Leaders of KDHX in St. Louis are seeking to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the governance of the community radio station, the latest development in an ongoing dispute with hosts and volunteers over the station’s direction and programming.
A motion filed by the station’s attorneys Jan. 29 argued that a special board meeting held in September was illegitimate. At that meeting, station volunteers tried to remove two board members and elect three more. Their lawsuit seeks to force KDHX to carry out the changes.
Meanwhile, community members and former station DJs are continuing to wage a campaign against a rash of host dismissals carried out by management last year. They’re calling for the resignations of Executive Director Kelly Wells and board president Gary Pierson and aim to have the dismissed volunteer hosts reinstated to the airwaves.
The controversy ignited early last year and shows no signs of abating. More than 50 St. Louis business owners signed a statement last month expressing support for the dismissed hosts. And a Jan. 31 rally outside the station drew more than 80 protesters, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Such disputes aren’t uncommon among community radio stations, nor is this the first time KDHX has faced turmoil. In the mid-’90s, a host told the Post-Dispatch that behind the scenes, the station was a “psychodrama snake pit.” Wells herself assumed leadership of the station after its board dismissed a previous executive director.
“My ardent hope is that we can come to some resolution” and unite “the groups that care about KDHX — the community that supports it, as well as those who volunteer their time and make the on-air content possible — in a significant way through the resignation of Kelly Wells and the board president,” said Caron House, a former CDO for KDHX and a volunteer host who was recently dismissed.
But Wells and Pierson have shown no signs of changing course. “We have an incredible opportunity and future here, and more and more people engaging who are passionate and excited about the station,” Wells said.
Vote of no confidence
The backlash against station leadership began in February 2023 when Wells and Pierson dismissed Tom “Papa” Ray, a founder of KDHX who had hosted a music show on the station for more than 30 years.
Ray told Current that he had expressed frustration to Wells that the station did not have volunteers at local music events. He also believed KDHX should have paid public tribute to John McHenry, a fellow station founder who had hosted a show for three decades and died in August 2022.
In a Feb. 28 post on Facebook, Ray said he was taken off the air “due to my disagreements and criticism of station manager Kelly Wells.”
Pierson later said in a statement that Ray had been dismissed because of a “long-standing pattern of bullying, aggression, and harassment.” Wells and Pierson declined to detail specific incidents of Ray’s behavior for Current.
Ray’s departure spurred widespread dissatisfaction among station volunteers. In May, 29 current and 16 former volunteers issued a letter of no confidence calling for Wells’ removal, accusing her of stripping power away from volunteers and staff.
KDHX and the community “deserve better than this failed leadership,” they wrote. “We call on the KDHX Board of Directors to remove Kelly Wells from her position as Executive Director. We also call on the Board to conduct a national search for an Executive Director with the integrity, vision, and skills necessary to oversee such a unique community asset as KDHX.”
More dismissals of longtime hosts were to come. In August, KDHX removed Andy Coco and Drea Stein from the airwaves. (Coco had also spent two decades working at the station as director of production and technology.)
Wells said the hosts had asked listeners to stop donating to the station. They denied that accusation, though they had criticized the station in press coverage and on social media.
“You don’t talk about community in one breath and not be willing to have a conversation with the individuals that you’re accusing of not having those principles,” Coco told Current. “We have all come to this place for community and integrated, diverse engagement.”
The hosts’ dismissals earned them name-checks in “Hey KDHX,” a song by local musician Gerard Erker. “Hey KDHX, I got something to say / Bring back Andy Coco, and bring back Drea,” he sang. “I love this station with all of my heart / But it’s falling apart / And it breaks my heart.”
The next month, the station announced that it had dismissed hosts of 10 weekly shows and that 12 volunteers would have to undergo mediated discussions to continue.
“Regrettably, we’ve had to separate from volunteers whose actions have compromised the stations’ financial stability,” said James Hill, VP of KDHX’s board. “These are challenging but crucial decisions as we advance KDHX’s mission.”
Pierson told St. Louis Public Radio that the dismissed volunteers did not support KDHX’s effort to “push our organization in broader and more inclusive directions.”
“We need to build the capacity to combat things like racist and gender discrimination, and patriarchy and all of those things,” Pierson said. “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.”
Shift in music focus
Critics of the station say their concerns go beyond the dismissal of hosts. Former host Caron House said Wells’ “big crime” was dismantling a program committee composed of staff and volunteers. The committee determined shows’ hosts, names and airtimes.
“Now it’s just Kelly,” House said.
Wells denied that the committee had been cut. “We still have volunteers that help us with looking at playlists and evaluating the musical knowledge of the new DJs that are coming on,” she said. “They just don’t serve as the folks who approve or do not approve programming.”
Some volunteers also say they are upset about KDHX’s diminished presence in the local music scene. For the past two years, the station has not had volunteers or a promotional tent at Music at the Intersection, one of the city’s biggest annual festivals, which takes place near the station’s headquarters. That sort of presence used to be standard at local concerts, volunteers said.
And before the pandemic, nationally known bands performed at KDHX’s studios, including The National, Dr. Dog, Andrew Bird and Drive-By Truckers. But that stopped when COVID hit.
Wells “gutted the music department and ignored all industry contacts, so the influx of talent stopped,” Coco said.
Station leaders say they are now focusing more on local artists. “This is an example of the station’s strategic plan guiding priorities on how to invest available resources,” said Colin Dale of AHC Consulting, a public relations firm hired by KDHX, in an email. “In this case, the station has intentionally prioritized promoting local artists and convening partnerships that will amplify the social, cultural, and economic impact of music in St. Louis.”
‘We have lost a lot of donors’
Nancy Wood, a longtime KDHX listener and regular donor, said she found “common connections” in her community thanks to the station. “You would go to, say, a bar to hear music. … You might see the DJs there, but you also saw other people who had heard about it on KDHX,” she said.
But two of her favorite shows have gone off the air, and she’s stopped giving to the station. “I really feel like they have sideswiped the community and that there’s really a major loss, and personally, I don’t think it will recover,” she said.
KDHX’s leaders say the ongoing campaign against the station has hurt it financially. “We have lost a lot of donors,” said Pierson.
The station declined to share how many because it’s an “ever-moving target,” Wells said.
Even as many volunteers push for change, some are standing by KDHX leadership. Wells has been “a great leader, especially during COVID,” said Edie Anderson, who has hosted a Sunday-night jazz show on the station for about six years.
“That was a scary time for everybody, but I was impressed by how they stepped right up to the plate and were able to put up rules and guidelines so that we could be protected,” Anderson said.
Despite the backlash, KDHX’s leadership has repeatedly said that it will not return dismissed hosts to the air. The board has full confidence in Wells, Pierson said.
He contends that the people calling for a change in leadership are just a fraction of KDHX’s audience. Both he and Wells said they think the wider KDHX listening community still supports them. The station has added 26 new hosts, its audience has been holding steady at 65,000 weekly listeners, and its livestream listenership increased 43% between December 2022 and December 2023, according to AHC Consulting.
“People are here for the music, our DJs are here for the music, and that’s what we’re here for as well,” said Wells.