Turmoil At KDHX: Allegations Of Discrimination, Harassment And Financial Troubles
Updated at 3:30 p.m., July 9 with a comment from former KDHX employee Jennifer Dunn Stewart —
KDHX leadership is under fire.
Within the past few weeks, an attorney delivered an anonymous letter to the community radio station's board. Days later, a second letter was delivered via email to some members of the board and others. The letters contained allegations of a hostile work environment for African Americans and financial mismanagement by the station’s leadership.
The letters also called for the ouster of Executive Director Kelly Wells and the radio station’s board of directors.
“These claims are necessary when employees who question strategies, finances, and benefits are terminated without just cause or documentation,” stated one of the letters obtained by St. Louis Public Radio. “They are necessary when the (executive director) has the board wrapped around their finger and publicly slanders anyone who expresses concern.”
Upon receiving the second letter, the board hired an attorney to investigate the allegations. That investigation did not substantiate the claims, said KDHX board President Paul Dever.
These allegations come at a time of financial strain at the community radio station. It’s not the first time KDHX has grappled with fiscal issues. Five years ago, the station lapsed in its payroll taxes, and employees often were not paid on time. Wells took over as executive director after Beverly Hacker left the station in 2015 after 17 years in the leadership role. Wells said the racial and sexual harassment allegations that are circulating now could hurt the station’s ability to raise money.
“Unsubstantiated, anonymous complaints” could damage the station’s relationships with donors, creditors and grantors, Wells said. What’s more, the allegations “deprive the organization of the possibility of the opportunity to have constructive conversations, increase understanding and to arrive at constructive solutions. They add to our fragility.”
With a small, paid staff managing more than 150 volunteers, Wells is the station’s executive director.
The station does have a grievance policy. It instructs workers to try to resolve issues with their manager. If that’s not possible, they are encouraged to go to Wells. If the issue involves Wells, they are encouraged to bring the complaint to a personnel committee, which is comprised of board members and is responsible for the hiring and firing of all employees, including Wells.
Allegations of bad behavior and racial strife
One of the incidents described in the first anonymous letter involves Alonzo Townsend, the station’s former engagement experience coordinator, and Jennifer Dunn Stewart, the chief engagement officer who resigned June 25. The station won’t say if her resignation was related to the anonymous complaints. Wells said the depature was a personal decision.
Dunn Stewart wrote in a statement this week that she resigned because her skills “were no longer a productive use of KDHX staff time” and staying in the job wasn’t “a healthy choice” for her.
Townsend recalled a time when he was trying to work out scheduling and training issues with Dunn Stewart when, suddenly, she accused him of yelling at her, he said.
“At some point, she said I was being verbally abusive,” Townsend said.
A colleague stepped in and said Townsend was neither yelling nor being abusive. An African American, Townsend said he became upset when he was accused of being abusive to a colleague, a white female.
“I was in and a part of multiple situations during my tenure that shouldn’t have happened, particularly one that could have greatly impacted my personal and professional career going forward,” he said. “Fortunately, another fellow KDHX employee at that time was present for, involved in, and vouched for my defense.”
'The buck stops with the person who waves the wand and, unfortunately, that person is Kelly Wells.' -Alonzo Townsend
Townsend wouldn't say if he wrote one of the anonymous letters, but he was also the subject of another event described in them. Townsend alleged Wells kissed him after a show at The Stage at KDHX. Townsend called the contact inappropriate and said it made him uncomfortable.
“The buck stops with the person who waves the wand and, unfortunately, that person is Kelly Wells,” he said. Wells denied this incident occured and a law firm hired by the station to investigate allegations in the letters told the board it could not substantiate the event.
Wells fired Townsend in April. He said in an interview June 28 that none of the investigators talked to him regarding the allegations made in the letters. The board said attempts by the investigators to reach Townsend were unsuccessful.
Despite his bad experience working at the station, Townsend said he respects the organization’s mission to be a radio station for the whole community.
“I love KDHX and everything they represent. This station was built on the backs of legends,” Townsend said.
Townsend isn’t the only African American at KDHX to report a hostile work environment.
Darian Wigfall, who began at the station as a volunteer, worked as the engagement event coordinator. Eventually, he said, Wells asked him to host a jazz and hip-hop show he later called “The Bridge.”
Wigfall said he and another man went into the studio to prepare for the show. In the studio, a “Black Lives Matter” sign had been defaced, causing it to read “Black Lies Matter.”
