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

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

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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.

About The Author

Daniel Hill

Daniel Hill is the managing editor for the Riverfront Times. Follow him on Twitter at @rftmusic.
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