Chris Ward has a simple plea for the listeners of St. Louis.
"You know when you get out of the shower and you slip into that computer chair, and you open up an incognito browser, and then ten minutes later — maybe five minutes later — you feel ashamed?" he queries into the air room's microphone. "You're not gonna feel ashamed when you go to support dot KDHX dot org and help our little music station grow and do our thing, and be loud and be stupid and scream and — whatever, man! You can do it. Just be part of this. We're a community station, and we depend on you!"
It is the night of Monday, August 25, and Ward is hosting his weekly radio show, loudQUIETloud, on KDHX (88.1 FM). This week's program is outside of the ordinary: The station is in the midst of what it has termed an "urgent" pledge drive — one which has been moved up suddenly from the fall date on which it was initially planned.
A poster board hangs on the wall; drawn in sharpie is that familiar thermometer infographic often used to indicate progress on a fundraising goal. At the top it says "$200,000." It's colored in to just past the $100,000 mark, with a little note of encouragement in the margin: "Yeah!!! 1/2 way there!"
Ward is dressed in a Hawaiian-style button-up over a Dolly Parton T-shirt, and he opts to stand as he alternates between screaming and softly, delicately encouraging donations. Though the station has officially set his program's individual goal at $500, Ward has vowed to raise $1 million by the night's end, at which point he says he will "electrocute myself on-air."
Sounds dramatic, yes, but these are times of high tension at KDHX. 2015 might well have been the roughest twelve months in the indie radio station's history.
At the start of the year, long-time executive director Beverly Hacker revealed to the board that the non-profit organization had lapsed on its payroll taxes and owed money to the IRS. Though she conceded that finances had always been tight, Hacker pointed to the station's December 2013 move into its shiny new building in Grand Center as a tipping point.
That building had been gifted to the station, which was outgrowing its home in a former bakery on Magnolia Avenue. Rehab work, however, did not come cheap. The cost of the move was just shy of $5 million, and fundraising efforts had generated only half of that amount.
In the wake of the revelation of the organization's tax trouble, nearly half of the board members abruptly resigned. By early August, as bills continued to pile up and staff members saw increasingly wide gaps between their paychecks, Hacker herself was handed her walking papers after 22 years with the station and fifteen in her leadership position.
The dissension continued: Just one month after that, a questionable alliance with Phillips 66 — signed off on by Hacker — angered some members of the local music community.
And so beyond the urgent financial situation is a more complicated — though no less fraught — question. What should KDHX be now that it's growing up? No longer housed in an old bakery, even with its $1.7 million annual budget, it still doesn't feel quite at home in its Midtown office suite.
The next year could well determine the future of the station: whether it remains cussedly independent and wonderfully weird — or takes a step toward being more like everybody else. Whether it can survive one of the worst financial crises of its existence — or whether even bigger changes will be necessary.
The question is whether the strife of 2015 will be a passing bad memory — or a long nightmare that the station just can't shake.
At 13,000 square feet, the building that serves as KDHX's new home is triple the size of its old headquarters, in which the station's staff members and volunteers worked virtually on top of one another. The ground floor houses a modest cafe and an event space, "The Stage at KDHX," which seats up to 140 people at tables in front of a bamboo stage.
Ward is in the air room on the building's second floor, surrounded by state-of-the-art equipment housed beyond a bank-vault-thick soundproof door that alone cost $2,000. Joining him is music director and fellow DJ Nick Acquisto, who is helping to solicit pledges from donors. He is wearing a T-shirt in tribute to the late Bob Reuter, erstwhile DJ of the station's Bob's Scratchy Records program, who died suddenly in August 2013 after a freak accident in an elevator shaft. Acquisto claims the shirt is "for luck" — and that it is working.
A photographer, singer/songwriter and radio personality, Reuter's name is sacred in many St. Louis circles, and he's perhaps more venerated at KDHX than anywhere else. The south-city firebrand was known for his over-the-top, howling approach to radio, throwing records across the room at times and always bringing a borderline-insane energy to his broadcasts that set them apart from commercial radio fare.
"KDHX is weird," Acquisto says into the mic. "We are outside of the norm. We do things differently. We sound strange. We always have, we always will. Some people don't like it, but we don't exist for those people. We exist for you. We exist for the listeners of St. Louis who listen to real radio, right here. We've been at it for nearly 30 years. We exist for the people out there that say, 'Normal is a little bit boring.'"
The ensuing two hours are certainly weird. Ward screams names of donors — along with "thank you"s — over the mix of rock and punk and old-school hip-hop pumping across the airwaves. He calls out the owner of Imo's Pizza for a "challenge gift." ("I want you to give some of that pizza money. You've been poisoning everyone with your pizza for so many years. You should feel guilty putting all that Provel on there! You should donate a little back!") A slide whistle makes an appearance, as does Ward's cat Cricket, who the DJ claims has been trained to ring a tiny bell with each donation (the cat's meows are real but pre-recorded, though Ward makes a big faux to-do about supposedly gathering Cricket out of his crate). At one point, Ward breaks into a boisterous rendition of Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On" at the request of a donor.
When Acquisto relays the station's mission statement — "Our mission here is to build community through media" — he acknowledges that "community" can be hard to define. But, he says, "It's sort of like the Supreme Court's definition of 'pornography' — you know what it is when you see it."