The mood is festive for a Sunday, though a bit warped around the edges. Earlier there had been Hawaiian dancers. Later there will be young, very young, Jon-Benet Ramsey-like dancers. The previous day, Babylon, the cradle of civilization, had been bombed, and Bill Clinton had just become the first president in 132 years to be impeached.
So maybe it was time for WGNU's Chuck Norman to throw his 23rd annual party for the "handicapped," as he prefers to call them. Almost 2,000 folks showed up, lured by the dozens of billboards and bus banners around town, all willing to fork over five bucks to hear the Buddy Moreno Band, watch an eclectic array of dancers and maybe, just maybe, brush elbows with the raft of people who, for better or for worse, have made their way to the pantheon of talk-show hosts at the most talk-addled station in town.
Couch Potato gets his moniker from an old girlfriend, for the obvious reason. If his pace and figure are clues, his life is largely sedentary. He is a 57-year-old self-described "writer and Web author" with a strange and unsettling Web site (www.anet-stl.com/~civil). Asked for his "real" name, he responds cryptically, "I don't use it. I'm a radio persona."
That he is. Couch Potato is one of dozens of radio talk-show hosts on WGNU (920 AM), a vanity press-styled radio station owned by Chuck Norman. Few of the hosts are on the air more than once a week; only two or three get paid any salary. Norman lets them keep the revenue from one, maybe two ads per hour. That's it.
When the Christmas party first started, Norman says, it was so that listeners could meet the hosts. Now, with the charity angle, some of the partygoers buy tickets for the donation and to see the performers, but some still come to see what the hosts look like. The hosts tend to be right-of-center, or far-right-of-center, though some are from the opposite political end. Few are in the middle.
Couch Potato, even for WGNU ringmasters, is out there. As he begins to discuss what a "liar" Clinton is and how he bombed Sudan and Iraq to "save his own ass," he's interrupted by someone he calls "one of our blessed callers."
The interrupter -- again, like a comic-book superhero, he is known by his nickname -- is the "Great Kabuddha." On WGNU, alter egos rule. Topped by a black beret over a green kerchief and wearing an Arabian-styled waistcoat possibly once owned by a Shriner, Kabuddha interrupts Couch Potato's spiel. Immediately he ridicules the radio host's appearance.
"This is Couch," Kabuddha says to his companion. "Man, you done gained weight," he tells Couch. "You're a water buffalo."
"That's right, baby," says Couch, who's in the neighborhood of 250 pounds.
"Last time me and you had our picture taken together, you weighed about 160, 170 pounds," Kabuddha says.
"I hang up on Kabuddha a lot," Couch Potato says.
"Last time I called in, you cut me off. That was not fair."
"Bad Couchie, no cookie," the radio host responds.
Kabuddha is an African-American, and if he does get hung up on by Mr. Potato Head, it should come as no surprise. Section 8, the housing program that provides vouchers so that public-housing tenants can rent private apartments, is seen as evil incarnate by the Couch Potato. North St. Louis isn't too popular, either. Once Kabuddha departs, Couch Potato expands on the theme:
"I point to North St. Louis and East St. Louis as examples of communist, or socialist, types of economies, whereas Chesterfield is a capitalist economy. You used to have capitalists living in North St. Louis and East St. Louis, but once you start bringing the poor in through government fiat using money to subsidize their entry into the area, people didn't want to live with lower-class people, so they moved out."
Liberals, of course, are hypocrites. "If they like integration so much, why don't they purchase a house in North St. Louis where they can integrate all they want? But, you see, they're hypocrites," says Couch Potato. "That's the trouble -- most people have integrationist views but a white-separatist lifestyle."
Could be that Couch Potato reverses that premise in his private predicament; he says he lives in an integrated city neighborhood that's been "destroyed by Section 8."
At the next table, WGNU program director Charles Geer, decked out in a smiley-face sweatshirt with a Christmas motif, explains that Couch Potato is an example of a frequent caller who made the transition to weekly host, thereby ascending to a higher ring of the talk-show inferno. "Couch Potato is probably one of the most controversial hosts we have," Geer admits. "He definitely comes from a conservative, white opinion. He doesn't come right out and say it, but if you listen for any length of time, in his own way he's every bit as strong and possibly irritating as, say, Lizz Brown is at 6 a.m weekday mornings. They're just different parts of the same spectrum."
Brown, an African-American woman who hosts a five-day-a-week call-in show, would not be mistaken for a conservative. One of the hosts who's showed up at the annual Christmas party is Rick Ullman, a 56-year-old college teacher and musician who's on at 10 a.m. on Tuesdays.
"The only time I cut somebody off is if they get extremely obscene. It has to be extremely obscene; I've allowed obscenity," says Ullman, who has an approximately 8-inch-long goatee and a shock of gray hair. "I've allowed 'fuck,' I've allowed 'shit.' I've allowed every one of those words, OK? It's a judgment call, OK? I've allowed the guy who called me up from I-55 and said, 'I'm with the Ku Klux Klan, I'm down here with a fuckin' machine gun and I want a fuckin' nigger to come down and I want to blow his head off.' I allowed that on; there was a reason for that. To me that is not obscenity -- that is someone making a fool of himself. The more I let him go on, he's not recruiting people as much as he's letting people know this guy is a looney."
So what doesn't Ullman allow? "Bashing other hosts. If you want to say that to the host, call him up," he says. "I don't allow callers to bash each other."
Makes sense. Bashing other hosts -- now that's extremely obscene.
None of this seems to faze Norman, who says he listens to his station and that it's all about letting people have their say. After making a bundle from the 1979 sale of WGNU-FM (106.5), Norman doesn't have to depend on his AM station for much cash. His wall-to-wall-talk format is low-overhead -- what's lower than unpaid hosts? -- and in putting just about anybody on the air, the pandemonium passes for populism.
As for the party, with its five-buck admission going to benefit children's charities that help the disabled, this year's take was close to $10,000. Norman pays all expenses, including the billboards and bus banners that stay up all over town long after the Buddy Moreno Band has played its last tune for the party.
Norman deflects the heat he gets for using the term "handicapped"; he says it's better than "disabled," because a "disabled" car can't be driven but a "handicapped" car -- say, one with bad brakes -- could be. Norman's in a wheelchair now, but the 72-year-old radio mogul is beyond irony, saying the experience hasn't given him any insight on the terminology controversy.
As for the barrage of advertisements, many of which don't give a phone number or sufficient details aside from "Chuck Norman's Party for the Handicapped, Dec. 20 at the Regal," Norman has a simple answer: "I want them to know it's me," he says. "I like to see my name around town."
That his name is linked to a station that has so many fractured opinions doesn't bother Norman, who opposed impeaching Clinton even though he's a Republican. Norman says he doesn't want to "squelch" opinions that are contrary to his, so his love of the First Amendment has set his hosts free.