Radio Free St. Louis

A visit to Chuck Norman's Christmas Party for the Handicapped turns up some of the folks who give free speech a workout on the host's radio station, WGNU-AM

Brown, an African-American woman who hosts a five-day-a-week call-in show, would not be mistaken for a conservative. One of the hosts who's showed up at the annual Christmas party is Rick Ullman, a 56-year-old college teacher and musician who's on at 10 a.m. on Tuesdays.

"The only time I cut somebody off is if they get extremely obscene. It has to be extremely obscene; I've allowed obscenity," says Ullman, who has an approximately 8-inch-long goatee and a shock of gray hair. "I've allowed 'fuck,' I've allowed 'shit.' I've allowed every one of those words, OK? It's a judgment call, OK? I've allowed the guy who called me up from I-55 and said, 'I'm with the Ku Klux Klan, I'm down here with a fuckin' machine gun and I want a fuckin' nigger to come down and I want to blow his head off.' I allowed that on; there was a reason for that. To me that is not obscenity -- that is someone making a fool of himself. The more I let him go on, he's not recruiting people as much as he's letting people know this guy is a looney."

So what doesn't Ullman allow? "Bashing other hosts. If you want to say that to the host, call him up," he says. "I don't allow callers to bash each other."

Makes sense. Bashing other hosts -- now that's extremely obscene.
None of this seems to faze Norman, who says he listens to his station and that it's all about letting people have their say. After making a bundle from the 1979 sale of WGNU-FM (106.5), Norman doesn't have to depend on his AM station for much cash. His wall-to-wall-talk format is low-overhead -- what's lower than unpaid hosts? -- and in putting just about anybody on the air, the pandemonium passes for populism.

As for the party, with its five-buck admission going to benefit children's charities that help the disabled, this year's take was close to $10,000. Norman pays all expenses, including the billboards and bus banners that stay up all over town long after the Buddy Moreno Band has played its last tune for the party.

Norman deflects the heat he gets for using the term "handicapped"; he says it's better than "disabled," because a "disabled" car can't be driven but a "handicapped" car -- say, one with bad brakes -- could be. Norman's in a wheelchair now, but the 72-year-old radio mogul is beyond irony, saying the experience hasn't given him any insight on the terminology controversy.

As for the barrage of advertisements, many of which don't give a phone number or sufficient details aside from "Chuck Norman's Party for the Handicapped, Dec. 20 at the Regal," Norman has a simple answer: "I want them to know it's me," he says. "I like to see my name around town."

That his name is linked to a station that has so many fractured opinions doesn't bother Norman, who opposed impeaching Clinton even though he's a Republican. Norman says he doesn't want to "squelch" opinions that are contrary to his, so his love of the First Amendment has set his hosts free.

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