By Sarah Fenske
By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Danny Wicentowski
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
"Thirty or 40 years ago, black people were better than white people morally," he declares. "There is no question about it. Now, black people are no better. You can't get lower. We can't look at anything where we are superior." He proclaims that he doesn't speak from moral authority, but he does have his limits. "I've never used a word of profanity in my life," he says "Do you believe that?"
Lavonda, a regular caller, joins Onion in lamenting the decline: Black people think nothing of smoking marijuana openly. Cussing has become part of the lexicon. Television shows aimed at blacks are terrible, especially Black Entertainment Television, which Onion calls "lower than the whale manure on the bottom of the ocean." If Onion had his druthers, Chris Rock would be peddling pot on a street corner instead of getting paid to say "motherfucker" and joke about genitals.
A few seconds later, it's time for something completely different.
Today is a big day at the Board of Aldermen, which is scheduled to vote on a redistricting plan designed to throw Ald. Sharon Tyus (D-20th) out of office. Onion has arranged for Tyus to call in on a cell phone before the meeting, and she's on the line now. The interview starts innocently enough.
"Are you ready for battle?" Onion asks Tyus, who is on her way to City Hall. He sounds ever so polite, giving no indication that this will be anything other than another chance for Tyus to hurl accusations and drum up support for her cause. Onion bends down and hitches up his socks while Tyus assures him and his audience that she's going to give 'em hell -- and so will a judge, once this redistricting scheme lands in court. Yes, Tyus is ready for battle today. But not the one she's going to get now.
Onion doodles on one of his newspapers as he steers the conversation to Ald. Kenny Jones (D-22nd), who is supporting the redistricting plan and has a history of bad relations with Tyus. He wants Tyus to explain why she supported Ald. Jim Shrewsbury (D-16th) -- a white man -- over Jones for aldermanic president. "Let me say so people can understand," Tyus says. "I would not have voted for Kenny Jones. Kenny Jones is part of the culture of this place." She draws a comparison to Clarence Thomas, whom regular listeners know as evil incarnate in Onion's world. The doodling stops.
Tyus might as well have lit a fuse on a stick of dynamite. Her part in this conversation is over.
"Until I see a group of white people drop a white man in favor of a group of blacks, I will never support a white man," Onion thunders. "They never pick us." Tyus, in ever-increasing volume, tries to interrupt, but it's a hopeless cause. Onion rips Tyus for her recent alliance with former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., long her political enemy. Onion blames Bosley for engineering the 1995 defeat of Ald. Velma Bailey (D-19th) when she tried to become aldermanic president. With Bosley's endorsement, Francis G. Slay won that contest and used the position as a stepping-stone to the mayor's office, where many believe the redistricting plan was hatched.
"You can disagree, but it cannot affect me," Onion continues. "All the white people went after you, and a bunch of Negroes joined them. How many white people are going to vote with you today?" For once, Tyus doesn't have a quick answer, not that she would be allowed one anyway. After a nanosecond of silence, she starts protesting, but it's impossible to hear what either she or Onion is saying because they're both shouting now, drowning each other out on JBL bookshelf speakers that weren't made to handle this many decibels. It's a war Onion can't lose. He warns Tyus once, twice, then switches her off. "When you stop talking, I'll turn the volume back up," he tells her.
He finishes his point, which is, essentially, twofold: Black elected officials need to support each other, and Tyus is something of a hypocrite for embracing Bosley, who no longer holds elective office and can't help her now. Only then does Onion give the alderwoman another chance, turning the volume back up. But Tyus doesn't want to play anymore. "I'm just driving up to the Board of Aldermen now," she says. Then there's silence. "I think she left," Onion says, stating both the obvious and the understandable.
After all, Tyus doesn't need this. Although his show on newblackcity.com is available around the globe and listeners can call toll-free on a number that works anywhere in America, Onion doesn't have near the audience he once enjoyed in a career that dates back a quarter-century. He was once one of the hottest black talk-show hosts on St. Louis radio, but after stints at seven stations, he's landed in a my-mom-can-make-the-curtains affair, and it shows. If tables were to be brought in, there'd be enough room in New Black City offices for two games of pingpong at the same time. No coffee machine, no receptionist, no potted plants and no paid employees -- everyone is working for the day Onion and his business partner, Mark Kasen, get back on the airwaves so commuters can listen and advertisers will pay big bucks. They may be getting close. A St. Louis jury in June decided that the partners' former lawyers had cheated them in a deal to acquire their own station.
