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If anything, Onion is more critical of blacks than he is of whites. He expects white people to behave in racist ways, but he reserves his harshest words for Uncle Remuses (he disdains the term Uncle Tom). He says sellouts should be severely punished but that they never are. "The only ones who can sell their brothers out and get another chance is black people," he says. "I want to be as afraid of black people as I am of white people. If I sell out, I don't think I should be able to walk the streets of North St. Louis. If I do that, I should be hurt -- they're supposed to do something physically to me if I do that. I don't think my family should be safe."
But that doesn't mean he commands universal respect. After more than two decades in broadcasting, Onion has earned his share of critics. Some say he's a sellout; some say he takes money that isn't his. The IRS has been after him. Eventually reduced to buying airtime to get his message across, Onion is now fighting to be heard at all.
Onion's career as a commentator was born in the early 1970s at Luther's Barber Shop in North St. Louis, where he jawed sports with the regulars, one of whom was Morris Henderson, sports editor for the St. Louis American. Henderson told Onion he should write a column for the American. "He said, 'Just put on paper what you say in the barbershop and leave out the profanities,'" Onion recalls. His first piece was about Robert Williams, a Kirkwood High School basketball star denied a spot on an all-star team, supposedly because the coaches who voted didn't like his attitude. Onion saw it as a racial issue. "He was the best player in the league," he says.
Onion says he can't remember which came first, the job at KMOX (1120 AM) or the one at KKSS (107.7 FM). He says he owes the KMOX job to Henderson, who had been criticizing the station in print for not hiring enough blacks to do sports commentary. The KMOX gig didn't last. The only person at the station who would work with him, recalls Onion, was Bob Costas, who needed someone to work the soundboard, which was a mystery to him. "It was the same KMOX and the same me," he recalls. "People were furious." He left when Costas got a better job, but the paychecks kept coming. Some local-radio veterans think the station paid the remainder of Onion's contract to avoid a lawsuit. Onion only says he didn't see any point in asking the station to stop sending him money. "They sent me a check every week for, I guess, a couple years," Onion recalls. "If it didn't show up, I'd call and say, 'Where's my check?' I hadn't even done a show."
Onion debuted on KKSS with a Sunday-night sports program called Sports of All Sorts, a job he landed after calling in to a KMOX sports show and ripping the Mizzou football program. KKSS host Scott St. James heard about the call and invited Onion to do an hour of sports on his show every week. When St. James left for KMOX, Onion took over for St. James and began speaking his mind about anything he liked, but the job ended when the station switched formats and ditched talk shows for music.
In 1985, Onion landed a daily show on WGNU (920 AM), where he entertained morning commuters, essentially with the same show he does today. It was a seat-of-the-pants start. His predecessor, Bernie Hayes, didn't show up one day. "He just absolutely, literally disappeared," recalls station owner Chuck Norman. And so Norman called Onion, who had been a regular caller to Hayes' show. "Chuck called me and asked did I know where Bernie was," Onion recalls. "Chuck had been saying Bernie was on assignment. He couldn't do that any longer." And so Onion took Hayes' spot.
Although nowhere near the top of the charts, Onion's show had good ratings for a station the size of WGNU, Norman recalls. "Onion, I must say, he did build up quite a following," he says. "We did well while he was here. His kind of bigotry -- really, that's what you have to call it -- I think appeals to a certain element of the population, especially the black people. They consider him a kind of hero, I suppose. He arouses the black community, and they like it, I suppose. He's a racist, absolutely -- no doubt about that. A lot of things [Onion said] made me rather uncomfortable. We tolerated it. Our feeling here is everybody's got a right to speak his piece, whether it's the host or the callers or whoever it is."
But the WGNU job ended in discord. After Onion left the station in 1995 -- he says his departure was "by mutual agreement" -- WGNU sued Onion, claiming he had pocketed advertising revenue that belonged to the station.
Onion didn't get a straight paycheck from WGNU. Rather, part of his compensation came from selling advertising time. Under his deal with the station, Onion was supposed to keep 20 percent of the proceeds from ads he sold, with the rest going to WGNU. But he pocketed thousands of dollars that were supposed to go to the station, according to a 1996 lawsuit filed by WGNU against Onion. As evidence, the station in St. Louis Circuit Court filed a 1991 agreement, signed by Onion, in which he acknowledges pocketing $11,932 in ad revenue that was due the station. In the written agreement, Onion agreed to repay WGNU at the rate of $230 per week, with the money coming out of his paycheck.