Peeling the Onion

Onion Horton says he's everything a white man wants a black man to be

Norman says Onion's transgressions went beyond taking money from the station. "He was taking money from advertisers without even putting them on the air," he says. "He was just putting the money in his pocket. That's when we filed suit, and that was the end of Onion. Maybe it did happen once or twice before that and we had a talk about it and let it go and forgave it for the time being. You can forgive maybe one transgression, maybe even two, but you can't keep doing it." By the time he left the station, Onion owed WGNU nearly $20,000, according to the lawsuit, which was eventually settled out of court. Norman says Onion hasn't lived up to his end of the settlement. "We're still waiting for the first check," he says.

Onion doesn't blame Norman for suing him. "If I was Chuck Norman, I probably would have filed a suit," he says. "But since I'm Onion Horton, the answer is definitely no." Onion has nothing but praise for the station owner who hauled him into court. "I can't say nothing bad about Chuck Norman," he says. "I thought Chuck was one of the fairest people I ever met. He was probably one of the best people I ever worked for."

Onion's next job landed him in controversy that haunts him even today.

Onion, once one of the hottest black radio hosts in St. Louis, now does his talking on the Internet.
Jennifer Silverberg
Onion, once one of the hottest black radio hosts in St. Louis, now does his talking on the Internet.

When Onion left WGNU, he had a job lined up at KATZ (1600 AM), which was in the middle of an ugly war with Hayes, who had become the station's morning-talk-show host. Hayes had virtually no listeners, recalls former station general manager Steve Mosier, and so he had to go. Mosier says he offered Hayes other time slots, but Hayes refused. And so Mosier pulled him off the air. Hayes had friends in high places. The St. Louis American ran columns blasting his dismissal. Meanwhile, the Ad Hoc Committee to Support Bernie Hayes threatened advertisers with "protest actions" if they didn't pull their ads. Pickets went up in front of Mosier's house. Aides to Mayor Bosley, a frequent guest on Hayes' show, wrote letters to the station on city stationery.

KATZ rehired Hayes for a few months, then went after Onion when he left WGNU. At first, Onion refused Mosier's offer to take over Hayes' slot. After a few months, however, he inked a one-year deal. Along with $10,000 and a cut of the advertising revenue, Onion got the label of sellout. "There was a lot of respect for Onion prior to all of this," says Percy Green, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee, who worked under Bosley and still runs the city's minority-business-certification program. "I'm not too sure many folks have a lot of good things to say about Onion because of that." Hayes, who eventually received a $30,000 settlement from the station, says Onion promised not to take his job. He blames both Onion and the white power structure for the fact he hasn't gotten a job in radio since leaving KATZ. "His message, I found out, was not what it seemed to be, as truthful as I thought it was at one time," Hayes says.

Onion doesn't deny promising Hayes he wouldn't take his job but says there's a lot more to the story. But he won't tell his side, at least on the record. "Definitely it wasn't a sellout," he says. "Bernie might have some bitterness, but maybe he forgot some things. I don't ever want to say anything negative about Bernie."

When Onion's contract expired, Mosier offered to renew it at $60,000 a year, although the station would keep a larger percentage of advertising revenue than under the previous deal. The offer didn't come because Mosier thought Onion could turn a profit for the station, which Mosier says was billing just $20,000 a month in advertising. Rather, Mosier says, the station's parent company, which also owned the much larger FM station KMJM, hoped a contract extension would make peace with black activists who were asking advertisers to pull commercials from all the company's stations. The strategy didn't work. Onion turned Mosier down. The reason changes depending on whom you ask.

"He told me to my face that he wouldn't take a pay cut," Mosier says, which raises questions about just how much money Onion was making from advertisers. Onion admits making the pay-cut statement, though he's far from the straight shooter he plays on his show. "I just said it," he says. "Maybe I had a reason, maybe I didn't." Joe Jacobson, Onion's attorney, says his client outcompeted the station's sales staff. "None of Mosier's salesmen could sell any ad time on Onion's show because Onion was able to undercut them on the price," Jacobson says.

The real reason Onion says he turned Mosier down was that KATZ wouldn't allow his business partner, Mark Kasen, to continue his afternoon show, which Mosier says was among the worst he's ever heard -- and low ratings indicate that listeners agreed. As with Norman, Onion says he has no ill feelings toward Mosier. "There were some people who said things about him that weren't accurate," Onion says. "Mosier was the one who started black talk at KATZ. I used to tell people that as soon as Mosier left, the format would change." He was proved right. After more than a decade as general manager, Mosier was fired in 1996 when the station was sold and Bosley wrote a letter to the new owners complaining about him. In the same letter, the mayor praised Onion and, particularly, Kasen for their service to him and the city. "I trust you will revisit the decision to terminate their services," Bosley wrote, apparently unaware that Onion had turned down a $60,000-a-year job. "Their commitment to disseminating information and improving the quality of life for their listeners is second to none." Mosier had trouble finding work after that. "That letter, for all practical purposes, ended my career," he laments. Mosier -- who now works as general sales manager at hip-hop station Q95.5 (WFUN-FM) -- says, "If you get a letter like that from the mayor of St. Louis, you have to believe it."

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