responsibilities” toward the associate members, how to improve the relationships among stakeholders and how the board would create accountability for and to the stakeholders.

Each received applause and nods of approval from the crowd when their answers hewed close to the group’s complaints with current leadership. For Loui, the approval came as he talked about communication. 

“Right now, you know, the house is on fire. Let's put the fire out. And then we can figure out what we're going to do,” Loui said, after touching on a long-range desire to discern the station’s community, before stepping off stage.

All affirmed they’d invite the terminated DJs back to the station. “I think the first step, if I were a board member, would be to ask the board to stop dismissing the associates or DJs,” Wigfall said to applause.

Dowdall, who identified herself as the “least known person” among the nominees, got her moment when discussing what she saw as the station’s lack of progress toward the strategic plan it initiated in 2021 and was supposed to complete by 2024.

“The strategic plan, I thought, had a lot of potential,” she said. But she suggested the station would need to think about how to fulfill it. “[It] doesn’t have a lot of action steps toward, ‘What are our goals? What are our targets? Who are new audiences we want to reach? Who are new partnerships we want to establish?’”

click to enlarge Adrian Wigfall (left) and Courtney Dowdall (right) are two of the potential new board members.
Jessica Rogen
Darian Wigfall (left) and Courtney Dowdall (right) are two of the potential new board members.
As she spoke, heads nodded in the audience, including that of Ann Haubrich, grants and programs senior manager at the Regional Arts Commission, who attended as an observer along with MK Stallings, RAC research and evaluation manager. 

As the ballots to elect the new members were printed, House read a statement out on the behalf of RAC and the Kranzberg Arts Foundation saying that both are neutral parties. (The Kranzberg Arts Foundation did provide the meeting space, on the first floor of the building that houses the station, to the group for no charge, House told the RFT). 

She also read one from RAC CEO and president Vanessa Cooksey about Sound Diplomacy — a study of and for the St. Louis music industry — as being a collaboratively funded work between RAC and the Kranzberg Arts Foundation. The report was cited in KDHX’s press release announcing the dismissals on Friday, but House explained the study was misused as a “justification for the mass firings of programmers last Friday.”

“I just wanted to make sure that you know two of our stalwart supporters are not being vilified because they put together a really interesting study for you,” House said. 

Racism, DEI and Backlash

House’s statements allude to the backlash following the station’s dismissal of 10 DJs on Friday. Many in attendance were angered by comments from KDHX and Pierson suggesting that the DJs who were let go opposed the station’s focus on diversity, equity and inclusion.

“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,” Pierson told St. Louis Public Radio on Friday and made similar remarks to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

A KDHX press release announcing the dismissals Friday and a “bold new vision” for the station that included amplifying “underrepresented voices in music” seemed to say something similar.

On Monday, Pierson walked that assertion back with the P-D, instead citing disruptive speech and actions as the reason for the dismissals. But it was too little too late to prevent community uproar. 

A Change.org petition calling for a new board circulated on Facebook, gaining more than 2,000 signatures by publication time. People and businesses, including the Venice Cafe, posted photos of themselves peeling off their KDHX stickers from cars and windows. Jonathan Parker of the Richmond Heights wine shop Parker’s Table wrote on Facebook that he was canceling his underwriting support for the KDHX concert calendar.

“Integrity, responsibility, honesty, and transparency are essential to the community Parker’s Table wishes to be part of,” he wrote. “We support diversity, equity, inclusion, and reject oppression.”

Things weren’t better on the air, as DJs — including Tim Rakel, Kevin Smith (Ital-K), Art Dwyer and Jeff Frelich (Professor Skank) — resigned their positions at the end of their shows, which the station subsequently deleted from its archives online. Others designed programs filled with coded messages within the song titles or spoke of their disappointment on air. 

In their wake, the online community pointed out huge holes in the KDHX on-air schedule, which was not at full capacity even before Friday’s dismissals, being filled by an AI-generated playlist.

Rakel, who announced on air that he was on strike, told the RFT that he couldn’t stay “in good conscience.”

“It is curious that all of the people that were fired were white,” he said. “Most of them were male. But I do not believe any of those DJs that were released made any stands against diversity and inclusion. That's a blatant lie, what they're saying, on the level of libel.”

Michael Kuelker, one of the dismissed DJs, also spoke with the RFT of his shock at being let go and at the “false allegations made about being fired.”

Kuelker referred to the 2019 racial reckoning at KDHX, during which staffers and volunteers of color criticized how they were treated under Wells, with at least five reporting bad experiences under her leadership. Wigfall was part of that group. On Tuesday, he told the RFT that he was willing to come back and give his “time and energy” to changing things and representing the people in the room.

Kuelker noted that there has been no change in the diversity of station staff members, who he said are all white. (A look at the seven staff members listed on KDHX’s website seems to confirm that statement, and the board seems barely more diverse.) He also pointed out that KDHX has said that it is developing an “anti-racist charter” for years. The station published such a charter on its website just yesterday. 

“Their fealty regarding diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism exists mostly on paper,” he said.

Ital-K, who identified himself as one of the 12 DJs required to go through mediation, spoke of Pierson “disparaging” the volunteers in print. He, along with Rakel, Kuelker and House, say that the station had never reached out to the DJs to provide DEI training or anything similar. 

“Whatever Gary Pierson says, it’s the exact opposite. He doesn’t tell the truth. They’re not into diversity,” Ital-K told the RFT.

Of particular concern to the DJs has been the board’s shrunken size — only 8 of a possible 15 seats are filled — that some, like Ital-K, see as a way to consolidate power and the board and staff’s lack of response for requests for dialogue with the DJs and other volunteers.

“[Pierson is acting] like he’s king of the hill, but he’s not answering the community’s questions and they have every right to ask them,” Ital-K said. 

Union Efforts

click to enlarge Attorney Christopher Blake Schwarz (far right on stage) speaks about the union efforts.
Jessica Rogen
Attorney Christopher Blake Schwarz (far right on stage) speaks about the union efforts.

Before Tuesday’s meeting was called to order, Christopher Blake Schwarz, an ousted DJ and lawyer, got on stage to update the associate members on an effort to form a union and gain collective bargaining with the station. He said a petition was filed with the National Labor Relations Board this week. 

“We have heard from the information office of NLRB that we can go ahead and apply,” Schwarz said. 

He told the RFT that they had 50 signatures on the petition, roughly 50 percent of those eligible and well over the 30 percent threshold needed. He added that there is some question if volunteer staff is eligible for unionization but that the application process is open to them.

“It might be ripe for review,” Schwarz said. “Because so many organizations and so many foundational pieces in our society rely on volunteers.”

Schwarz is also representing Drea Stein, who was fired from her volunteer position last month, in a lawsuit against Wells and KDHX that seeks to reinstate her as a DJ. Last week, a judge denied her a temporary restraining order but allowed the suit to go on.

This story has been updated to add KDHX's Anti-Racist Charter.

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About The Author

Jessica Rogen

Jessica Rogen is managing editor for the Riverfront Times. Send her your food, arts, film, theater, music and other culture happenings.
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