The Old Chuckaroo

St. Louis radio's provocateur was a mystery in life -- and in death

By the 1950s Norman was spinning his favorite big-band sounds on WIL-AM (now WRTH [1430 AM]) and racking up top rankings. The Old Chuckaroo began acquiring the accoutrements of celebrity: tailored clothing, a pink Cadillac and a gaggle of groupies.

"He thought he was a Casanova," remembers friend Mary Katz. Norman's young fans flocked on weekends to his sparsely furnished bungalow near Castlewood State Park. There, the highballs flowed and the chain-smoking big shot was in his full glory.

Norman later downplayed his party-hardy reputation. "He didn't want anybody to ever know he got a little high," recalls Ford. "To him, it was a show of weakness."

Chuck Norman in 2002
Jennifer Silverberg
Chuck Norman in 2002
Buddy Arnold: Mr. Gilden will talk your ear off with tales of Chuck, if you let him.
Jennifer Silverberg
Buddy Arnold: Mr. Gilden will talk your ear off with tales of Chuck, if you let him.

In 1954 Norman plunged over a 60-foot waterfall while row-boating on the Lake of the Ozarks. The boat landed on Norman's back, leaving him laid up in Barnes-Jewish Hospital for months. But he didn't let injury hamper him. Old photographs show Norman clutching his WIL microphone from his hospital bed, smartly coiffed and surrounded by women.

Norman, always the ham, dabbled in myriad mini-ventures and promotional stunts, and he reveled in flitting across town crowning high-school homecoming queens and hosting the Friday-night Miss Missouri pageant on KTVI (then Channel 36).

In 1956 the late-night talk show Norman's Nite Cap debuted. Skip Erwin, a freshly unemployed radio broadcaster, was producer.

"Chuck gave me two-thirds of the money [earned from the broadcast]. He did it to be a friend, but it was also smart," says Erwin, a current WGNU talk-show host. "He wanted me to be comfortable."

Nite Cap's guests ranged from Ray Charles to Missouri Governor James Blair to Teamsters leader Harold Gibbons. Norman had a nose for news, Erwin boasts, but network management bristled. Two years after the show began, Norman refused to devote the program purely to show biz, and he and Erwin split. From then on, Norman was sure of one thing: He'd never work for anyone again.

A Rebellious Frequency

WGNU-AM's switch flipped on one December morning in 1961, and it would forever be known as "Chuck Norman's station." Initially there were two financial backers, but strained relations among the trio led Norman to secure a permit for his own FM station three years later. That gamble turned nickels into gold.

WGNU-FM quickly became the top-rated St. Louis radio station, and within ten years of its launch, Norman was entertaining lucrative buyout offers. Already in his sixties, Norman decided to cash in his chips. He made WGNU-AM all-talk and sold WGNU-FM to the now-defunct Doubleday Broadcasting for a reported $2 million.

WGNU-AM, or "Radio Free St. Louis," as Norman boastfully called it, became a rebellious little frequency. White supremacists, anti-Semites, bleeding hearts, race-baiters -- everybody got access to Norman's airwaves. WGNU was a publicity machine, sparking controversy for making controversy its raison d'être.

Norman treated the station like a cherished toy. In 1989 he rented the entire thirteenth floor of the Senate Building on Union Boulevard to house both his apartment and the studio. He listened all day long and hosted his own program well into his seventies. Norman didn't care if WGNU cranked a profit, and he readily dipped into personal reserves to avoid debt.

But Norman's death ushered in a host of worrisome changes.

Ex- and current staffers blame Esther Wright, an ordained minister who became Norman's devoted caregiver in the late '90s, taking him to doctor's appointments and on errands. "If he wanted her there at midnight, she'd be there," remembers Art Ford.

Norman's decision in 2000 to make Wright the station's general manger caused friction among many employees, especially those with more seniority and managerial experience. Irritation grew as Wright conducted daily prayer meetings -- and, some say, went to work erecting a fortress around Norman.

"Esther would not allow people to contact Chuck if he wasn't feeling well and would threaten termination if they did," explains a staffer who asked not to be named in this story. Wright says that's not true.

When Norman died, Wright imposed a freeze on cost-of-living raises and cut back engineers' hours, causing some to lose health benefits. Wright refuses to offer an explanation for the belt-tightening, saying only, "We were pretty much in limbo for awhile."

The most troubling changes at WGNU, devoted listeners say, are the sackings over the past year of nine longtime hosts. The ex-employees include such quintessential "Radio Free St. Louis" characters as National Alliance member Frank Weltner (a.k.a. "Couch Potato"), black supremacist Onion Horton and Horton's Jewish partner, Mark Kasen.

"WGNU has a real right-wing, religious kind of feel to it now," complains loyal listener La Vonda Staples. "It's not 'Radio Free St. Louis' anymore. It's 'let's-see-how-narrow-minded-and-stiff-necked-we-can-be.'"

The hosts say no reason was given for their dismissal. Kasen says he and Horton shelled out nearly $100,000 for their air-time privileges from 2001 to 2004. "Why they wanted to lose that money, I cannot tell you."

Wright won't discuss the matter but maintains that WGNU will stick with its talk shows. "I remember Chuck telling me, 'If you want to make money, you should probably turn it over to a gospel station.' But we didn't want to do that, because we like the talk format."

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