KDHX's Push for Diversity Dogged By Firings, Furloughs and Resignations

KDHX's Push for Diversity Dogged By Firings, Furloughs and Resignations

When Syrhea Conaway first joined KDHX's programming committee, she just wanted to help.

A local musician, teaching artist, youth mentor and adjunct faculty member at COCA, she'd been approached by the station's executive director, Kelly Wells, she says, and asked to help with the organization's goals of increasing diversity and inclusion in its programming, which had for years been accused of leaning too heavily on folk music and similar genres with largely white fan bases. Conaway, like many in the St. Louis area, regarded the independent radio station highly, and as a black woman she supported those stated goals. She was appointed to the volunteer position by the board of directors in March 2018.

"I take pride in the work that I do, and I don't just join things just to be like, 'Oh, I'm on this and I do this,'" she explains. "It's not about me. I believe in this stuff."

Conaway wasn't the only local black luminary brought on to KDHX (88.1 FM) under Wells. Darian Wigfall, a former scientist at Washington University as well as an author, youth mentor and current director of operations for the artist collective FarFetched, was hired on as event coordinator in June 2017. Vice Chairman of the St. Louis Blues Society Alonzo Townsend, the son of Grammy-winning blues legend Henry Townsend and a former entertainment director at the National Blues Museum, as well as co-head of local label Knox Entertainment, was hired as community engagement coordinator in July 2018.

Larry Morris, coordinator for the Multicultural Center and International Student Affairs at Webster University and frontman for the local hip-hop collective Illphonics, was brought on to the programming committee in April 2018. Local musician Tonina Saputo, whose accolades include being named one of the best new artists of 2018 by both NPR and former President Barack Obama, was brought on as music coordinator in August 2018.

If the goal was to promote diversity and inclusion, as Wells told Conaway, KDHX had hired itself a veritable dream team.

But today, only Conaway and Saputo remain ­— and the latter was furloughed indefinitely on July 23. Wigfall was "quit-fired," as he terms it, in September 2018. Townsend was let go in April 2019. Morris stepped down from the programming committee in June. And each of the five had negative experiences at the station that became Exhibit A in a detailed, seven-page letter written by an anonymous group of former staffers and volunteers and released to media in May.

Wells and the board have pushed back on the letter's claims, saying many of its most incendiary allegations are simply not true. But what is irrefutable is that the station is facing the awkward prospect of the majority of its former dream team turning on it – and that many of those recruited by Wells to increase diversity have become her harshest critics.

Conaway freely admits she has one foot out the door.

"My heart feels bad being here. I don't want to be here," she says she told leadership earlier this year. "I want to do this work, but it seems like you guys don't want to do the work. I feel like I'm being used. And I have no problem just packing up my stuff and saying, 'Thank you for the opportunity, but no thanks.'"

In early January, KDHX's Facebook account shared a meme. Playing off the "distracted boyfriend" memes then filling social media, it depicted two people: one a man of unclear ethnicity strumming on an acoustic guitar, the other a smiling white woman with her head turned away bashfully. Text on the man identified him as "KDHX," while the woman was marked as "St. Louis."

Accompanying the image was a question. "At KDHX, our new year's resolution is to serve the community in more mindful, more engaging and more inclusive ways. What do you want to see and hear from the station in 2019?"

Some commenters responded in earnest. "Ease up on the banjos," one wrote. "More metal and punk. Keep the reggae and throwback hip-hop though," said another.

But some found the choice of imagery a bit ... odd.

"I didn't realize KDHX was trying to get in St. Louis' pants," wrote one commenter. "This gal looks sooooo uncomfortable and wishes this dude would just stop," opined another. "Would love to know the gender of the individual who thought that a stock photo of a woman being low-key sexually harassed was an ideal choice," added a third.

Eric Hall, a well-known local musician, combined those approaches.

"I think the image you shared might help explain how off-target your impression of what the St. Louis community both is and wants if you're supposing St. Louis is a giggly white woman and KDHX is a dude playing acoustic guitar at her in a cut-off flannel," he wrote.

In some ways, the discussion seems trivial – the image, after all, was a meme. But it came during a time that KDHX was actively trying to be more inclusive in its programming – something even the post itself referenced.

And rather than take Hall's criticism as constructive, whoever was manning KDHX's Facebook account fired back in the comments, accusing him of "trolling" and "complaining."

