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By Doug Brunell | July 19, 2004

“Chuck Norman says, ‘God bless America!’” That is the underlying message in this documentary about St. Louis radio pioneer Chuck Norman and his legacy. It’s shown on billboards and on the back of buses, but we never get to hear Norman say it.

Norman started a small AM radio station, WGNU, in St. Louis decades ago. He set it up as a talk station that would promote free speech, and that’s exactly what it did. With hosts that range from the extreme right to the extreme left, and callers who are equally opinionated, the station presents a cornucopia of philosophies, unlike many of the other stations polluting the airwaves today.

This documentary focuses on the station’s talk show hosts and callers, but stays away from directly interviewing Norman. There are plenty of people who talk about him, but viewers aren’t given a good sense of the man behind the legend. We hear bits and pieces about parties with beautiful women and his giving spirit, but the entire movie is spent feeling like we are chasing a ghost. In fact, the only time Norman is shown in the now is during his annual Christmas party. It’s just a shot of him sitting at a table being interviewed by what one presumes to be a television newscaster. The focus on the station and its listeners isn’t a bad thing, though. In fact, I think I preferred it.

I’ve always had a fondness for AM radio. It’s creepy and makes me feel uncomfortable late at night with all the lights out. I know some of you feel the same way. That’s its power. You won’t get those feelings from slick FM. No, AM is where society’s outcasts dwell, and that gives it all its charm. Seeing the faces behind the callers to WGNU is amazing, too. You can’t make these people up. They exist in a world all their own, held together by their love of the free flow radio form.

The world of AM is like the world of the drive-in theatre. It has all its own rules and mores. It’s also unappreciated and misunderstood, but “Radio Free St. Louis” shows the world of AM for what it is: a community of smart and eccentric individuals who want their voices to be heard. Thanks to Chuck Norman, residents of St. Louis have that chance.

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