The Daily Northwestern

Hellraiser

Jordan Weissman

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It’s 8:58 a.m., two minutes until show time and there he is, rushing through the studio door with his graying, shoulder length mane bobbing behind. Chuck Mertz, the host of WNUR’s This Is Hell, is a bit late, which is to say right about on schedule. The last show tune from Breakfast With Broadway cuts off and an ambient track fills up the dead air. Mertz darts around, shuffling papers, pulling them up just an inch or two from his door-wedge of a nose so he is able to read the page. For the next few minutes, he is a 45-year-old, legally blind flurry. Then at 9:08, he is seated and ready, script in hand and a bottle of RC Cola at his side.

For nine years, this has been Mertz’s Saturday morning ritual. More than 60 hours of his time each week go into planning This Is Hell, a four-hour, current affairs marathon, which he presides over like a Gonzo Charlie Rose, careening between pot jokes, wry observations, dive-bar schtick and serious, long-form interviews. Noam Chomsky has been a guest four times; Howard Zinn, Joseph Stiglitz and Michael Moore have chatted with him on air; so do Hugo Chavez supporters, war reporters and experts on Chicagoland gangs. Guests often speak for up to forty minutes, giving listeners a rare window into their thinking. By many accounts the hard work has made This Is Hell WNUR’s flagship show, with a cult audience that, thanks to the web, listens in from Chicago, England, Australia and even Senegal. This would be Mertz’s dream job, if only it paid.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Mertz has not had a paying job since 2000. Because of his vision, he gets a disability check and Medicaid, but lives largely on the support of his longtime girlfriend. He says he only recently dodged the last of his bill collectors, and has put off a hernia surgery for a year and a half. He still cannot afford it – the government certainly won’t cover the full cost – but he is afraid that if he waits any longer, he could develop sepsis, a potentially deadly infection caused by the buildup of feces in the intestine. It is time, he thinks, to bilk a hospital out of some much-needed care. In the next few days he will go in for a consultation, perhaps eventually have the operation, and, if he can help it, not pay.

In short, Mertz is searching for a change. He has begun a new push to get his show picked up by a professional station, and says he has been offered help by someone with experience selling shows. His attempts to move off college radio have fallen flat before. But for all the near misses, he thinks this time may be different. He needs it to be.

“How long can I not be making money at this?” he asks rhetorically. “I would say the very longest, another year. And at that point I may be doing a two-hour show on WNUR and painting your house. You want a blind guy painting your house?”

By law, Mertz has been blind since birth. Like his older brother, he suffers from optic nerve hypoplasia, a disorder that renders him color blind, hypersensitive to light and ruins his depth perception. Still, he sees. At age five, with his face close to the TV, he watched the Detroit riots erupting on camera. He lived in East Detroit, now Eastpointe, a lower-middle-class suburb where, in 1976, the mayor threatened to line up along 8 Mile Road with an armed mob to keep blacks from crossing over. On the day of the riots, Mertz listened to the National Guard helicopters flying overhead and watched the tanks on the screen; he thought that the war in Vietnam had come to the city. This is one of his first memories of home.

If he pulled his face close enough, Mertz could also read the daily newspaper. He liked it enough that by age 10 he decided he would be a journalist. And at 15, when he looked up the job description on a strip of microfiche, he could read that to be a journalist you needed a driver’s license, something he could never legally have. For Mertz, the realization was devastating. As a blind kid at East Detroit High School, he was chum for bullies, regularly punched, chopped in the neck and shoved down flights of stairs. Losing journalism made it seem pointless to endure the abuse, or for that matter, a life that seemed like not much more than a series of slights. “I wanted to … ” he says, pointing two fingers at his head like a gun. Discovering his school’s radio station gave him new direction. If he couldn’t be a reporter, he could at least broadcast, maybe make a living at it.