Hall, seldom one to back down from an online scrap, responded, "When directly asked how you could better serve the community, my expressing that KDHX seems to be largely old white people music and not actually aware of the broader community is considered trolling?"

The sniping continued for several days. Finally, a week later, the station apologized, stating simply in the comments, "We are sorry for the tenor of this post. We are listening."

Behind the scenes, Conaway was baffled by the station's approach. She and Morris addressed the matter at the next meeting of the programming committee, telling the station's leadership that depicting St. Louis as a blushing white woman was problematic.

"OK, maybe y'all didn't think about that image. And it's OK, mistakes happen, that's how you learn," Conaway says of the incident. "But to be very defensive and argumentative as the official KDHX page? This is not rocket science. You guys need to own your mistakes. You messed up, come out and say, 'You know what, this image we posted was problematic and we're gonna do better.' You know, just own it!"

KDHX leadership says a management meeting was subsequently held to implement better practices around content creation and publication.

Taken alone, the ill-chosen meme may not seem like much. But for some staffers and volunteers, it was just the latest tone-deaf action in a long roster, many of them with unpleasant racial overtones. In anonymous letters sent to the board and then later the media, they accuse station brass of tokenism, saying black staffers were made to pose for social media posts meant to highlight the station's diversity; discrepancies between the treatment of white staffers and those of color; bait-and-switch tactics with job titles and responsibilities, wherein black staffers are hired on to one job only to see their responsibilities and titles immediately reduced; and awkward instances of racial insensitivity.

The RFT spoke with more than a dozen current and former KDHX staffers, programmers and volunteers, including those who were responsible for the anonymous letters. Most asked to remain anonymous. They describe a culture of dysfunction, saying that employees who question leadership are often terminated or otherwise face retaliation. They also claim there's been a staggering rate of turnover at the station in the past year – at least eight employees have quit or been let go at an organization that currently lists only ten staff positions on its website.

click to enlarge Syrhea Conaway joined KDHX's programming committee in March 2018, hoping to help the station increase its diversity. She quickly became disillusioned. - THEO WELLING
Syrhea Conaway joined KDHX's programming committee in March 2018, hoping to help the station increase its diversity. She quickly became disillusioned.

According to KDHX's leadership, five full-time employees were fired between January 2018 and June 2019, all KDHX staffers. They say three part-time employees of its first-floor cafe and bar were let go in that time period as well, but the station does not list those positions on its website.

Three out of those eight who were fired were people of color, KDHX's leadership acknowledges. Townsend and Wigfall were two of the station's black staffers that were fired, along with a part-time bar employee. Then, on July 23, four KDHX staffers were furlouged indefinitely without pay for financial reasons. Digital Media Cordinator KE Luther, Production Coordinator Jon Valley, Officer Manager Kati Giblin and Saputo, the station's music department coordinator and sole remaining black staffer, were all told not to report to work for the foreseeable future. KDHX denies that any racial bias was behind the firings. "KDHX treats people fairly and has only dismissed people for cause, and by the book," Board President Paul Dever says. Still, for an organization that has touted efforts to increase its diversity, it's clearly a step back. And now, the station's website lists just five non-furloughed employees — all of them white.

The allegations against KDHX probably would not get much traction at another station. Few of the complaints about KDHX's leadership rise to a level that would worry an HR department in corporate radio. For example, some critics don't like the fact that Wells, who is white, wears her hair in dreadlocks. While that's a common cause of consternation in progressive circles, it likely wouldn't register as a blip on the radar in a different environment.

But KDHX doesn't have advertisers; it has donors, who were responsible for nearly half of its $1.38 million in revenue in 2017, according to its annual report. Proudly independent and non-corporate, its progressive values are a big part of its calling card. It doesn't broadcast to make money; its 81 independently produced shows and seven podcasts "proudly present independent voices and opportunities for all" and "strive to reflect the diversity of our community as we fulfill our mission to build community through media."

From Conaway's perch as a volunteer, her assessment is that KDHX is good at lofty platitudes but not serious about actually doing the necessary work to truly make the station a diverse and inclusive environment.

"Kelly is a very talented writer and speaker," she says of the station's executive director, Wells. "She's a very talented orator. She will say things that are very inspiring, but then you watch her and she will not do those things."

