Peeling the Onion

Onion Horton says he's everything a white man wants a black man to be

Onion Horton, on the air.
Onion Horton, on the air. PHOTO BY JENNIFER SILVERBERG

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click to enlarge Onion Jones. - PHOTO BY JENNIFER SILVERBERG
Onion Jones.
Onion's career as a commentator was born in the early 1970s at Luther's Barber Shop in North St. Louis, where he jawed sports with the regulars, one of whom was Morris Henderson, sports editor for the St. Louis American. Henderson told Onion he should write a column for the American. "He said, 'Just put on paper what you say in the barbershop and leave out the profanities,'" Onion recalls. His first piece was about Robert Williams, a Kirkwood High School basketball star denied a spot on an all-star team, supposedly because the coaches who voted didn't like his attitude. Onion saw it as a racial issue. "He was the best player in the league," he says.

Onion says he can't remember which came first, the job at KMOX (1120 AM) or the one at KKSS (107.7 FM). He says he owes the KMOX job to Henderson, who had been criticizing the station in print for not hiring enough blacks to do sports commentary. The KMOX gig didn't last. The only person at the station who would work with him, recalls Onion, was Bob Costas, who needed someone to work the soundboard, which was a mystery to him. "It was the same KMOX and the same me," he recalls. "People were furious." He left when Costas got a better job, but the paychecks kept coming. Some local-radio veterans think the station paid the remainder of Onion's contract to avoid a lawsuit. Onion only says he didn't see any point in asking the station to stop sending him money. "They sent me a check every week for, I guess, a couple years," Onion recalls. "If it didn't show up, I'd call and say, 'Where's my check?' I hadn't even done a show."

Onion debuted on KKSS with a Sunday-night sports program called Sports of All Sorts, a job he landed after calling in to a KMOX sports show and ripping the Mizzou football program. KKSS host Scott St. James heard about the call and invited Onion to do an hour of sports on his show every week. When St. James left for KMOX, Onion took over for St. James and began speaking his mind about anything he liked, but the job ended when the station switched formats and ditched talk shows for music.

In 1985, Onion landed a daily show on WGNU (920 AM), where he entertained morning commuters, essentially with the same show he does today. It was a seat-of-the-pants start. His predecessor, Bernie Hayes, didn't show up one day. "He just absolutely, literally disappeared," recalls station owner Chuck Norman. And so Norman called Onion, who had been a regular caller to Hayes' show. "Chuck called me and asked did I know where Bernie was," Onion recalls. "Chuck had been saying Bernie was on assignment. He couldn't do that any longer." And so Onion took Hayes' spot.

Although nowhere near the top of the charts, Onion's show had good ratings for a station the size of WGNU, Norman recalls. "Onion, I must say, he did build up quite a following," he says. "We did well while he was here. His kind of bigotry -- really, that's what you have to call it -- I think appeals to a certain element of the population, especially the black people. They consider him a kind of hero, I suppose. He arouses the black community, and they like it, I suppose. He's a racist, absolutely -- no doubt about that. A lot of things [Onion said] made me rather uncomfortable. We tolerated it. Our feeling here is everybody's got a right to speak his piece, whether it's the host or the callers or whoever it is."

But the WGNU job ended in discord. After Onion left the station in 1995 -- he says his departure was "by mutual agreement" -- WGNU sued Onion, claiming he had pocketed advertising revenue that belonged to the station.

Onion didn't get a straight paycheck from WGNU. Rather, part of his compensation came from selling advertising time. Under his deal with the station, Onion was supposed to keep 20 percent of the proceeds from ads he sold, with the rest going to WGNU. But he pocketed thousands of dollars that were supposed to go to the station, according to a 1996 lawsuit filed by WGNU against Onion. As evidence, the station in St. Louis Circuit Court filed a 1991 agreement, signed by Onion, in which he acknowledges pocketing $11,932 in ad revenue that was due the station. In the written agreement, Onion agreed to repay WGNU at the rate of $230 per week, with the money coming out of his paycheck.