He began college in 1981 at Eastern Michigan. He would graduate 15 years later from UIC. In the interim, he did turns at community college and in dead-end jobs – stock boy, prep cook, dish washer – where, if his bosses found out he was blind, they would fire him. With money from the National Federation of the Blind, he did a stint at Michigan State University, where he majored in telecommunications and worked at the college radio station. The Federation eventually decided radio was an unrealistic career – it suggested physical therapy, since he “got around so well” – and he says that when he refused to switch majors, they cut off his scholarship. He left school and moved to Chicago in 1987, finding work at a bookstore. By 1990, he was back to school, and by graduation, he was writing for Metromix and interning at Channel 32 Fox News, where he would eventually work his way up to field producer. All the while, he lied about his vision, assuming they would fire him if he told the truth.

That year, he also started with WNUR.

After a short foul-up with his sound, Mertz is live and rolling, reeling off the holidays that happen to fall on this Saturday, Jan. 12, 2008 – “It’s National Pharmacist Day. Thank your dealer, I mean your legal medicine dispenser.” He offers up a hangover cure, orange juice with a teaspoon of black pepper, and introduces himself as he does each week: “I’m your bitter, blind, broke, gap-toothed radio host, Chuck Mertz.” This is his full disclosure, the equivalent, he says, of if Anderson Cooper stood in front of the camera and billed himself as Gloria Vanderbilt’s son. Finally, a warning: “If you like Benazir Bhutto, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, are crazy about the surge or colonialism, you should probably turn off your radio.”

Among the heavy hitters in today’s lineup are Bhutto’s niece – a writer who opposed her aunt – and the Middle East correspondent for the The Independent, who has been stationed in Iraq. It’s a good day: funny, wide-ranging and, even subtracting one guest’s jeremiad against media consolidation, enough to give the average corporate programming director a coronary. It has taken years for the show to develop into this format. When Mertz joined WNUR, his show was an irregular program called The American Radio Hour. Most guests were assorted Chicago “freaks,” he says, using the term with some affection. But like This Is Hell, Mertz made it a platform for people who are often pushed to the margins. “The only reason that I have so many people from the left on our show is the goal to get these people on the air who aren’t on the air otherwise,” Mertz says. “The farthest right-wing that you can get has pretty much been on the air, outside of neo-nazis, who get on the air on Jerry Springer. You move slightly to the left, those people aren’t on the air.” By 1999, Mertz had switched to current affairs and his Saturday morning slot. He was profiled in The Chicago Reader, and in 2000, he dropped his job at Fox. A year later, readers of The Nation picked Mertz’s show as one of their favorite independent media sources, and New City voted him one of Chicago’s best radio personalities. By 2002, the show reached its four-hour format.

For a small, albeit admired, college station like WNUR, the rise of This Is Hell has been a boon. General Manager Adam Clark estimates the show gets between 5,000 and 12,000 listeners in a week. Because the station does not gather on-air listening data, the figure is essentially a guess based on numbers such as Web listeners, of which This Is Hell has three times more than any of the station’s other
shows. It has also helped the station’s finances by drawing an older, more affluent audience. During the 2007 fund-raising drive, for instance, This Is Hell accounted for $10,134 of WNUR’s total $42,400 take. Most of that money, Clark says, would likely evaporate if This Is Hell moved off the station.

In this sense, WNUR has benefited enormously from the fact that Mertz has been unable to move his show onto a professional station. Drew Colglazier, Weinberg ’05, has been at Mertz’s side on This Is Hell almost continuously since he joined the show as a student producer in 2003. Part of the difficulty Mertz has faced, he says, is that avenues open to less developed shows no longer make sense for the program. “Chuck could probably go out to an AM station in the suburbs in the next year and get paid,” Colglazier says. That is how many radio personalities start off. But for Mertz, that would mean downgrading to a station without a Web presence. He would hemorrhage listeners, and would probably be forced to learn how to sell his own ads, something he has never been forced to do on WNUR. “Getting paid while taking a step up is the hard part,” Colglazier says.

