Perpetual Voice

Chuck Norman says WGNU will still be wacky after he's gone

Norman describes himself as a Republican but has no qualms as being the man responsible for airing Brown, whose slogan is "Living my life as a liberal and loving it." Brown may come off as a Reverend Al Sharpton wannabe, though recently, with her book-club meetings, she appears to have an Oprah Winfrey gene yearning to break free.

The quintessential WGNU night is Friday; it has back-to-back shows that don't belong in the same Milky Way. First there's Onion Horton, who has been on WGNU and other talk stations for decades. Horton has made a name for himself as an angry, well-read black man retired from the post office but willing to go postal about race when he's behind a microphone.

Next up is The Right at Night, a two-hour show hosted by Gordon Baum and former St. Louis Board of Education member Earl Holt. Baum is the chief executive officer of the national Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that has an image of pushing "white rights." Three years ago, the headline of a 3,000-word profile of Baum in the Washington Post referred to him as a "small-time race baiter."

Chuck Norman
Jennifer Silverberg
Chuck Norman

Despite his addiction to free speech on WGNU, Norman knows that the station's Achilles' heel is race.

"Racism is probably the biggest criticism we get," says Norman. "They don't think we're racist, but they feel some of the callers go overboard and it's a race-mongering thing. I don't think that's true."

Because Brown's morning-drivetime show is highly critical of local police and interprets virtually every local news event through the prism of race, she bears the brunt of many critics, most of them white.

"Not a day passes where I don't get some criticism about her," says Norman. "They think it's racism in reverse, that she can't stand white people, that she won't talk to white people half the time."

Whatever criticism Brown gets, she's compensated for it. Unlike other hosts, Norman says Brown gets to keep 40 percent of the revenue from any ad she sells during her time slot. That adds up.

"Lizz Brown, she's unbelievable. She sells all kinds of time. She's way up there in the money," says Norman. "I don't get into the books at all. I'm kind of a silent bystander on these things, but I'm sure she makes at least $50,000 a year. That's a $1,000 bucks a week. Oh sure, my God, she's choking with advertising. She sells the ads."

However Norman or whoever inherits the station does it, Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers magazine, a periodical devoted to the talk-radio trade, thinks WGNU is a dinosaur worth saving.

"This is the uncorporate radio station. It's an anomaly, a station that bucks the trend," says Harrison. "It's a valuable thing to have in the community, because it's so rare. Look at consolidation and look how many fewer radio station owners there are."

That WGNU airs strange programs with just-plain-folks hosts fielding eccentric callers is not necessarily a bad thing, Harrison feels.

"In a real bustling, dynamic free marketplace of ideas, you're going to have goofiness," says Harrison. "We're so used to slick, commercial mediocrity that when we see something that ranges from brilliance to stupidness, we're surprised. It sounds to me like a cool thing."

Norman the Republican doesn't wax poetic when it comes to what has happened with the megacorporation dominance of the airwaves.

"The big conglomerates have taken over virtually everything," says Norman. "The FCC changed its rules. It used to be, when I started, no one could own more than one station in one market. That's all by the boards now -- you can own as many stations as you want. That's why these big conglomerates have gobbled up all the stations. Offhand, I can't think of one station owned by an individual except mine."

So when Norman fell about a month ago and reinjured an already bad back, his health concerns triggered worry that WGNU might fade into the sunset along with Norman. But Norman won't go away that easily.

Norman was water over the dam 48 years ago, but somehow he's survived. On Sunday, May 2, 1954, he was alone in a rented motorboat, cruising on Lake Taneycomo, when suddenly he was airborne. He had gone over the Ozark Beach Dam on the White River, falling 60 feet from the top of the dam and into the water.

Norman remembers the date clearly because when he got to the hospital, everyone was talking about what Stan Musial had done against the New York Giants that day back at the old Busch Stadium, the facility once known as Sportsman's Park, located at North Grand Boulevard and Dodier Street. In a doubleheader, Stan the Man hit five home runs.

Norman recovered from that fall, and it appears that he's better after his latest spill, though he spends much of his time in a wheelchair. He's at home.

"I'm right across the hall," says Norman. "All I have to do is yell, and I get someone from the radio station."

After owning WGNU for 41 years, Norman remains within earshot of the control room. And even after he's gone, St. Louis will be able to hear his echo -- for at least three years.

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