WGNU has been Chuck Norman’s baby since the day it was born. And he considers the station’s staff members are still his family. That’s what makes WGNU unique.
There used to be a belief in the radio business that the best general managers came up through the ranks as successful sales people. That’s the way Norman got his start. He was a disc jockey at WTMV in East St. Louis in the 1940s. In those days the announcer bought the time from the station and then sold his own advertising. To say he was a success at this time brokerage agreement would be an understatement. He recalls having to collect money from the likes of Buster Workman, who was later convicted of racketeering.
After a few years, Chuck Norman stepped up to a disc jockey/broker position at WIL, but after five years, he says he realized he wasn’t cut out to work for someone else. In 1960, he and two other men laid the groundwork for a new AM station in Granite City.
Getting the license for WGNU wasn’t easy because there were two other applicants for the frequency. Chuck Norman had to go to Washington, DC., for hearings at the F.C.C. and testify before a committee. “It was almost like a criminal trial,” he said, “We got cross-examined by lawyers. We had to undergo a rigid question-and-answer session.” The application also contained the names of John Karoly and George Moran, and the commission noted that those two principles of Tri-Cities Broadcasting had been heavily involved in community service and Norman, in the position of general manager, brought significant broadcast experience to the table.
A tentative permit was issued to the group on December 17, 1960, but challenges held up the actual issuance of the license until May of 1961. WGNU went on the air December 1, 1961, playing different versions of the song “What’s New?” It would become the signature song of Norman and his station.
All of Norman’s years of experience in time brokering in the past had provided a good sales foundation, and that sales experience paid off. He had begun selling WGNU over a year before it went on the air, and as a result, he says, “I sold an awful lot of time, and as soon as we hit the airwaves, we had a lot of sponsors.”
The station’s original staffers included Bob Baker and Russ Benson. Baker spent the rest of his life at WGNU, passing away in 1989. Benson left in 1964 but returned three years later and stayed until 1983. Things were primitive. Studios and transmitter were next to the tower on Old Alton Road in a 10x50 foot trailer. On warm days, listeners could sometimes hear the honking of towboats on the nearby Mississippi River. The original format was Top 40, mainly because the hottest station in the St. Louis market was KXOK, also playing Top 40. That soon gave way to country & western music and an affiliation with the Chicago White Sox radio network, giving St. Louisans a source for the play-by-play of the exiled Harry Caray. And the listeners responded, proving that WGNU’s audience was not limited to Granite City.
But the station also had a handicap. WGNU was licensed for daytime broadcast only, meaning they had to sign off at sunset, a time determined by the F.C.C. The acquisition of an FM frequency allowed nighttime service. The FM frequency was sold in 1979 and 24-hour operational status was granted to WGNU-AM in 1980.
John Karoly says there was an excellent relationship among the three owners. “Granite City had close to 40,000 population in those days and there was no radio station to serve the community. No one else could have kept WGNU going the way Chuck Norman did.”
(Reprinted with permission of the St. Louis Journalism Review. Originally published 02/2003)