Conaway adds, "There's a misalignment between actions and words. But for people who don't actually see what's going on behind the curtain, they rally behind what she says, because what she says are things that people can definitely believe in. But it's the doing that I'm more concerned about. I don't care what you say. You shouldn't have to say anything to me; I should see it by what you do. And I'm not seeing it."

The people behind the letter say they never wanted it to get to this point. But KDHX has no human resources director, so staffers with grievances are told to follow a chain of command: Bring any complaints to an immediate supervisor first, then to Wells, then, finally, come to the board.

Interestingly enough, that's how Wells herself ended up as executive director. In 2015, as KDHX fell behind on its payroll taxes and employees began receiving their paychecks late, Wells, then KDHX's chief engagement officer and director of the station-affiliated Folk School, which hosts classes and workshops dedicated to the genre, led a group of staffers to approach the board with their concerns. The station's longtime executive director was subsequently terminated by Dever, and Wells was named interim executive director. A few months later, the "interim" was dropped. 

Now she's the one at the center of many of the letters' complaints.

In the first letter, hand-delivered to each board member in March and later obtained by the RFT, the anonymous writers alleged mismanagement of funds, retaliatory treatment of employees and poor leadership, and they asked the board to investigate.

In response, Dever called the allegations "vague and ambiguous" in an email obtained by the RFT. "Without more specificity about your concerns, it is simply impossible for KDHX to investigate or to respond," he wrote.

That's when the group, which identifies itself only as "Concerned Parties," reached out to local media.

"Anonymous claims are necessary in an organization that has been strategically structured, by the Executive Director, to have totalitarian control over the institution," that letter alleged. "These claims are necessary when employees who question strategies, finances, and benefits are terminated without just cause or documentation. They are necessary when the ED has the board wrapped around their finger and publicly slanders anyone who expresses concern."

The letter wraps up with a clear statement of the group's goals.

"The music community, the arts community, the regional community deserve better," it concludes. "Remove the Executive Director and Engagement Officer who violate ethical and legal standards. If the board refuses to do their duties in oversight, remove them too. This is overdue."

click to enlarge Darian Wigfall says he spent nearly a year asking for diversity training at KDHX. He was fired a week before it was held. - THEO WELLING
Darian Wigfall says he spent nearly a year asking for diversity training at KDHX. He was fired a week before it was held.

Darian Wigfall felt his first real discomfort with KDHX in October 2017, just a few months after he was hired as its event coordinator. He and a volunteer were in the station's air room when they noticed that the Black Lives Matter sign that had hung there for years had been defaced, with black paper covering the "V" so that it read "Black Lies Matter."

Wigfall has been involved in the protest movement for years, and says the sentiment made him feel unsafe.

"If there's a volunteer there that thinks that, number one, that's terrible," Wigfalls explains. "But also because of my association with the movement, if they were to find that out, I don't know how they would feel about me being a DJ and being employed and stuff like that. The fact that they took the time out of their day to cut a piece of paper out that was the exact size of the 'V' and tape it on the sign means that's escalated beyond just a belief. They want to show they believe that."

Wigfall approached Wells and his then-immediate supervisor to report the incident. He claims they laughed the matter off, with Wells even saying that she bet she knew who did it.

"That's not funny to me at all, but I was so shocked I didn't know what to say," Wigfall says. "So I just kind of let it go." The incident, and Wigfall's claims about the way Wells handled it, are now detailed in the anonymous letter.

About a week later, Wigfall says he suggested to Wells that the station go through anti-bias, anti-racist training, which he says Wells agreed was a good idea. But Wigfall says Wells didn't pursue the matter.

"So I came back in January, came back in February, she's like, 'We're working on it, we're working on it.' I came back in June and was like, 'Hey, are we gonna do this or what?'" Wigfall says. "I was sending her resources, because I'm connected to a lot of people that do this kind of work. Resources that we could do for free or for cheap and things like that."

Station management finally set up some training in September 2018 — but that meeting was concerned with "professional principles" and made no reference to racism or bias. Additionally, the only staffers invited to the meeting were Townsend, Saputo and Wigfall — the station's sole black staffers — and their immediate supervisors: Chief Engagement Officer Jennifer Dunn Stewart, who'd been hired in June 2018, and Chief Media Officer Ronnie Wisdom.

Wells sent the group an email, obtained by the RFT, after the meeting. "Attached are the KDHX Professional Principles that we talked through this week," she wrote on September 21. "Please use these as a reference and remember that these are non-negotiable principles that we expect you to adhere to as a professional staff person at KDHX."