On the air or on the Internet, Onion takes this very seriously. As New Black City's main attraction, he routinely stretches his 8 a.m.-noon shift well past 1 p.m. Today he's got Jim Berger stationed at City Hall to bring the action to however many listeners are out there. Berger, a retired stockbroker who's dabbled in radio since college, calls in a few minutes after Tyus hangs up to report that there are seven picketers on the sidewalk, six whites and one black -- they are apparently concerned on redistricting's effect on Ald. Craig Schmid (D-10th), a white incumbent whose ward also would move as a result of the plan. Onion does some quick math in his head. "That's 86 percent white and 14 percent black," he notes. "That's about the same makeup as the state of Missouri."
The redistricting fiasco dominates Onion's observances this morning -- and they are mostly observances, because there aren't many callers to help him out. He assures whoever may be listening that he has the highest respect for Tyus, whom he considers the best-informed alderman. "I love her," he says. "She's my favorite, I think." As for himself, well, that's not important. "I don't care what people think about me," he says. "I really don't." The topic darkens. He's ready to leave all this behind. He'll be retired for real in another two years, tops, he vows, noting that the life expectancy of a black man in America is 69 years. "I've used up most of that," he says. "I'm getting ready to die. I need one of those $1,500 plots, prepaid." This is classic Onion, a man who bounces from subject to subject, making it all up as he goes along and cinching his points with facts, figures and statistics he pulls from newspapers, books and television news shows.
After a 10-minute break to fetch a Vess orange soda, he's back on, talking about a poll in USA Today in which a majority of white people surveyed said blacks are better off than whites ("They're either fools or racists") and a deadbeat dad who is facing jail if he fathers another child ("I think, sooner or later, you need to lock these guys up.") Berger is soon back on the line with a silky, classic radio voice that comes through perfectly on the cell phone. The meeting just ended, he's got it all on tape and now he's pushing toward Tyus to land an interview. While negotiating the throng of paid journalists, Berger chides Onion for not letting him say more when he called earlier from outside City Hall. "I called in, and you made me the token white caller and then wouldn't let me talk," he complains. Onion answers with a question, which he answers himself. "How long have you known me?" he asks. "Two more days will be a week. If you've known me a week, you know if you wait until someone lets you talk, you'll never talk."
Once Berger reaches Tyus, the plan is to hand the phone over to her so Onion can conduct the interview himself. Onion has a pretty good idea of what's coming. "The alderwoman and I had some pretty harsh words this morning, so she may not want to talk to me," he says when Berger tells him he's just waiting for Tyus to finish with the Post-Dispatch. Any minute now. A bit of dead air. Then the drone of a recorded voice: "If you'd like to make a call, please hang up and try again."
"Let me go to the fabulous Onion stack here," Onion says as he sorts through clippings from the three morning newspapers. But the pickings are slim. He's already talked about deadbeat daddies and the newspaper poll, so the topic turns to himself. "Nobody ever cared about my free speech," he declares. "Every station I left, it was because of what I said. When we talk about free speech in this country, it's free speech for white people. Because some people didn't like the subject matter, we were kicked off here, onto the Internet."
As is often the case, Onion is the only black man working this morning at newblackcity.com, although his girlfriend, Stephanie Boykin, who is 31 years younger than Onion, helps out for awhile behind the mic -- Onion says he's training her to be his replacement. Mike Clayton wanders in and out, as does his son Wesley, a computer whiz who makes sure the gear works properly. Clayton, the man who provided the computer equipment, is somewhat of an on-air foil for Onion. He's a white pro-life Republican, a self-described conservative who decries Waco and supports school vouchers. The topic turns to Bush's faith-based initiative, and Clayton grows sarcastic at Onion's relentless pessimism. "Let's just go out and set up a government that violates everyone's rights," he suggests. "We've already got that," Onion fires back. Louis Farrakhan won't get any government money, he says, and that's a function of his Black Muslim politics -- who knows how many politically connected white ministers will get government checks? Clayton thinks he's got Onion cornered. Plenty of politically active black ministers get tax-exempt status for their organizations, he declares. So do white ones, Onion counters, ticking off the names: Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Billy Graham. "There's no area of American life where black people have more freedom than white people," Onion says, and Clayton is forced to agree.
