Editor's note: Late last week, we heard from Beverly Hacker, the long-time executive director of St. Louis' beloved nonprofit radio station KDHX (88.1 FM). She'd been put on administrative leave by the station's board of directors and wanted to share what had led to that point -- and explain the financial problems faced by the station today. We agreed to publish her letter to the community in its entirety.
We'll be reporting more on this situation as it develops, so check back for further updates.
By Beverly Hacker
Hi, my name is Beverly Hacker, and I'm the executive director of KDHX.
Twenty-two years ago, I walked into a little radio station on Magnolia Avenue and asked if there was anything I could do to help them. I figured that maybe my accounting, computer and business skills could be of service. Fast-forward (well, maybe not so fast), and it's 2015. During all those years, KDHX has been a big part of my life -- as a volunteer, a board member, the organization's treasurer and, since 1998, as its leader. That is, until last week.
I arrived at work last Monday and was told that I was being put on "administrative leave." I'm not quite sure that I know what that means, but I'm pretty sure it's the board of director's ever-so-gentle way of saying, "You're fired."
But before I dive into the details of that, I have a story.
Over the last 22 years, KDHX has grown from a small group of passionate volunteers doing free-form radio (or, as we so often hear, "that hippie, stoner, gay station") into a dynamic community institution with a shiny new building in the heart of Grand Center.
It hasn't always been easy. Making a place for hundreds of volunteers to consistently create programming of the highest quality is hard. Putting together an amazing staff when you can only afford to pay them about a third of what they are worth is hard. Keeping the train on the rails when all of the people involved are passionate, creative people who only want to do what they truly believe is best -- even when that's not what's best for organization -- that's hard.
It's also the most rewarding, interesting, challenging and fulfilling work I've ever done. I've made many great friends over the years, and sadly, lost a few. Five years ago, we lost Larry J. Weir. In his years at KDHX, Larry was the friendly face that was always here for the volunteers, no matter what sort of Machiavellian politics were happening in the station. Then, two years ago, we lost Bob Reuter. By pure stroke of luck, our contractors were in the process of drywalling the new air studio when it happened, so right after the last Bob's Scratchy Records show, a small group of us went to the studio and put part of Bob's ashes into the air room wall so he will always be part of KDHX.
When the news went out that Larry had passed away, I got a call from Nancy Kranzberg, who had been doing an arts interview program on KDHX for twenty years. She said, "I don't know if you know this or not, but when I first came to the station, the folks there were really not very nice to rich people. Larry was always so kind to me, showing me the ropes and helping me support the arts with my little show. I am heartbroken and I've asked my husband, Ken, to help you move out of your little bakery on Magnolia and into Grand Center."
For 25 years, KDHX had raised the bulk of its operating funds $88 at a time, but this project meant doing things very differently. We embarked on a new journey -- to raise enough to renovate the old Creepy Crawl building in Grand Center into our new home.
The total cost of everything we did to get to Grand Center, including moving the Folk School and selling the old building, was just under $5 million. That includes the design, construction, equipment, the move, professional fees and everything else it took to do this. With the support of the community and generous gifts from both new and long-time supporters, we were able to raise more than $2 -- almost $2.5 million.
So we started the project, did the demolition, and got to a point where we had to decide whether to go for the renovation. Waiting meant that we would lose the guaranteed maximum price for the construction, and that it could cost us 20 to 30 percent more than the contract we had negotiated, with no guaranteed maximum on that cost. On my recommendation, the board voted to go forward.
Going ahead with the construction was a leap of faith that that our board, staff and campaign committee could raise what we needed to finish the project. We took on debt to do the project and forged ahead. And though we came close, we ended up short of our goal.
Still, in December 2013 we signed on the air from the Larry J Weir Center for Community Media to the tune of John Hartford's Steam Powered Radio.
Since the move, we have been working in a very difficult cash-flow environment. That's really nothing new for KDHX; cash has always been tight. The move just made it a much bigger problem.
Operationally, KDHX is doing great. Donations from our community are right on target; the Folk School is seeing record-breaking class registrations; KDHX events are the talk of the town; unique, innovative programming is bringing new people to the Stage. Even the Magnolia Cafe is doing well.