The outline offers four main points: Be Present, Be Accountable, Be Trustworthy and Be Curious. Specifics include "Be responsible with screen time," "Take immediate responsibility when you mess up" and "Respect the experience, expertise, knowledge and position of your supervisors."

In Wigfall's opinion, the meeting was a condescending waste of time. The fact that only the black staffers and their bosses were in attendance also struck him as problematic.

"That's not professional development; that's not a skill that's gonna make me better at my job. This is work environment stuff," he says. "And even if it's not just bringing the people of color and their direct supervisors into a meeting, that's what the optics is."

Dever says that an independent investigation into Wigfall's claims "painted a more complicated and different picture of the situation than the one described by Darian, and it acknowledged that KDHX has been engaged in Diversity and Inclusion training for longer than Darian understands or admits."

Townsend describes a troubling instance of racial insensitivity that he experienced as well. That incident, which was also outlined in the anonymous letter, involved Dunn Stewart, Townsend's direct supervisor, accusing him of yelling at her and being "verbally abusive" during a December 2018 conversation. Townsend took that as coded language based in racial stereotypes.

"Uh oh, I'm the 'angry black man,'" he reasoned. "I'm being hostile and you're in fear. When she used 'verbally abusive' that was my problem."

One of the bar staffers, Saylor Surkamp, was present for that meeting, and immediately came to Townsend's defense.

"Saylor's like, 'Hey, wait a minute, he's not yelling at you. I'm sitting right next to him and he's not yelling at you,'" Townsend explains. "I'm so fortunate that Saylor was in that room with me. Because if she wasn't in that room it'd have been 'he said, she said' and I would have been done."

Rather than escalate, Townsend opted to remove himself from the situation and walked out of the building. (Surkamp's version of the incident to the RFT mirrors Townsend's.)

In a statement to the RFT, Dunn Stewart points to the same independent investigation that KDHX leadership says cleared the station of Wigfall's claims. "This incident was a culminating event after months of documented behavior," she writes. "The thorough investigation conducted by the external law firm found that, in regards to me, my actions, and my limited supervisory responsibilities, all of the claims made in the anonymous letter were unsubstantiated."

Wells later admonished Townsend for leaving, Townsend says. He replied that he was just protecting himself.

"You know how many black men have been persecuted, arrested and killed because of stuff like that?" he says. "It happens every day."

Townsend points to this incident as the beginning of the end of his employment at KDHX. He was ultimately fired by Wells in April. Surkamp, too, was fired in March, she says.

For Wigfall, the "professional principles" meeting was the last straw. He gave notice that he wanted to quit shortly after, but offered to stick around to train a replacement. According to Wigfall, Wells instead told him his last day should be "tomorrow."

Just a week later, in October 2018, the anti-bias anti-racist training Wigfall had asked for nearly a year before finally took place at the station, led by the National Conference for Community & Justice. Wigfall wasn't around to see how it went.

click to enlarge KDHX apologized in January for a meme in which St. Louis is depicted as a bashful white woman. - SCREENSHOT
KDHX apologized in January for a meme in which St. Louis is depicted as a bashful white woman.

On a Thursday in mid-June, Wells, Dever and former board member Lindsay Pattan invite a reporter to the station's first-floor music venue, the Stage at KDHX, to discuss the future of the station — as well as the fallout from the anonymous letter. Pattan had resigned from her board position less than a week earlier in order to advise the station on public relations and communications through her PR company, Pattan & Co. She says she believes it would be a conflict of interest to remain on the board as she does this work, but still, she is able to speak with confidence through her personal experience about the situation at KDHX.

Seated at the small circular tables at the back of the venue, Dever shuffles through some paperwork as Pattan presses play on a recorder. Wells sits to the side, the dreadlocked portion of her hair pulled back and held in place by a clip. All three are on-message when discussing the station's future.

"When I think about the culture of KDHX, right now I'm thinking of this idea of the entire organization as if we're writing a new book. It's like, the first book came out," Wells says, referencing the station's time under former executive director Beverly Hacker, "and now it's time to decide what's in the second book. I think that we have an opportunity to backtrack a little bit and to say, 'What are the things that we say we stand for? What are the values of the organization, and are we truly fulfilling those? Is it lip service? Has it happened organically? And can we be intentional about those things moving forward?'"

