Romanik's Interlude: An ex-con finds his second calling as the "Grim Reaper of Radio"

In a faded strip mall in northwest Belleville, Illinois, Bob Romanik, a.k.a. the Grim Reaper of Radio, is resplendently dressed in a cream-colored leisure suit. His other outfit — a skull mask frozen in mid-scream and a black robe — hangs behind the front desk of Insane Broadcasting. The silver-haired host sits behind the microphone, eyes closed, diamond-ringed fingers laced contemplatively, as a recorded voice introduces him to the invisible audience listening in Belleville, East St. Louis and across the river in Missouri.

After a few bars of "Bad to the Bone," the 63-year-old Romanik flicks his fingers to his producer and a clap of thunder silences George Thorogood.

"This is Bob Romanik," he bellows into the mic. "The Grim Reaper of Radio. And you're listening to the all-new WQQX, 1490. Hot talk and timeless memories. America's voice...of freedom."

Rick Sealock

The airwaves fill with the sound of a desolate wind and a steady downpour. Romanik goes to "the dark side."

Hey, I want to start out today, and I'm going to be all over Senator Foghorn — I say, I say, I say — BOY Clayborne's ass. His black, stinky ass. I had people ask me, "Hey, Romanik, why the hell are you calling that black man a boy?" 'Cause he is a boy. He's not a proud black man. He's a plantation Negro. He's a plantation Negro.

And all the proud blacks I talk to day in and day out — they know what the hell I'm talking about. These plantation Negros, they sell out. They take the authority the proud black community gives them, they step and fetch up to Belleville and sell out to the white plantation political owners. And you guys know who I'm talking about. And it just pisses me off.

'Cause, see, I don't give a damn. I've been screwed by these bastards. You guys have been screwed by these bastards.

For the next hour, Romanik rages on about the "bastards" who are, interchangeably, criminals, civil servants, rich people and — his favorite — the local Democratic politicos.

This morning, not even the families of the politicians are safe — such as St. Clair County Chairman Mark Kern's wife:

They're going to rouse me for tiptoeing through the tulips, allegedly, on Mrs. hairy-ass Mark Kern's wife's property. I don't even know the bitch's first name. I'll call her bitch Kern. She come runnin' down at me like some fool and have me charged with disorderly conduct. Honey, you look in the mirror. You look in the mirror, and when you come out in public, everybody ought to charge you with disorderly conduct. Because that face — that face is disorderly.

He growls, he lampoons, he shouts. By the time it's over, Romanik has insinuated that the mayors of both Belleville and East St. Louis are gay, and he's challenged State Senator James Clayborne of Belleville to "take your drawers down, look between your legs. If there's something hanging there, that means you're a man."

When the clock hits 11 a.m., another crash of thunder signals the end of the day's diatribe.

For a first-time listener, the meaning of the Romanik's rant can be difficult, if not impossible, to grasp. It's not hard to imagine — with his strings of FCC-approved cuss words, slight drawl and references to "greasy Mexicans" that Romanik, who calls himself "poor white trash," is a racist nutbag. He leaps at the chance to tell people he's "crazy." But the man behind the mask is also an ex-police chief, onetime strip club baron and a convicted felon with ties to one of the largest racketeering scandals to hit the east side.

"I'm really kind of surprised that a man with the professional accomplishments he's had in the past would stoop to that kind of expression," laments East St. Louis mayor Alvin Parks.

Parks was once a guest on the show but has now become a favorite target of Romanik's vitriol, rechristened "Alvin Sugar-Britches Parks."

"I think Bob is basically a guy who hates everybody," the mayor sighs.

Riverfront Times also found out firsthand how easy it is to fall from Romanik's favor and just how cold it can get on the dark side.

"If you do something to piss me off, I'll do something to piss the Riverfront Times off," he growls in his final conversation with RFT after the paper spent several days with him for this story. "I'll get more out of bounds than you ever thought. I'm not threatening you. I'm promising you."

An ex-con buying up radio stations would cause chatter anywhere in the radio biz — the Federal Communications Commission's "character" rules make it difficult for felons to own stations. That Romanik's first acquisition was a Christian-format station controlled by one of St. Louis' most recognizable pastors made the intrigue even juicier.

"I didn't know we were selling to Bob Romanik," recalls the Reverend Larry Rice of the New Life Evangelistic Center, who in 2006 sold WDID (re-identified as WQQW 1510 AM) to a group called Entertainment Media Trust.

The trust lists Belleville attorney Dennis Watkins as trustee and Romanik's son, Stephen, as the outfit's sole beneficiary. But it's Bob Romanik who — as a "consultant" — calls most of the shots within the group.

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