Wigfall told Wells about the sign and asked for diversity training. It didn’t happen for almost a year, he said.
Station leadership held a different professional development meeting just before Wigfall was fired in September 2018. Only people of color were invited, Wigfall said. The topics involved accountability, transparency and trustworthiness.
“I want the station to keep going, but the current leadership is running it into the ground,” Wigfall said.
Diversifying staff and programming
Part of the problem, some former employees contend, is a lack of diversity in the station’s management. Wells said she wants to make the staff more diverse. And with Dunn Stewart’s departure, there’s a vacancy.
“This work is hard. It’s painful. But it is something we must do,” Wells said.
Wells had that chance for years, Townsend said, with a talented, passionate diverse staff.
Board President Dever said the board told volunteers that if they had complaints about the working conditions, they should bring them to the board so it could investigate and discipline if necessary.
Asking people to come before the board to air their grievances in front of Wells just wasn’t a good idea, said Saylor Surkamp, the employee who intervened on Townsend’s behalf during the encounter with Dunn Stewart. Twelve people, including Surkamp, have been fired in the past year, she said. Dever said four employees have been fired in the past 12 months.
'For every one message I receive calling for diversifying programming, I get 10 messages complaining that we've added hip-hop.' -Kelly Wells
Surkamp said Wells should be relieved of her duties. That would give the station a fresh start and allow it to start rebuilding.
“Kelly [Wells] needs to go. There’s been too much hurt and damage that she has caused,” Surkamp said. “How the station goes forward, that’s something the station and the community should figure out together.”
Getting the KDHX community to engage with diverse programming is a challenge, Wells said.
"For every one message I receive calling for diversifying programming, I get 10 messages complaining that we’ve added hip-hop shows," she said. "I wish change were easier to implement, but I’m prepared to do whatever it takes."
Of the station's 102 shows, seven list hip-hop among the genres they play. KDHX currently has three shows that focus exclusively on hip-hop, according to the station’s show schedule.
Wells said she enlisted the help of diversity and inclusion organizations for training and to recruit more minorities to the staff. The station will bring in more diversity and inclusion training to the organization, she said. Also, the programming committee was restructured to create more musical diversity.
The station will rewrite its anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies. It will now apply to both staff and volunteers, Wells said. Disc jockeys must sign off on the new policies before September to stay on the air.
Financial woes and building issues
The station is taking in less money than it pays out. Burdened with debt from the purchase and renovation of the Larry J. Weir Building at Grand Center in 2010, KDHX faces about $2.6 million worth of long-term debt, according to a 2018 financial statement.
The debt is mostly owed to friendly donors, Wells and Dever said. The board has been in contact with them to explain the station’s financial position. Accounts payable are current. Debt has been paid down, they said.
In addition to the mortgage, equipment and remodeling costs, the bills include upkeep and maintenance on the building, including fixing a leaking roof.
Wigfall said the roof at the Larry J. Weir Building on Washington Avenue leaks constantly. The moisture was damaging to the equipment, Wigfall said, and dangerous for the people performing. A leak would be patched up, Wigfall said, but the next time it rained, there would be another leak.
Wells said the roof has been fixed. Wells said the station after several attempts found the right contractor, who identified the problem and remedied it.
Dever and Wells plan to continue their work both on the radio and in the community.
Dever and Wells plan to “tear the station down to the studs” and begin rebuilding both the programming and finances with Wells at the helm, they said.
The anonymous letters' call to scrap the radio’s entire staff and board are irresponsible, Dever said, especially when the finances are so precarious. Ousting the station’s leadership, as called for by some of the former employees, would cause more instability, he said.
“That would lead to disaster,” Dever said.
But dismissing complaints to disgruntled employees because it could impact potential financial support is simplistic, Townsend and Wigfall said.
“That’s an easy thing to go to,” Townsend said. “But this is how I blow smoke through that. How did it get to that point? You never did anything to make the foundation more solid.”
Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 5:50 p.m., July 5 with corrections about how the anonymous letters were delivered and the chronology of events. An attorney delivered an anonymous letter to the community radio station's board and a second letter was delivered, days later, via email to some members of the board. Also, Wells fired Townsend in April, 2019 and Wigfall in September, 2018. Some excerpts of this story have also been clarified to reflect the organization’s grievance policy, financial records, plans for continued diversity and inclusion trainings, and statements about human resources decisions.
St. Louis Public Radio's Lindsay Toler contributed reporting to this story.
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