Onion is admitting that some of his thinking may be outdated when Berger walks in, dressed in white shirt, red tie and navy slacks, looking every bit the professional journalist. White, silver-haired and a resident of Jefferson County, Berger is the antithesis of Onion. And he is really, really angry.
Leaning over the table so his face is inches from Onion's, Berger grabs his own tie and lifts the ends into the air as if he's hanging himself, his mouth screwed into a silent snarl. His face crimson with rage and his hand jerking on the end of the tie, he hisses the words "Strangle you!" as a smiling Onion continues talking into the mic, as if none of this was happening. Berger backs away a few steps, but he doesn't back down. "What did you say to her?" Berger demands in a loud whisper. Onion decides it's time for another break.
To Onion, this is just another day. To Berger, it's a disaster; an alderwoman has stiffed him on an interview request. "I could strangle you!" Berger says as music best described as hip New Age goes out over the Web site. "I never get turned down on interviews. Ever. I sweet-talked her. I tried everything. She looked at me like," Berger says, baring his teeth and contorting his face, "like she was going to kill me! She would've eaten me. What did you say to her?" "What did she say I said?" Onion asks, looking bemused. "She said you argued with her about Clarence Thomas and Bojangles," Berger answers.
"No, she's full of shit," says the radio host who's never uttered a profanity in his life. It was Tyus who brought up the Supreme Court justice, he notes. He tells Berger to stop arguing. "I'm not arguing," he insists. "I'm a reporter, for chrissakes. Let's play like we've got a real radio station. Can you get that through your head, Horton?" Then he embraces Onion. "Never piss off a future guest," he pleads. "I've been broadcasting 30 years, and nobody's told me no."
"Well, maybe you shouldn't have followed us," Onion says. He smiles as he tells Berger he'll keep saying what he wants to whomever he wants. "It's one of those things where you can't let someone take over your program," he explains.
Berger, who has the intensity of a Les Nessman, rolls his eyes, pulls out a set of headphones and crosses himself as he heads toward the soundboard. He quickly fixes a mic that's been dead all morning -- all it takes is a flick of a switch, but Onion, for all his oratorical ability, is an idiot when it comes to technology. He takes a seat beside Onion and they're back on the air -- er, Internet.
"We had a few problems -- technical problems here at New Black City," Berger purrs into his mic. "Here's a phone call right now."
Onion Horton can't stand on the sidewalk for five minutes without someone calling out his name. Nearly every time the light turns red on Delmar Boulevard outside the New Black City offices, someone says hello while waiting for traffic. Fans range from transit workers to elected officials. "Hey, Onion!" yells Ald. Irving Clay Jr. (D-26th), who's driving a convertible. "Brother Clay!" Onion shoots back with a laugh. "Hey, you're supposed to be at work!"
He's not shy, especially with women. "Pardon me" he says to a stranger waiting for a bus. "Can I have one of your potato chips?" His humble tone is distinctly non-Onion -- who could refuse him? And so the woman holds out her bag, allowing Onion to pluck one himself. "My name is Richard," he says, calling her by name after looking at the sticker on her blouse that says "Hello, my name is Jean." Jean Sykes nods politely, looking somewhat curious as to why this man is sweating in a bus shelter in mid-July while getting his picture taken. Then she finds out who he is. Her face lights up with a huge smile.
"You're Onion Horton?" Sykes exclaims. "My daddy listened to you all the time!" Just then, her bus arrives. She stays put. Sykes says she often listened along with her father. She doesn't know what Onion's doing now, but she's pleased to hear he's on the Internet. "If he's still working, that's all that counts," she says. "We liked his show. He's informative. He speaks the truth on different issues. He's not faking it. He's for real. And it's funny. You might not always agree with him, but he's funny. I'm going to go back to the office and say, 'Guess what? I met Onion Horton.' He's one of my heroes." She tells Onion she's spending the day at a job-training program just a half-block away -- would he come down and talk to everyone? "They would love it," she pleads. Onion gets the address. "I'll stop by before I leave," he promises.
This sort of thing happens all the time. Onion says he can't understand why, but he's grateful. "It's wonderful," he says. "People are just so unbelievably kind. I don't do anything. I just sit there and talk about racism."