The problem is that our work on major gifts has stalled. It has been the most prominent topic at all of the board meetings since we moved. At our annual budget meeting in January, I asked the board what they could commit to in major gift fundraising for 2015, and they committed to $300,000. So far, seven months into the year, the progress against this goal is disappointing.
Meanwhile, life goes on. Vendors want to be paid for their work, utility bills keep rolling in and people need their paychecks. It's not hard to figure out that when the cash coming in is less than the cash that needs to go out, something's gotta give.
Changes had to be made, and I made them -- open staff positions were not filled, other staff positions were cut, important equipment purchases were delayed, marketing efforts were cut back, and I made daily decisions on who got paid first. Payroll, artists, critical utilities, equipment leases and local businesses made the first cut. Many others have had to wait, and in some cases, are still waiting. In the last six months, I have negotiated payment terms that have kept insurance in force and utilities on. I've restructured the debt terms and made personal appeals to donors to help us, and they have.
The staff has been pretty amazing in the sacrifices they have made for KDHX, working harder and longer even while not always knowing exactly when their paychecks would arrive.
In the wake of all this, I made a very bad decision and got behind on payroll taxes, which I reported to the board early in 2014. In order to make sure that the members of the board would not have any personal liability for my mistake, I entered into a trust agreement with the IRS, which means they can hit me for payment if KDHX doesn't pay the taxes. This was clearly a breach of trust and a lapse in judgement for which I am sorry.
To help the board fundraise, I've provided them with contact and other information on our long-time donors so that they could get to know them better. I've asked the board to do donor cultivation -- that is, to introduce prospective donors to KDHX and help them see the value that we bring to the community, then work with me to ask for a gift that is appropriate to each donor's ability. I've asked them to do donor stewardship -- bring prospective donors into the building for tours; call and thank our current donors or invite them to come see the new building; take them out to lunch or to a show at the Stage. I've asked if they could reach out to their colleagues and friends who have the means to support us and tell them why KDHX is important to our community. These are all typical major giving activities for nonprofit boards.
The KDHX board is made up of people who care about the organization, but they are new to this as well, so it hasn't been moving as quickly as it could. You can ask them how well that's going.
Meanwhile, paychecks got later and later, creditors got louder and louder. And as the number of staff went down, the volume of work went up.
Since last Monday I have asked for written documentation of the reasons for this action and their intentions, but the board has provided no information beyond that I "have been placed on" administrative leave. Then, yesterday, they asked me to come and pick up my personal effects. That seems to be their way of ending my 22-year career at KDHX. Because KDHX is a nonprofit, that is their call. I only hope they are prepared to support the next leader or leaders by following through on their commitments in a better way than they have with me.
Admittedly, I'm really tired and pretty beat down right now, and I don't quite know what the future holds. I've made an exit proposal to the board and I've asked them to cover my health insurance for two years until I can qualify for Medicare, pay my unused vacation time, pay me through the end of August and raise funds to pay the taxes so that I can be released from the IRS trust agreement. I believe this is only fair and small compensation after 22 years of service.
I am very proud of what I've done at KDHX, and I am grateful for all of the volunteers, staff, artists, listeners and donors who have made it possible. This has been the best time of my life, and I'm a much better person for it. I hope that I've made a difference and that KDHX is in a better place than it was when I walked in that door 22 years ago.
I know this has been a long story, and thanks for sticking with it to the end. But I do have one request. Make a gift to KDHX.
Make a gift because you have the good fortune to live in a place with a vibrant, wonderful radio station that plays a huge part in the cultural scene in St. Louis.
Make a gift of as much as you can afford to an institution that is as important to this community as the symphony, the art museum, the history museum, the Contemporary Art Museum and the Sheldon. And, though you may not agree with me on this one, as important as the Cardinals.
Make a gift because, if you've wondered why younger, hipper folks are showing up at arts institutions that you support, there's a good chance they heard about them from KDHX.
Make a gift because I guarantee that KDHX knows how to stretch your dollars as it works every day to fulfill its mission to build community through media.
Make a gift and help KDHX support the incredible music scene in St. Louis and provide unparalleled music discovery programming as the station has been doing 30 years. Make sure they can keep doing it for the next 30 years.
Make a gift at kdhx.org/support.
And now, I'll go on to the next stage of my life. If you want to get in touch with me, you can do that at hackerbe27 at gmail.com. Thank you. It's been a great ride!