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By Allison Babka
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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."
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."
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.