Wells explains that the station has been grappling with its identity as a "community" radio station. Its longstanding mission is to build community through media. But what does that mean? Who are they building this community for? What does the word "community" mean in this context? She admits that they don't have concrete answers but says that the board has spent the last year strategically planning, in part with a survey asking listeners what they want to hear. Diversifying the station's programming represents "phase one."

Phase two, she says, is where they dig a little deeper into what it means for KDHX to be a true community organization. If KDHX is going to serve the community as it should, it needs to serve everyone, she says. That means being as inclusive as possible.

"And so we committed to saying we're gonna start diversifying our staff, and we're gonna start diversifying our programmers, and we're gonna start diversifying the programming that we have," she says. "And we've entered into an uncomfortable space of trying to figure out how to do that. And that's what we're learning through right now and what we're continuing to pursue."

Of the allegations of racial bias, Dever says, "In some ways, it's not really a surprise. You start digging into those things and issues come up. And we're dealing with issues right now."

The trio vehemently deny almost all the charges put forth in the letter, and suggest its accusations of racial insensitivity are the growing pains that come with venturing outside a comfort zone.

"When you take an organization that historically has not been very diverse and you decide that you're going to take on the work of making it more diverse and then start creating an inclusive environment, you are going to face things like people are going to start to feel like it's tokenism," Pattan says. "Or they're going to feel like the system's not built for them to weigh in."

As an example, Pattan points to the addition of two seats to the programming committee. Though she doesn't mention names, it's reasonable to infer she's talking about Morris and Conaway, who each say they were brought on with diversity and inclusion in mind.

"But those two individuals, those two community members that were added so that the community could weigh in, were facing a committee that was full of people who had institutional knowledge and years of context, and now they're being told to change by somebody new," Pattan says. "And so as we try to take these steps toward what we feel is the right direction, we're also working through growing pains of realizing that right now the system is not built for everybody.

"But if we hadn't started taking those steps in this direction we wouldn't be in this position," she says. "Everybody would be happy and fine and listening to folk music."

In 2015, KDHX was in dire financial straits.

Its move in 2013 from what had been a bakery in south city into a new, gleaming home in Grand Center put tremendous strain on finances. Though the building had been gifted to the station, the cost of the move and rehab to the building came out to just shy of $5 million, and fundraising efforts in advance only raised about half of that amount.

Then the IRS came knocking. KDHX had fallen behind on its payroll taxes.

Beverly Hacker, then executive director, entered into an agreement with the feds to take on personal responsibility if the back taxes were not paid. Only after that agreement was already in place did she approach the board and tell them of the extent of the financial turmoil. Nearly half of the board members abruptly resigned. Hacker herself was terminated a few months later, after 22 years with the station.

According to Dever and Wells, today, the worst of that financial crisis is behind them. They describe KDHX's current financial situation as "stable but fragile."

"If you look at all the finances, we are seeing year-on-year growth in fundraising, year-on-year growth in underwriting, year-on-year growth in granting," Dever says. "All of those things are good. We still have a lot of debt we haven't figured out. We've gotta figure that out. And we've got a committee on the board that's working to do that and working very hard and making real steps in that area. We've got good relationships with our creditors, we're on track according to all our agreements in terms of paying stuff back.

"Some of the allegations against us are financial mismanagement," he says. "Given the situation we're in, we couldn't be doing things differently right now. And I don't think we could be doing things better."

Dever made that statement on June 27. Less than a month later, the station furloughed nearly half its staff.

Former staffers claim financial mismanagement has been an ongoing problem.

As an example, Townsend says KDHX's first-floor bar was operating in the red when he took over its management in October. When the station first moved into its new headquarters, the cafe and bar space was intended to generate revenue. But Townsend says it was actually hemorrhaging money, and some liquor distributors wouldn't even fill orders due to the bar's past-due balances.

Himself a former manager at downtown's popular Broadway Oyster Bar, Townsend says that KDHX's bar was dramatically underpricing its top-shelf liquor, with shots of Hennessy being sold for just $5 apiece.

"That place was literally charging itself to run a bar," he says.

When he asked a bar employee about the low prices, he says that employee responded by saying, "Well, this is a nonprofit, so they're not really worried about making money."