Where others see rainbows, Onion sees rain. He admires Farrakhan, saying both he and the Muslim minister are everything a white man wants a black man to be: They don't smoke, don't drink, don't chase white women and don't socialize outside black neighborhoods. "I'm an economic integrationist," he declares. Although Julia Roberts is his favorite actress, Onion frowns on interracial dating. Crips and Bloods are good for the black community, he says, because they've deterred white people from making the kind of direct remarks to blacks that his father had to bear when he worked in a grocery warehouse and a shoeshine stand -- it's about time white people have to fear for their safety if they don't show respect. "White men would poke you in the butt and you had to laugh," he says, recalling the overt discrimination his dad faced. On his show, Caucasians are "white boys"; blacks are "black people," "Negroes" or "Negro dogs," depending on whether they're doing the right thing or selling out. "If the problem of racism in America was created by white people, they're the only ones who can solve it," he says. He doesn't think black people will ever get a fair shake. "Will it ever change?" he asks. "The answer is yes -- it's going to get worse. I have less faith than I ever did."
He constantly challenges listeners and callers to prove him wrong and boasts that the facts and statistics he uses on his show come from white mainstream newspapers, so doubters can't accuse him of using slanted sources. He's a regular at the public library, spending upwards of 10 hours a week reading at the main branch -- books about politics, history and the Supreme Court are particular favorites. He can tell you the name of Ronald Reagan's first attorney general (William French Smith) and how many states the Gipper carried when he was re-elected (49). When talking to callers, he freely admits that he stacks the deck in his own favor. "When I pick the subject, I pick a subject where I can't be wrong," he says. He insists he's not a black Rush Limbaugh but allows that the comparison is fair up to a point. "It's interesting how KMOX can have Rush Limbaugh and he's paid millions of dollars," he muses. "Black people speak our feelings, and all of a sudden we're dividing the races."
It's not surprising that folks jump to conclusions about his nickname. "That name should give you a clue," says former St. Louis Comptroller Virvus Jones, a sometime talk-show host himself who says he agrees with about 90 percent of what Onion says. "I think the nickname came from the fact that onions have a contrary flavor to them. People turn up their nose and get uncomfortable."
Actually, the name came from a girl who played on a youth-softball team Onion coached in the mid-1960s. Back then, he wore his hair about 2 inches long. On the same day a barber buzzed him, he took the team to the movies, a double feature that included The Sons of Katie Elder, featuring John Wayne, and Onionhead, starring Andy Griffith. Taking a cue from the latter, the girl told her coach that his head looked like an onion.
Born in Arkansas in 1933, Onion has a worldview steeped in a time when blacks couldn't use the same toilets as whites, couldn't watch movies in certain theaters and couldn't eat a hamburger inside the old Parkmoor restaurant at Cote Brilliante and Kingshighway, just down the street from where he lives today. One of his favorite stories is about the time his mom took him to Forest Park for a hotdog and soda during a summertime visit to St. Louis when he was about 10 years old. When he pointed and asked to ride the roller coaster at the nearby Forest Park Highlands, she told him she didn't have enough money. But all the money in the world wouldn't have gotten him into the amusement park, which didn't admit blacks. A deeply religious woman who believed Jesus would make everything OK, she lied to Onion about separate-but-equal and planted the seeds of his pessimism toward religion.
Onion's life changed permanently after his parents separated when he was 9 years old and he was sent to live in Fort Wayne, Ind., with a grandmother and uncle, who told him the real reason his mom didn't take him on the roller coaster. "I went to them for six years, and I became black before Martin Luther King was ever born," he says. "Best thing that ever happened to me was a broken home. The first thing they did, they jerked Jesus out of there. I knew my grandmother and my uncle would never tell me anything that was wrong. Everything they told me about race, it just stuck there. I've had the same views since I was a child."
Onion says he graduated from high school in Fort Wayne at age 16 and joined the Air Force in 1954, the same year he got married, six months after his first child, Loretta, was born. What did he do between graduation and joining the service? "Nothing," he answers flatly, offering no details. The marriage, which ended in divorce in 1985, produced four children, including two sons who live in the Central West End. His two daughters live in Chicago and Kansas City. One is a special-education teacher; the other works for a Lutheran ministry. His son and namesake, Richard Horton Jr., is a police officer at St. Louis University. Allen Horton is a mobile disc jockey, working parties, weddings and other social gatherings.