Norman says Onion's transgressions went beyond taking money from the station. "He was taking money from advertisers without even putting them on the air," he says. "He was just putting the money in his pocket. That's when we filed suit, and that was the end of Onion. Maybe it did happen once or twice before that and we had a talk about it and let it go and forgave it for the time being. You can forgive maybe one transgression, maybe even two, but you can't keep doing it." By the time he left the station, Onion owed WGNU nearly $20,000, according to the lawsuit, which was eventually settled out of court. Norman says Onion hasn't lived up to his end of the settlement. "We're still waiting for the first check," he says.

Onion doesn't blame Norman for suing him. "If I was Chuck Norman, I probably would have filed a suit," he says. "But since I'm Onion Horton, the answer is definitely no." Onion has nothing but praise for the station owner who hauled him into court. "I can't say nothing bad about Chuck Norman," he says. "I thought Chuck was one of the fairest people I ever met. He was probably one of the best people I ever worked for."

Onion's next job landed him in controversy that haunts him even today.

When Onion left WGNU, he had a job lined up at KATZ (1600 AM), which was in the middle of an ugly war with Hayes, who had become the station's morning-talk-show host. Hayes had virtually no listeners, recalls former station general manager Steve Mosier, and so he had to go. Mosier says he offered Hayes other time slots, but Hayes refused. And so Mosier pulled him off the air. Hayes had friends in high places. The St. Louis American ran columns blasting his dismissal. Meanwhile, the Ad Hoc Committee to Support Bernie Hayes threatened advertisers with "protest actions" if they didn't pull their ads. Pickets went up in front of Mosier's house. Aides to Mayor Bosley, a frequent guest on Hayes' show, wrote letters to the station on city stationery.

KATZ rehired Hayes for a few months, then went after Onion when he left WGNU. At first, Onion refused Mosier's offer to take over Hayes' slot. After a few months, however, he inked a one-year deal. Along with $10,000 and a cut of the advertising revenue, Onion got the label of sellout. "There was a lot of respect for Onion prior to all of this," says Percy Green, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee, who worked under Bosley and still runs the city's minority-business-certification program. "I'm not too sure many folks have a lot of good things to say about Onion because of that." Hayes, who eventually received a $30,000 settlement from the station, says Onion promised not to take his job. He blames both Onion and the white power structure for the fact he hasn't gotten a job in radio since leaving KATZ. "His message, I found out, was not what it seemed to be, as truthful as I thought it was at one time," Hayes says.

Onion doesn't deny promising Hayes he wouldn't take his job but says there's a lot more to the story. But he won't tell his side, at least on the record. "Definitely it wasn't a sellout," he says. "Bernie might have some bitterness, but maybe he forgot some things. I don't ever want to say anything negative about Bernie."

When Onion's contract expired, Mosier offered to renew it at $60,000 a year, although the station would keep a larger percentage of advertising revenue than under the previous deal. The offer didn't come because Mosier thought Onion could turn a profit for the station, which Mosier says was billing just $20,000 a month in advertising. Rather, Mosier says, the station's parent company, which also owned the much larger FM station KMJM, hoped a contract extension would make peace with black activists who were asking advertisers to pull commercials from all the company's stations. The strategy didn't work. Onion turned Mosier down. The reason changes depending on whom you ask.

"He told me to my face that he wouldn't take a pay cut," Mosier says, which raises questions about just how much money Onion was making from advertisers. Onion admits making the pay-cut statement, though he's far from the straight shooter he plays on his show. "I just said it," he says. "Maybe I had a reason, maybe I didn't." Joe Jacobson, Onion's attorney, says his client outcompeted the station's sales staff. "None of Mosier's salesmen could sell any ad time on Onion's show because Onion was able to undercut them on the price," Jacobson says.