"I said, 'Don't ever say that again,'" Townsend recounts. "Because any place that you are ringing out sales, you're in business to make money. And if you're making a surplus down here at this bar, that's, in my eyes, an even greater bonus for the board. The board would love knowing that you have some kind of vehicle that's making revenue."

KDHX leadership disputes Townsend's claims. They say the bar was not operating in the red when he took over, and that the bar is still currently profitable.

Townsend is also one of a handful of employees who claim there were long delays in receiving the benefits due to full-time employees — specifically health insurance. According to KDHX's employee handbook, full-time employees are to receive health insurance 90 days after they are hired. But that timeframe came and went, Townsend says, and he had to remind Wells to get him his benefits.

"I emailed Kelly, asking, 'Did you ever remember to send me the benefit form? I never got it after my 90 days,'" he says. "And she's like, 'Oh yeah, I'm so sorry, I forgot.'"

According to Townsend, "forgetting" was part of a pattern. He says Saputo had a similar experience — she was hired in August 2018, and ultimately didn't get insurance until this February. Despite her attempts to follow up, according to the letter sent to media, she didn't receive an insurance card until January. Even then, the card had her name and date of birth wrong, rendering it useless. That situation apparently wasn't sorted out until some six months after her hire date. (Saputo declined to comment for this story.)

A second, similar instance is also outlined in the letter, alleging a staffer hired in November 2018 didn't get health insurance until April, and only after filling out enrollment forms more than once.

Surkamp's insurance situation was even more bizarre. After initially being hired on as a full-time house liaison for the bar, Surkamp's hours were knocked down to part time when she inquired about health insurance. The RFT obtained an email sent from Dunn Stewart to Surkamp upon her hire that plainly identifies Surkamp as a "full-time employee," as well as a copy of KDHX's employee handbook, which states, "All regular full-time employees are eligible to participate in health plans, with the Company paying the costs of obtaining such health and welfare benefit packages for regular full time employees only."

On November 30, Wells sent out an email to staff, obtained by the RFT, explaining that the station would be switching insurance plans. When Surkamp questioned Wells, noting that she had not been offered benefits, Wells replied that she was only included on the email because it was sent to the "staff" email group, and that they "currently only offer benefits to salaried employees."

Surkamp's hours were subsequently cut to 36 hours a week, rendering her ineligible for insurance, she says.

KDHX leadership says the reason for the confusion involves the station's transition away from having Squatter's Cafe, run by local chef Rob Connoley, operate out of the building. They acknowledge there was a part-time staffer working full-time hours for a period of time during that transition but say it was during the employee's 90-day probationary period, when insurance is not offered. They say that employee was brought back down to part time after the transition.

Townsend suspects KDHX simply didn't have the money to cover premiums, something he attributes to an experience early in his time at the station. He says he tried to take his first paycheck to a check-cashing spot near KDHX, but that institution told him they no longer honor checks from the organization because they had bounced too many times.

KDHX leadership did not respond to a request for comment about the bounced checks.

click to enlarge Saylor Surkamp says she was hired at KDHX as a full-time employee, but when she inquired about benefits, her hours were cut back. - THEO WELLING
Saylor Surkamp says she was hired at KDHX as a full-time employee, but when she inquired about benefits, her hours were cut back.

In the weeks since the anonymous letter was released to media, the fallout has been dramatic. Its claims have since made it to social media, grabbing the attention of programmers, volunteers and listeners alike. A planned performance at the Focal Point by the folk group the Short Round Stringband, of which Wells is a member, was cancelled in the face of potential boycotts and demonstrations against Wells. (The Focal Point declined to comment.)

Thomas Crone, an RFT contributor and longtime programmer at the station, viewed the letter with concern. He had been set to work on a KDHX history project as recently as last year, but he says mixed messages from management about the project turned him off the idea. Between that and the allegations outlined in the letter, Crone chose to recuse himself from fill-in duties and pledge pitching until there's a change in leadership, at both the management and board level. He announced his decision on Facebook last month.

Victoria Donaldson, a recent addition to the programming committee and co-host of the station's Rawthentic program, also voiced her concerns as a black woman. "As it shows in this letter and through my personal experience with KDHX, black voices are not given as much value as our white peers," she wrote in a widely shared Facebook post. "Joining the Program Committee was my way to hopefully help KDHX shift the culture and evolve into a more diverse and culturally sustainable station. However, it appears the atmosphere that KDHX has cultivated internally is toxic and dangerous for the institution itself and there's very little that my role on the program committee can help with fixing it."

