Peeling the Onion

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

But there is no shortage of doubters, including some who like listening to Onion.

"There's no question that Onion's compelling," Mosier says. "The reason the show can't work is because you could have turned your radio off in 1972 and turned it on in 2001 and it would be the exact same show. It's just that, content-wise, you can't do the same show 365 days a year. The fact of the matter is that if someone thought they could make money off these guys, they'd hire them. The unfortunate part is, my belief is the majority of people listened to Onion in the context of him being more a cartoon character than a real spokesman on the human condition. He and Mark consider themselves serious, serious commentators when they're more or less looked at as a joke" -- or worse.

After Platke and Berkowitz fired Onion and turned KKWK into a jazz station, the Rev. Larry Rice gave them a shot on WINU (880 AM), a nonprofit station that sells blocks of time and spends the proceeds to help the poor. Dennis Harper, then-general manager of the station, says Rice urged him to put Onion and Kasen on the air, even though they didn't have any upfront money to pay for the time. "The reason he [Rice] approached me was he felt black people weren't getting a voice in the St. Louis area," Harper recalls. "He didn't feel that they really did have somebody who spoke up for the poor blacks of St. Louis. He really felt strongly about giving Onion a platform on our station, giving him a chance to express his views. Every station they'd ever been on contacted us and told us we were making a big mistake because they'd never pay us. Unfortunately, that was the case."

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.

Harper says Onion and Kasen stiffed the station for more than $20,000 before they were yanked off the air after about six months. "There's a whole lot of people who didn't get help because of that," Harper says. "That's money we counted on to go toward helping people pay utility bills, helping feed hungry people and shelter people who didn't have homes. All through that time, Kasen would tell us he'd be by, like, that afternoon to pay us some money on what he owed us and he never did, ever. I'm not sure that Onion was really aware of what was going on, a lot of the times, because we always dealt with Kasen. And he's kind of a fast talker and a smooth operator, and he fibbed a little bit at times."

Kasen disagrees with Harper's recollection. "That's a made-up story," he says. But Kasen doesn't dispute that he and Onion left WINU owing money. He says he and his partner made the station a $28,000 offer but that the station, which wanted more money, turned them down. Kasen says he doesn't know why WINU wouldn't take the money: "They've just got their own ways of doing things, and I could never figure out what the agenda was."


With Clayton and Boykin beside him at the mic, Onion is talking about the Cardinals' push for a new stadium. Clayton insists that ordinary citizens, black and white, can stop the project. "We need to organize, that's all," Clayton says. "These are things we can agree on. If we could get 1,000 stamp-lickers and 1,000 envelope-lickers, we could get something done." But Onion is having none of that.

"Here's a black guy like me and a white guy like you who don't need a stadium," he says, noting that petitioners didn't get enough signatures in time to put the proposal on the fall ballot. He says the system is stacked against public votes on projects favored by the rich. "If white folks and black folks could go to the polls, there wouldn't be no stadium. When ordinary black and white people get together, it doesn't make no difference. The last thing the rich white man wants is ordinary people working together. It's the same white man at the top who's going to keep you and me apart. Until poor people get into office, nothing will change, and that's not going to happen."

The subject switches to school vouchers, which Clayton sees as a way to help black kids get a decent education. He's sincere, and Onion recognizes that. "I know about you," he says. "You really mean it." Then he starts getting mushy about the ghetto, the old men who play checkers in the vacant lot near his house, the kids who use old mattresses for trampolines.

"I want to die in the city," he declares. "I love it. I don't want to be in Chesterfield. I don't want to be in Richmond Heights. I want to live in the slums. But I want my schools fixed so they're like the ones in Richmond Heights and Chesterfield." But, he declares, of course that will never happen.

He smiles and looks at Boykin, clearly smitten. He asks whether she remembers the other day when they were talking about paradise lost and Shangri-La. She smiles back, as if recalling a special moment.

"If we were in paradise lost or Shangri-La, I wouldn't have to worry about getting older while Stephanie's still young. But I ain't in Shangri-La. I'm in St. Louis."

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