The structure of today’s radio industry is also a hurdle. Since 1996, when the Clinton administration tore down long-standing media ownership restrictions, radio has consolidated drastically. Corporations like 1,200-station Clear Channel have yet to embrace left-wing talk. And while Mertz refuses to label his politics (he says his favorite presidential candidate is Dennis Kucinich), it’s hard to think of his show outside that category. Moreover, the sort of on-air job Mertz is looking for is a rarity, even within the industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 1,722 broadcast news analysts on radio in 2006; by 2016, there should be room for just 10 more.

Still, it would be a stretch to think of Mertz simply as a victim of conservative corporate radio. Some have implied that Air America finds his show too critical of the Clinton administration. And where Mertz’s politics haven’t posed a problem, his aggressive desire for independence sometimes has. Pacifica, the company responsible for Amy Goodman’s ferociously left-wing and self-serious Democracy Now, had gestured to Mertz about a potential spot. Mertz says the conversation fell apart after he sent in sample package that included an interview with a Pacifica broadcaster that attacked the company’s “more corporate direction.” Some might call that bold; others would call it self-sabotage.

In some corners of the Chicago activist community, there is a sense that Mertz is uncooperative, unwilling to join up with other causes. He has declined speaking engagements and turned down invitations to participate in local media reform groups that might otherwise promote his program. “My feeling is that there have been opportunities for Chuck to promote his show that he has declined … or not followed up with the kind of vigor that he could have,” says Mitchell Szczepanczyk, director of Chicago Media Action, a group that intends to build the city’s independent media. “He has relied almost entirely on the goodwill of others to build his show.”

Mertz, unsurprisingly, takes issue with that characterization. He is only avoiding conflicts of interest, he says. But as a result, “People have spread really horrible rumors about me … that I don’t do any of the work on the show, that I don’t do any of the writing on the show, that I don’t do any of the booking on the show, that all I do is sit around the house, smoke pot and jack off all day. Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

“I’m trying to do a show that entertains and covertly informs people. And why that has to be part of somebody’s movement, I have no idea.”

It’s after the show and Mertz and Colglazier have decamped to Cary’s Lounge on Devon. On the TV, the Packers are beating the Seahawks and the bartender is cheering as Green Bay keeps building its lead. Mertz has $50 on Seattle, but his attention doesn’t seem to be on the game. He is chatting to friends and listeners, about finding a good contractor, about China’s pollution, about an article in The Onion. Cary’s has become the official This Is Hell listening station, as they call it on-air, where fans can gather to meet Mertz. After a couple encounters in this place, two of his fans, an activist couple, asked him to perform their wedding ceremony.

But when he starts talking about the show, he seems unusually frustrated. This summer, This Is Hell was a finalist in Public Radio Exchange’s Public Radio Talent Quest, a sort of online American Idol for the NPR set. The show lost after the third of four rounds. “Chuck really polarized people,” says contest manager Israel Smith. “They either thought he was bright, energetic and engaging. Or they though he was a blowhard and in it to self-promote Chuck.”

Mertz is confused when he hears Smith’s take and doesn’t seem to put much stock in it. “They wanted This American Life,” he says dismissively. He doesn’t generally listen to NPR – he thinks it is too elitist to serve most of the public. But losing was a “drag,” he says, because he thinks his show was designed for a non-profit forum. He laughs, somewhat frustrated. “There isn’t a paying venue for this show, even though it seems to have an audience.”

A few days later, in an e-mail, the doubt seems to have lifted. “All we have to do is get an outlet to have the courage to try something new,” he says. He mentions that a producer from the Canadian Broadcasting Company has contacted him, and that satellite radio could be an option. He has a growing audience, he says, and that is ultimately what any station wants.

“I will never stop doing radio,” he says. Even if it means he has to steal surgery.

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