Onion became a postal clerk after his Air Force discharge, working nights until his retirement in the 1970s. His children were one of his first audiences. Saturday-morning breakfasts were a family tradition, and Onion didn't care that his kids were less than 10 years old. "We were getting these basically adult talks," Allen Horton says. "He would just talk about life in general. Most of it was talking about race and some of the obstacles that were put up against you because of what you were. When he presented the race issue, he never presented it with the attitude of hate. You can say he was pessimistic, but in all reality, he was being real. I mean, there was no need of him telling us something that he felt in his own mind and his heart that wasn't going to happen." Onion talks about race the same way with his grandchildren, who sometimes take him too literally. He delights in telling the story of a granddaughter who pointed out a white man passed out drunk in the gutter, then asked Grandpa why the man was lying there if he owned the world.
Onion professes that his only real fear is being physically attacked by white people, especially police officers. "When I see a police car, I just shiver," he says, even though he's never been roughed up by a cop. "But it can happen tomorrow," he says. His son sees a braver man. "If he has a fear, I don't know what it is," Allen Horton says. "I think maybe his biggest fear is something he doesn't have to worry about anymore: us failing him. He might have had that fear, but since we're all grown and established, he doesn't have to worry anymore." Family has always been important to Onion. His son learned this firsthand when Onion's father died in 1978. "His father told him the same things he told us," Allen Horton says. "When his father died, it was the first time I actually saw him cry. It kind of took me for a loop. I was 19 years old. I had never seen my father show any kind of emotion. That's when I realized that under all that grit, there was a human being."
Onion is happiest when he's with his children and grandchildren, Allen Horton says. Even today, Horton attends as many as 100 high-school basketball games a year with his father, traveling as far as Mississippi for state tourneys. They've been doing it for more than 20 years. They have no favorite school. Rather, they study newspapers to determine the best matchups, then drive as far as necessary. Onion is more than just a fan. He has become a player in the high-stakes world of collegiate recruiting. When Quin Snyder was named basketball coach at the University of Missouri-Columbia, one of his first acts was to visit Onion, whose approval or disapproval of the new coach could sway high-school prospects. Onion had often blasted former coach Norm Stewart for not making sure black players graduated, and some hoops junkies believe recruiting in St. Louis suffered because of his stance. "If you can't recruit in St. Louis and East St. Louis, you can't win," Jones says. "If the parents of these children who play basketball are listening to Onion on the radio and Onion says that Quin Snyder is not a good guy, then these people won't go there." Although Onion says he approves of Snyder, his public disdain for Mizzou dates back to the 1970s, when he urged high-school football players to boycott the university because blacks were being benched in favor of less talented white players.
When Allen Horton graduated from high school, he considered studying journalism at the University of Missouri. On the other hand, a heating-and-air-conditioning company had offered him a good-paying job as a welder. "[Onion] told me to take the job," Allen Horton says. "He said 'You're going to college to prepare yourself for work anyway.' He kept saying 'We've got schools here in St. Louis. If the job doesn't work out, you can always go to school.'" Horton took his father's advice and spent 24 years with the same company before abruptly quitting a few years ago to start his DJ business. He goes by the moniker Baby O when he's playing music. "I'm 42 years old, and just about everything I've accomplished now I can attribute to him," Horton says. "I'm proud of him -- not just because of his celebrity status but because he's my dad."
Onion is also respected in his North St. Louis neighborhood, where gang members roam the streets and crime is routine. According to the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, the neighborhood saw four homicides, 22 robberies, 70 assaults and 484 property crimes during the first six months of this year. Onion thinks nothing of taking an evening stroll. "He does it all the time," his son says. "He's totally comfortable where he is. He knows everybody in the neighborhood. All the bad people know who he is, and he knows who they are. When he walks by, he doesn't cross the street. He speaks to them. They speak back."
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.
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.
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."
