Nothing could keep the host of WNUR’s “This Is Hell” away from the mike.

By Cara Jepsen

Chuck Mertz decided he wanted to be a journalist when he was ten. His dream ended in tenth grade, when he was sent to the library to research his career choice. “I looked up ‘journalist’ on microfiche. It said that to be a journalist you must have a driver’s license, and that no journalist could be without one.”

That put Mertz, who is legally blind, out of the running. He and his brother were both born with a rare neurological condition that interrupts messages from the eyes to the brain. “I have to hold papers close to my face when I read,” he says. “I get harassed on the train about that. People say, ‘Why are you holding the paper so close? Do you want to borrow my glasses?’ If you’re sitting in a wheelchair on a train, no one’s going to say, ‘Want to try my shoes? Maybe my shoes can make you walk.'”

After the microfiche incident, Mertz–who has limited depth perception and trouble discerning colors–decided to go into radio. He was majoring in telecommunications at Michigan State University and working as music director of the school’s radio station when the agency that was paying his tuition called him in for a meeting. “They said they didn’t think radio broadcasting was the right pursuit for someone who was legally blind, and that unless I could prove through want ads in local newspapers that there were jobs, they would revoke my tuition,” says Mertz, who would not name the agency. “I showed them openings, but not in that area. They said they wanted me to be a physical therapist. I said, ‘Why is that?’ They said, ‘Because you get around so well.’ I said I didn’t want to be a physical therapist, and they said, ‘Call us when you do want to.'”

Mertz returned to the Detroit area, where he’d grown up, and spent a few years “going from dead-end job to dead-end job” and saving money. He moved to Chicago in 1987, where he got a position as an assistant manager “at a really lousy bookstore” and read everything he could. He eventually enrolled at the University of Illinois at Chicago and in five years earned two BAs, one in history and one in English.

“The whole time I knew that the thing I wanted to do was radio,” he says. “I also knew that being a telcom major was the exact wrong field to go into if you wanted to do radio. As long as you know how to push all the right buttons, what difference does a telcom degree make, if what you really want is to give people some kind of content or message? You need to have some kind of smarts to offer people.”

He took a brief detour into television, at Fox News. But working as the overnight and weekend assignment editor there confirmed that he was in the wrong field. “I was put on the Cardinal Bernardin deathwatch. I’d get calls–‘We’re right outside the Bernardin residence. There’s a car coming up. No, it’s not an ambulance.'” Nor did he relish going out in a satellite truck and harassing grieving families into giving interviews.

So when he heard that Northwestern University’s radio station was looking for someone to do a public affairs show, he jumped at the chance even though it wasn’t a paid position. The result was This Is Hell. Currently airing Saturdays from 9 to noon on WNUR (89.3 FM) and on the Web at www.wnur.org, the show has a stirring motto: “Brave enough to be live, dumb enough to be goofy, stupid enough to think that we can be a regular part of your Saturday morning hangover.”

The show began in July of 1996 as The American Radio Hour; early installments included taped interviews with protesters at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. One of the people Mertz talked to was an antismoking promarijuana activist who though that people should eat pot rather than smoke it. “I asked when he had his epiphany, and he said he saw a 40-foot baby climbing up a mountain, and the baby told him what he was supposed to do for the rest of his life. And I thought, ‘This is the kind of radio that I want to do for the rest of my life.'”

One of his first in-studio guests was playwright, actor, and musician Jeff Dorchen, who’d just been the subject of a Reader cover story. Dorchen thought the story “made it look like he was going to kill himself,” Mertz says, “and it was so not the case.” Dorchen set the record straight, and Mertz invited him back. “He started showing up every week, so we gave him ‘The Moment of Truth.'” Besides this regular rant, Dorchen acts as Mertz’s sidekick; other regulars include piano player Randy Herman and a computer professional called Laddie-o-dot-com who does news about the Internet.

Though guests often address serious topics, the show maintains an irreverent, spontaneous quality. For example, when Mertz planned to interview Kevorkian attorney Geoffrey Fieger by phone and Fieger had to cancel at the last minute, Mertz interviewed his doorman. Each interview ends with “The Question From Hell.” Mertz asked Pastor Bonnie Beckonchrist, who led a peaceful counterprotest last spring against one of Reverend Fred Phelps’s protests of gay marriages, if there was any real point to organized religion. “She had a great answer,” he says: she argued that people with similar beliefs, like Cubs fans, naturally band together.

Guests must also adhere to the show’s full-disclosure policy. “You see someone talking on ABC and it says the Cato Institute under them or the Brookings Institution or the Heritage Foundation. But what are those organizations? I think it’s really unfair–how dare ABC go out there and, say, talk to someone about defense spending and not tell you that the foundation that this guy represents is funded by Boeing or by defense contractors? Everyone has a bias. I have a bias. When I talk to Victoria Brown from the National Alliance of the Disabled, I want people to know that I’m a disabled person and that I have a bias.”

Mertz, who’s currently out of work, spends 4 to 5 hours a day cruising the Internet for news–and the night before the show he’s on the Net for 14 hours. He also watches various television news shows every day: the BBC, the French Journal Deux, and network news. “What amazes me is that you get the same news on each network,” he says. “There’s so much news out there if you go on the Web. I could do four or five hours of news alone each day.”

Mertz calls public radio elitist and says he hopes This Is Hell will follow in the footsteps of The Capitalist Pig, which began on WNUR and now airs on AM 1000–he’d like to take his show not only to a commercial station but to “the biggest, loudest commercial station possible.

“I want everyone to know what’s going on in the world around us. This is hell, and the most horrible part about it is that people are turning their backs on it. I want people to start thinking about things.

“We’re completely open to people saying we’re wrong on the show, or that we got our facts wrong. That’s fantastic. Call up and tell me.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Drew Reynolds.