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Chuck Norman's name recognition long has outstripped his radio station's ratings, so it's fitting that as he approaches the inevitable, he has devised a way to extend his influence from beyond the grave.
Norman may die, but WGNU will remain in its self-styled "Radio Free St. Louis" mode long after he's gone.
That means the 40-odd talk-show hosts on 920 AM will continue to spew their mutant mix of politics and polemics at local listeners just as if the local radio legend were still living across the hall from the thirteenth-floor studio in the Senate Building on Union Boulevard, overlooking Forest Park.
Norman's will stipulates that upon his death, the station is to be run by a three-person board of directors consisting of Norman's lawyer, the station's current general manager and a representative of the station's seven-person staff. They will be forbidden to sell the station for three years.
"I think they can run it just as it is," says Norman, who declines to reveal his age, saying only that he's in the "fourscore" neighborhood. Because he has no descendants, a recent nasty spill and the ensuing health complications raised concerns about the fate of the station. "They're running it now. All they have to do is keep on doing what they're doing."
What the station has been doing for the last twenty years or so is offering one- or two-hour weekly slots to hosts whose only pay is the revenue from one commercial each hour. WGNU is different from "brokered" radio stations, which sell time to those who want to be on the air. For most of Norman's chat junkies, the compensation amounts to about $50 a show.
The only hosts on the air five days a week are Lizz Brown, during the morning drivetime, and Onion Horton and Mark Kasen, from 7-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday. Brown and Horton are the only two WGNU hosts whose ratings even approach the status of competition with offerings on other stations during their time slot. They are paid more because they get to keep more of the ad revenues.
WGNU has a low overall quarter-hour average share, just .6 percent of the radios turned on, but Brown's drivetime and the night slots fare better. This summer, Brown drew a 1.4 percent share, which roughly translates into about 6,500 people listening. Classical-music station KFUO (99.1 FM) drew a 1.7 percent share, sports-talk KFNS (590 AM) had a 1.4 percent share and hip-hop station WFUN (95.5 FM) scored a 1.6 percent share. Top-ranked KMOX (1120 AM) had a 12.6 share, about 57,000 listeners.
But Norman doesn't even bother to buy the Arbitron book. He doesn't care. Since he made his million or so when he sold WGNU-FM back in 1979, he's run WGNU-AM as a laissez-faire Marlin Perkins. He lives down the hall from the studio and lets pretty much any Tom, Dick or Mary have a show. He says the station has a salaried staff of seven or eight and "a flock of talk-show hosts."
The callers, many with nicknames, are even stranger than the hosts. When a veteran caller who goes by the name "the Great Kabuddah" calls in to a show hosted by a man who calls himself Couchie (short for "couch potato"), it's apparent that this isn't what Marconi had in mind when he invented the wireless.
"I'd say no, we're not really making money in that sense of the word," says Norman. "We're just been hanging on. We don't lose money. It's a break-even situation. We don't go broke."
Once, says Norman, four or five years ago, he had to dip into his personal funds for about $20,000 to meet the payroll. But that's not to say he couldn't make cash if that were his goal.
"You know, you have to be awfully stupid not to make money with a radio station," says Norman. "If I wanted to convert it to religion or ethnic programming, I could make all kinds of money. But I don't want that. I want a station that I myself want to listen to. If you gave me a rock station, I wouldn't want it, because I don't care for rock music, so I wouldn't enjoy it."
What Norman does enjoy is having his name plastered on billboards and bus banners throughout the area. The annual "Party for the Handicapped" signs, seen at Christmas, are in their 26th year. This year's party, featuring the Buddy Moreno Band and various belly dancers, dance troupes and God-knows-what, takes place Sunday, December 22, at the Millennium Hotel, downtown.
Outside of Christmas, there are the "Chuck Norman Says" slogans. The most recent Normanism was his slew of billboards proclaiming, "Chuck Norman Says Everybody Loves Jim Talent" and "Jim Talent Is a Good Man" before the November 5 election.
"I just wanted to see the guy win, and I wanted to see my name up there," says Norman. "It was an excuse to stick some more billboards up. I'm a big ham. I'm an egomaniac. I love to see my name up on a sign. I love that. Like some people get their kicks out of drinking or from sex, I get my kicks by seeing my name on a billboard."