The real reason Onion says he turned Mosier down was that KATZ wouldn't allow his business partner, Mark Kasen, to continue his afternoon show, which Mosier says was among the worst he's ever heard -- and low ratings indicate that listeners agreed. As with Norman, Onion says he has no ill feelings toward Mosier. "There were some people who said things about him that weren't accurate," Onion says. "Mosier was the one who started black talk at KATZ. I used to tell people that as soon as Mosier left, the format would change." He was proved right. After more than a decade as general manager, Mosier was fired in 1996 when the station was sold and Bosley wrote a letter to the new owners complaining about him. In the same letter, the mayor praised Onion and, particularly, Kasen for their service to him and the city. "I trust you will revisit the decision to terminate their services," Bosley wrote, apparently unaware that Onion had turned down a $60,000-a-year job. "Their commitment to disseminating information and improving the quality of life for their listeners is second to none." Mosier had trouble finding work after that. "That letter, for all practical purposes, ended my career," he laments. Mosier -- who now works as general sales manager at hip-hop station Q95.5 (WFUN-FM) -- says, "If you get a letter like that from the mayor of St. Louis, you have to believe it."

Onion's business relationship with Kasen dates back about 10 years, when both were working at WGNU. Eventually the two formed Onion Horton Productions, a corporation that acts as a tax shelter. Onion had run into tax trouble. Jacobson says it was all an innocent misunderstanding on Onion's part. WGNU considered him an independent contractor, Jacobson says, but Onion paid taxes as if he were an employee. After about six years of not paying required self-employment, Social Security and Medicare taxes, Onion got an inquiry from the IRS, which at one time calculated that he owed $65,000, Jacobson says. "The IRS came out to his house, and they saw where he lived and said, 'Man, you're not hiding any money,'" says Onion's lawyer. Still, the government filed liens against Onion's future income. Kasen had his own tax trouble about the same time as Onion.

Onion and Kasen, a Jewish resident of Chesterfield, appear an unlikely team. Kasen handles the business end. "Onion's more interested in talking than he is in the details of the business that allows him to talk," he explains. The partnership is an easy target for Onion's critics. "When he talked about not trusting white people, not trusting different ethnic groups, I found out that wasn't true," says Hayes. "His main benefactor is white and Jewish." And ambitious.

After leaving KATZ, Kasen put together a deal he hoped would make himself and Onion owners of a radio station. In 1997, he convinced Emmis Broadcasting to donate an unprofitable station to New Horizon Seventh Day Christian Church, headed by the Rev. B.T. Rice. The church would lease the station to Onion Horton Productions, which would have an option to buy it after two years for $750,000, a considerable amount of money for two guys with tax problems. Kasen says he had investors lined up. But they never got a chance to write a check.

Lee Platke and Stuart Berkowitz, attorneys for Onion Horton Productions, drew up the paperwork, acting as lawyers for Onion, Kasen and the Rev. Rice. The attorneys were supposed to become shareholders in Onion Horton Productions, with the idea that they would share ownership of the station with Onion and Kasen. Shortly before the deal closed, however, the attorneys formed Unity Broadcasting and substituted the new corporation for Onion Horton Productions, according to a lawsuit Onion and Kasen filed against the lawyers. Less than six months after KKWK (1380 AM) went on the air in early 1998, Platke and Berkowitz fired Onion and Kasen and switched the format to jazz.

Onion and Kasen say their lawyers stole the station. "Lee Platke told them, 'It was better if we didn't put your names on the paperwork for this company, because your tax problems may slow the process down,'" says Jacobson. "He said, 'We'll leave your names off now, and after we close the deal, then we'll add your names.' People trust their lawyers, and normally that trust is well placed. For whatever reason, the money involved was enough to tempt them [Platke and Berkowitz] away from the path of righteousness." Jacobson and Kasen say the station is worth between $4 million and $5 million.

