Lizz Brown's start as a radio talk host may be described as a fluke, but her staying power is more than serendipity. While attempting to become a delegate for the Democratic National Convention, she overheard two people discussing politics. "I leaned over to tell them why they were wrong," chuckles Brown. One of the people was WGNU owner Chuck Norman their chance meeting led to a once-a-week spot on the air.
Six years later, Brown is undeniably a St. Louis radio powerhouse and a voice to be reckoned with. Voted "best talk show host" by The Riverfront Times, Brown's weekday morning show, The Wake Up Call, is tremendously popular, garnering thousands of listeners.
As an African-American woman, Brown brings a voice to talk radio that is often marginalized in political discussion. The former public defender, trained in the art of critical analysis, says "everything in my life seemed to have prepared me to do [radio], so it was like coming home."
Brown's show, an amalgam of local and national current events, is as unpredictable as it is bold. In an American climate often characterized by racial indifference, Brown discusses race and racism head on.
The talk host is also an outspoken community activist challenging the policies and politics of St. Louis aldermen and mayors alike. Brown is often as controversial as she is outspoken. In the recent brouhaha over Alderwoman Irene J. Smith's alleged public urination during a July board of aldermen meeting, Brown came out staunchly supportive of Smith. Rather than jumping on the bandwagon of uninformed public outcry, Brown placed the incident in the context of current political discord regarding redistricting in the city.
Brown's on-air tag line, "living my life as a liberal and loving it," sums up both her political convictions and personal fervor. Part street-savvy live wire and part Socratic interlocutor, Brown's voice is unquestionably unique. The Wake Up Call not only resonates with listeners, but commands attention in the national talk-radio circuit as well. The National Association of Broadcasters recently nominated Brown "Radio Personality of the Year"; the 2001 award will be announced September 7th.
The Commonspace caught up with the radio talk host to discuss her show and her politics.
How do you feel about being rated the number one talk show host in St. Louis? Does it matter to you? And how do you feel about your critics?
"It does and it doesn't. I love what I do and I love the support that I get from the community. I love being able to teach. I feel like a lot of what I'm doing is teaching. There's a lot of pleasure that I get out of that. There will always be people who will criticize you. I'm an African woman in America. That's the way life is here. So [criticism] comes as no surprise. It's part of the journey..."
Why do you think your show is popular?
"It's very difficult [to] hear a liberal voice [on the radio]. I think people are truly hungry to hear the other side of an issue. Also, there is a curiosity attached [because] it is the voice of a woman, the voice of an African woman, [who is] also an attorney. So, you put all of those things together and there is a curiosity and a hunger for the message that comes out of the show. Where can you go in America and turn on the radio and hear an African woman speaking on liberal issues and fighting and being victorious?"
Your on-air mantra is "living my life as a liberal and loving it." What does "liberal" mean to you?
"Well, the definition of [liberal] is 'of the people'. I read a book by Eleanor Roosevelt about how she defined the word liberal as that of freedom. So, the definition is part of why I use it. I also use it as a symbol of what my show is about. I take things that people have a negative connotation to and I flip the script. I love using a word that is maligned, and exposing its true meaning. That's fundamentally what I do on my show. I take things that people perceive to be a certain way ...and I flip the script and expose them for what they really are. So ["living my life as a liberal and loving it"] is really a metaphor for what I do on the show."
How would you characterize the current state of race relations in St. Louis?
"I think race-wise St. Louis is a dismal city. It is a city that absolutely at its core refuses to acknowledge, refuses to explore, and refuses to accept the fact it has a huge race problem. It's like, you have a crazy cousin in the house and everybody just walks around him and acts like there's nothing there. [This] is an issue you are going to have to deal with, he's going to keep tearing up your house and messing with your lives until you deal with it. That's why I talk about [race issues]. It's not that it's so different between St. Louis and the nation as a whole. I think the nation ...has those same issues, those same reservations and refusals on dealing with the issue of race. But if racism is a disease, this city seems to be particularly infected by it."
What do you see as the biggest issue facing St. Louis?
"I think it has something to do with race. What will keep St. Louis from being as economically powerful as it should be, what keeps the schools in St. Louis from being the resources they should be, what keeps the city from progressing from being considered a 'hick town,' is racism. Again, you can't ignore the crazy cousin, or a wound that is festering and infected. You have to fix those things. You cannot ignore them."
You mentioned the nation as a whole. How would you characterize the current state of race relations in the U.S.?
"I had Rev. Al Sharpton on my show; he said something to me that was striking. He said there is a danger...that we as an African community [will] possibly leave our children in a worse state racially than any other generation before them. I am inclined to believe that. We hear people saying that the state of racism and race relations is just fine. Surveys are coming out from young white people that there is no problem of race in this country. And you hear that from some African people as well. That is due to a failure on the part of those [who] came out of the sixties. It's like, there was a period from the sixties until now where people settled into their lives and stopped raising the issues of race and [its] impact on the lives of everyday citizens. It is as if the signs came down, so people allowed themselves to be convinced the problem has gone away, that the only evidence in America of racism is lots of black bodies hanging from trees and lots of white hoods and signs that say 'for colored only.'"
What do you believe is the responsibility of white Americans in addressing issues surrounding race and racism?
"I can't speak to the responsibility of white people. I think there is a danger for any African person to tell the group outside of their community what they must do. Any changes that are going to come from white America have to come from white America. That's their job. My job is to tell the truth and to expose what this country is about. Their job is to do what needs to be done. White folks need to tend to their business. But that doesn't mean I'm going to remain silent on whether or not they are getting the job done."
What do you believe is the responsibility of African-American people in addressing the issues of race and racism?
"Within the African community there has to be an understanding of how critical it is to educate our children about us. It starts there. We as a community need to understand that with our collective energy and actions we can do anything. And we have done everything...We have to understand that our complete success will only come as a community."
Would you ever consider going into politics?
"What I do puts me in a role of an observer. I feel there is only so far I should go [politically] to keep my integrity about observing what is going on...I think [getting involved in politics] would affect my credibility. So, nothing is impossible, but I certainly do not ever see that as something I would do."
What has been memorable to you about being on air? Have any of your callers said anything that has surprised you?
"There was this one woman who said something about me I thought was amusing. She said 'I don't like [Lizz Brown]; it is like she flips you off with her voice.' I thought, 'Wow, that is such an interesting observation.' It's amusing for me to hear how much [some people] dislike me or hate me and [yet] how much they listen to me. It says to me there is something far more compelling about my show than they would ever admit."
Lizz Brown's Wake Up Call can be heard on WGNU (AM 920) weekday mornings from 6-9.