Onion's business relationship with Kasen dates back about 10 years, when both were working at WGNU. Eventually the two formed Onion Horton Productions, a corporation that acts as a tax shelter. Onion had run into tax trouble. Jacobson says it was all an innocent misunderstanding on Onion's part. WGNU considered him an independent contractor, Jacobson says, but Onion paid taxes as if he were an employee. After about six years of not paying required self-employment, Social Security and Medicare taxes, Onion got an inquiry from the IRS, which at one time calculated that he owed $65,000, Jacobson says. "The IRS came out to his house, and they saw where he lived and said, 'Man, you're not hiding any money,'" says Onion's lawyer. Still, the government filed liens against Onion's future income. Kasen had his own tax trouble about the same time as Onion.
Onion and Kasen, a Jewish resident of Chesterfield, appear an unlikely team. Kasen handles the business end. "Onion's more interested in talking than he is in the details of the business that allows him to talk," he explains. The partnership is an easy target for Onion's critics. "When he talked about not trusting white people, not trusting different ethnic groups, I found out that wasn't true," says Hayes. "His main benefactor is white and Jewish." And ambitious.
After leaving KATZ, Kasen put together a deal he hoped would make himself and Onion owners of a radio station. In 1997, he convinced Emmis Broadcasting to donate an unprofitable station to New Horizon Seventh Day Christian Church, headed by the Rev. B.T. Rice. The church would lease the station to Onion Horton Productions, which would have an option to buy it after two years for $750,000, a considerable amount of money for two guys with tax problems. Kasen says he had investors lined up. But they never got a chance to write a check.
Lee Platke and Stuart Berkowitz, attorneys for Onion Horton Productions, drew up the paperwork, acting as lawyers for Onion, Kasen and the Rev. Rice. The attorneys were supposed to become shareholders in Onion Horton Productions, with the idea that they would share ownership of the station with Onion and Kasen. Shortly before the deal closed, however, the attorneys formed Unity Broadcasting and substituted the new corporation for Onion Horton Productions, according to a lawsuit Onion and Kasen filed against the lawyers. Less than six months after KKWK (1380 AM) went on the air in early 1998, Platke and Berkowitz fired Onion and Kasen and switched the format to jazz.
Onion and Kasen say their lawyers stole the station. "Lee Platke told them, 'It was better if we didn't put your names on the paperwork for this company, because your tax problems may slow the process down,'" says Jacobson. "He said, 'We'll leave your names off now, and after we close the deal, then we'll add your names.' People trust their lawyers, and normally that trust is well placed. For whatever reason, the money involved was enough to tempt them [Platke and Berkowitz] away from the path of righteousness." Jacobson and Kasen say the station is worth between $4 million and $5 million.
Last month, a St. Louis Circuit Court jury agreed that the lawyers had violated their duties to their clients, awarding $175,000 to Onion and Kasen. Onion admits he was somewhat surprised that a jury that included 10 white people sided with him. Afterward, all 12 jurors stayed behind to talk with him about the case. "I didn't know what they would do," he says. "They were white, and I expected them to act white. It was just beautiful. They're the kind of white folks I would like my kids to know. Why can't everybody be like that? Why did we have to leave that room? When we got back outside, everything was the same as ever."
The case may not be over. Jacobson has filed a motion asking a judge to make Onion and Kasen partners in Unity, which holds the option to buy the station from Rice's church. A hearing is set for September. "I'll say, 'The jury saw what happened here, Your Honor, and I think you should follow the decision of the jury -- this is for you to do and give us that relief,'" Jacobson says.
Meanwhile, Platke and Berkowitz are appealing. They didn't take anything from Onion and Kasen, says Gerard Noce, attorney for the two lawyers. Furthermore, the notion that a judge should install Onion and Kasen as partners in Unity after a jury has spoken is ridiculous, he says. "Their claim was they were damaged monetarily for not being partners, if you will, in the company," Noce says. "So they got a verdict. Do you give them the money for not being made partners and then make them partners on top of that? You can't get both."
Onion predicts a return to the airwaves by October. He and Kasen envision much more than just a radio station. Kasen is trying to convince black newspapers across the country to sign on with New Black City, which would post articles from papers on its Web site. In exchange for exposure on the Internet, the papers -- most of which have no Web sites -- would publicize New Black City, says Kasen, who draws comparisons with the Associated Press. One day in the not-so-distant future, Internet access will be routine in automobiles, Kasen says, so New Black City, regardless of whether it goes on the airwaves, can become a major player in delivering news to blacks nationwide.
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."
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."