Last month, a St. Louis Circuit Court jury agreed that the lawyers had violated their duties to their clients, awarding $175,000 to Onion and Kasen. Onion admits he was somewhat surprised that a jury that included 10 white people sided with him. Afterward, all 12 jurors stayed behind to talk with him about the case. "I didn't know what they would do," he says. "They were white, and I expected them to act white. It was just beautiful. They're the kind of white folks I would like my kids to know. Why can't everybody be like that? Why did we have to leave that room? When we got back outside, everything was the same as ever."

The case may not be over. Jacobson has filed a motion asking a judge to make Onion and Kasen partners in Unity, which holds the option to buy the station from Rice's church. A hearing is set for September. "I'll say, 'The jury saw what happened here, Your Honor, and I think you should follow the decision of the jury -- this is for you to do and give us that relief,'" Jacobson says.

Meanwhile, Platke and Berkowitz are appealing. They didn't take anything from Onion and Kasen, says Gerard Noce, attorney for the two lawyers. Furthermore, the notion that a judge should install Onion and Kasen as partners in Unity after a jury has spoken is ridiculous, he says. "Their claim was they were damaged monetarily for not being partners, if you will, in the company," Noce says. "So they got a verdict. Do you give them the money for not being made partners and then make them partners on top of that? You can't get both."

Onion predicts a return to the airwaves by October. He and Kasen envision much more than just a radio station. Kasen is trying to convince black newspapers across the country to sign on with New Black City, which would post articles from papers on its Web site. In exchange for exposure on the Internet, the papers -- most of which have no Web sites -- would publicize New Black City, says Kasen, who draws comparisons with the Associated Press. One day in the not-so-distant future, Internet access will be routine in automobiles, Kasen says, so New Black City, regardless of whether it goes on the airwaves, can become a major player in delivering news to blacks nationwide.

But there is no shortage of doubters, including some who like listening to Onion.

"There's no question that Onion's compelling," Mosier says. "The reason the show can't work is because you could have turned your radio off in 1972 and turned it on in 2001 and it would be the exact same show. It's just that, content-wise, you can't do the same show 365 days a year. The fact of the matter is that if someone thought they could make money off these guys, they'd hire them. The unfortunate part is, my belief is the majority of people listened to Onion in the context of him being more a cartoon character than a real spokesman on the human condition. He and Mark consider themselves serious, serious commentators when they're more or less looked at as a joke" -- or worse.

After Platke and Berkowitz fired Onion and turned KKWK into a jazz station, the Rev. Larry Rice gave them a shot on WINU (880 AM), a nonprofit station that sells blocks of time and spends the proceeds to help the poor. Dennis Harper, then-general manager of the station, says Rice urged him to put Onion and Kasen on the air, even though they didn't have any upfront money to pay for the time. "The reason he [Rice] approached me was he felt black people weren't getting a voice in the St. Louis area," Harper recalls. "He didn't feel that they really did have somebody who spoke up for the poor blacks of St. Louis. He really felt strongly about giving Onion a platform on our station, giving him a chance to express his views. Every station they'd ever been on contacted us and told us we were making a big mistake because they'd never pay us. Unfortunately, that was the case."

Harper says Onion and Kasen stiffed the station for more than $20,000 before they were yanked off the air after about six months. "There's a whole lot of people who didn't get help because of that," Harper says. "That's money we counted on to go toward helping people pay utility bills, helping feed hungry people and shelter people who didn't have homes. All through that time, Kasen would tell us he'd be by, like, that afternoon to pay us some money on what he owed us and he never did, ever. I'm not sure that Onion was really aware of what was going on, a lot of the times, because we always dealt with Kasen. And he's kind of a fast talker and a smooth operator, and he fibbed a little bit at times."

Kasen disagrees with Harper's recollection. "That's a made-up story," he says. But Kasen doesn't dispute that he and Onion left WINU owing money. He says he and his partner made the station a $28,000 offer but that the station, which wanted more money, turned them down. Kasen says he doesn't know why WINU wouldn't take the money: "They've just got their own ways of doing things, and I could never figure out what the agenda was."

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