Radio Active

WGNU-AM hosts Virginia McCarthy and Ray Ytzaina field phone calls fast and furious from their devoted listeners

Some days the topic may not arise at all, but on this day it takes only 20 minutes for a WGNU caller to suggest that black helicopters are at work, attacking the unsuspecting (and no doubt unappreciative) residents of Corpus Christi, Texas. Black helicopters are a recurring theme on certain WGNU (920 AM) shows, and when Virginia McCarthy and Ray Ytzaina are on the air, there's a good chance they'll come into play, discussed with all the seriousness -- or lack thereof -- granted any other theory.

Black helicopters -- oh yeah, they're popular, but they aren't the surefire hits of the station. Five topics, Ytzaina suggests, are the absolute grade A, guaranteed, hot-button, phone-line-burning items that people in St. Louis obsess over and argue about: "Clinton. Abortion. Social Security. Welfare. Race relations. I've been tempted to open the lines and just say those words."

On this day, though, the callers send the show veering into varied, disconnected territories. A call about the impeachment hearings spawns an exchange about the problems of aging. That call, in turn, shifts into a semirelated discussion of Medicare. An early caller to the program suggests that old folks be warehoused. As any fan of talk radio will tell you, you don't mess with the old folks and get away with it. The lines hum for 90-plus minutes, with the issues of aging taking the day's featured role.

"They triggered it," says Ytzaina. "The host winds up playing center field, for lack of a better phrase."

The show that McCarthy and Ytzaina co-host airs three times a week, Tuesday-Thursday, 4-6 p.m. The pair seldom enjoys anything less than "hot" phone lines, with callers hanging on the telephone three or four deep at a given moment. The political leanings the hosts bring to the program are definitely drawing cards.

McCarthy first says she "doesn't mind being called a Republican," but then Ytzaina adds, "The word has become counterfeit. It sounds mean-spirited. I like to think of myself as a Jeffersonian." Reconsidering her answer, McCarthy says, "You can call me an independent."

An independent with conservative leanings, then. For more than 20 years, McCarthy has been an on-air presence at WGNU, back to when the station was located in two double-wide trailers in Granite City, Ill. "I drove through blizzards," she says. Trouper that she is, though, she almost never misses a show. When McCarthy was flying solo, her show was an often loosely structured affair with tons of callers, though she prefers to concentrate on the fact that such celebrities as Jack Anderson and Congressman Jim Talent (R-Chesterfield) have been guests of hers. Often, though, she'd simply open the lines and, in her unique tone, offer up the signature lines: "Hi, you're on WGNU," or, "You're on the Party Line."

There's no real way to describe McCarthy's voice -- not accurately, at least. It's one-of-a-kind. And the way she goes into a commercial break, without the hint of a segue, is another delightful McCarthy trademark.

Ytzaina's voice offers its own qualities, a deep, resonant sound that nearly knocks you out of the chair when you're sitting within a couple feet of him. It's that booming tone that got him a gig at WGNU in the first place. He called in to a show hosted by station owner Chuck Norman himself. The local broadcasting legend liked what he heard and invited Ytzaina into the studio the next day. Then and there, Ytzaina says, "he offered me the job right on the air."

McCarthy and Ytzaina have only been on the air together for a short time, less than two months. The pairing is an interesting idea, but McCarthy, in particular, had such a loyal and downright entertaining fanbase that the merger, as she puts it with a hint of diplomacy, has "been an adjustment." What she's not saying is that Ytzaina talks so much that McCarthy is sometimes reduced to the role of simply greeting -- and subsequently hanging up on -- callers. They're not at the oil-and-water stage of co-hosting, but they haven't reached that Hope-and-Crosby-type rapport, either.

Ytzaina offers this upbeat theory: "They're revamping certain segments. My sitting here is bringing a new dimension. I bring a background in teaching history, a military background. And I think they feel I'm adept at handling this impromptu-type thing. There's a certain callership I brought with me, history buffs and military people. There's been a melding of the two callerships."

McCarthy says, "There was nothing wrong with the quality of my callers. We had some nuts, but we had some doctors and lawyers, too." The nuts, though, always make it more fun.

The beauty of what McCarthy was doing, a feel that still comes across at times, was that you could completely disagree with her politics yet find something calming about her "oh my" approach to handling calls. And if you're a shade to the left of, gosh, Robert Dornan, that may be you. Ytzaina, nothing short of 100 percent pleasant in person, gets hopping mad at callers between three and five times per show, on average. He loves Dinesh D'Souza and Alan Keyes. His most disquieting tendency, one that can't be laughed off so easily, is to blast callers with a trademark line: "Sieg heil, fellow American!" even as he's quick to down someone like David Duke for "white tribalism."

But it's 920 AM, after all, home to every of sort free speech. On Sunday afternoons, you know you'll get wonderfully dated Central European pop on the German Hit Parade. If it's Monday night, you'll get Skip Erwin's sports gabfest, a weekly two-hour love letter to himself. (Hey, Skip, did you work with the Washington Bullets? Tell us one more time!) And if you're tuned in during drive-time in the middle of the week, well, you'll get Virginia and Ray. It's quite a show, with regulars like the Pilgrim Lady, the Motorcycle Man, the Babysitter and the "dive bombers" who home in on the last five minutes of a shift and antagonize the hosts with quick bursts of disagreement or nonsense.

"There's a saying here: 'The callers never change; just the hosts do,'" Ytzaina offers. "At KMOX, you get screened; here, you're on. They've only got the eight-second delay. It can be wild."

Some days, more than others.

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