In a statement to the RFT, she says, "I have no reason to question the contents of the letter or consider them invalid. In which case, there should be a structural overhaul of KDHX because many of these narratives are not new and the culture of KDHX has allowed it for too long. Respect is given when it is deserved."

As for KDHX's board of directors, the lawyer hired to investigate the letter's claims largely cleared the station of any wrongdoing, save for one instance of "racial insensitivity" and one instance of "unwanted advances between volunteers and staff," according to Dever.

The investigation did yield a list of recommendations, including expanded diversity training through outside consultants, prioritizing diversity in recruiting, creating an official diversity and inclusion coordination role in management, improving recordkeeping for complaints, creating additional avenues — such as an anonymous hotline — to file complaints and updating polices on anti-harassment, Dever says. He adds that the station plans to follow all the recommendations.

"I'm happy to report that the review did not substantiate any of the major claims of the letter," he wrote to station associates.

The station's critics are skeptical of the investigation, noting the attorney hired by the board to conduct it spoke to just one former staffer. KDHX didn't name that ex-employee, but Wigfall says it was him. All other former staffers interviewed for this story say they were not contacted. KDHX claims that multiple attempts were made to reach out to each of them, but the former staffers dispute that claim.

Shown Dever's email, Wigfall bristles.

"The allegations in the email are not unsubstantiated when numbers of people are coming out behind it and saying, 'Oh yeah, I've experienced this, oh yeah I've experienced that," he says. "You just didn't — the board wouldn't talk to anybody!"

Four days after Dever's email, Dunn Stewart, who was at the center of a number of the anonymous letter's claims, announced her resignation. In a statement to the RFT, she claims her decision was based on her belief that her "skills, talents and professional contributions were no longer a productive use of KDHX staff time," "no longer the best engagement for the communities it was [her] intention to center," and that her "commitment to this role was no longer a healthy choice" for her. "I wish KDHX nothing but success as they navigate change." Wells says Dunn Stewart's resignation was a personal choice and that she was not forced out.

And while Dunn Stewart's resignation is good news for her critics, the majority of those who spoke to the RFT believe Wells is the real source of the station's dysfunction.

"The only reason this is happening is so we can save KDHX. Because I feel like if Kelly stays there, it'll crumble in on itself on its own," Wigfall says. "She's the common denominator. And I didn't want it to be like that, but that's it. Kelly is going to kill that organization if left to her devices."

Conaway echoes Wigfall's assessment. Wells, she says, has "no business being leadership at KDHX, or anywhere, unless they really have a huge overhaul in how they not only treat people, but how they operate. It comes down to, in my opinion, just poor leadership. Poor management skills. No emotional intelligence."

Townsend agrees that Wells is the main problem but says the board is negligent as well.

"A lot of these board members also, they have to be held accountable too," Townsend says. "This board is just as guilty as well, because they have not done their due diligence in order to keep these people accountable."

The vast majority of staffers and volunteers the RFT spoke to for this story say they want KDHX to thrive. They believe the station is a good thing for St. Louis, a vital resource for local artists and the community at large. But they believe current leadership is failing to live up to its promise. Wigfall says, in a perfect world, KDHX would be similar to the early days of Stax Records, a place where people of all colors come and work together for the betterment of the community and the uplifting of local artists. Conaway wonders why the station doesn't have youth programs to train kids in the community on the ins and outs of broadcasting and other media jobs. Townsend doesn't understand why the station's Folk School, which he says sits empty most of the time, isn't a Roots School focused on a wide variety of music.

"Until the board has people in there that are invested in that vehicle, and until that board has people that are invested in that station working and being executive director, ain't shit gonna change and it's never gonna be a force," Townsend says. "KDHX should be a force."

"God, it just breaks my heart," Conaway says. "Because I want it to be something so great. But I don't know. I don't know what's gonna happen. This could be the end of it. Who the fuck knows? I mean, everything comes to an end. But it'll be sad if it is. It'll be a damn shame if it is."

[Editor's note: This article was edited after publication to note that Townsend was hired in July 2018, not October. We regret the error.]

About The Author

Daniel Hill

Daniel Hill is the managing editor for the Riverfront Times. Follow him on Twitter at @rftmusic.
Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles (1)
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.