The most witty, politically incisive talk show on the radio doesn’t air on a commercial station.
It’s engineered by students, who are trained on the job.
And the host isn’t paid.
In fact, “This Is Hell!” host Chuck Mertz hasn’t received a dime since his program began to air on Northwestern University’s WNUR-FM (89.3) more than a decade ago.
“This is something I have to do if I want to be happy, to feel like my life is fulfilled in some way,” explains Mertz, who describes himself on the air as a “bitter, blind, broke, gap-toothed radio-show host.”
Mertz, who is legally blind due to a rare neurological condition, spends more than 60 hours a week preparing for the irreverent, politically oriented talk show, which airs Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (www.wnur.org or Thisishell.net).
Each week he serves up interviews and news analysis from those outside the mainstream media, and talks to regular contributors – including rants from playwright and fiction writer Jeff Dorchen and a tech expert named LaddieO.com, who delivers tech news from “the hermetically sealed room at URL Labs.”
And he does it with ample humor.
Mertz would love to find a bigger outlet for the show, whose motto is “Brave enough to be live, dumb enough to be goofy, stupid enough to think we can be a regular part of your Saturday morning hangover.”
“I think it’s good enough for somebody to pick it up,” he says. “Over the past two years, the majority of the shows have been pretty good.” He and a “pseudo-agent” are about to make a push to market the show, which raised $11,000 in four hours during WNUR’s pledge drive last year and regularly sets fundraising records at the station. In 2004 Mertz was approached by the local Air America affiliate to do a show – without a studio, Web site, or budget (he turned them down). “We have a ton of listeners,” he says. “People in the media industry have heard about it. So I’m surprised we haven’t been at least approached by anybody.”
Last year “This Is Hell!” made it to the final seven in the Public Radio Talent Quest contest, beating more than 1,400 entries. “It was like ‘American Idol’ for [National Public Radio],” he says. “But our show isn’t what public radio sounds like. By the final three, everything sounded like ‘This American Life,’ even though they were stressing the whole time that they weren’t looking for another ‘This American Life.’
“I don’t mind,” he continues. “We won $1,500 from them, and our podcasting went through the roof. We have 37,000 downloads of the show each week, and the online streaming has gone drastically up.”
The program has featured long-form interviews with more than 1,500 guests. “I really work hard not to have repeat guests on, because I want to give as many people access to the airwaves as possible,” says Mertz, who has not had a regular job in seven years but receives a small monthly disability check. “I like ‘Countdown With Keith Olbermann’ at times. But what I hate is that he has the same eight people on every week. I hate that whole ‘usual suspects’ kind of idea. That’s why I have people on who contradict other people. That’s O.K.; it’s up to the audience to decide which opinion they like most.”
Or, as he says on the Web site, “We do not want to tell our audience what to think, but what to think about . . . and we try to do this without boring you to death.”
To that end, each interview ends with “The Question From Hell,” which often elicits a surprising response.
One of his least favorite guests was a man from the Anti-Boring Institute “who was the most boring person I’ve ever had on the show.”
He’s also not a fan of condescending guests. “The most enjoyable people are those who have a good sense of humor and get the entire idea of the show,” he says. “[Activist, historian, and playwright] Howard Zinn listens to your questions and thinks about it and has a really good sense of humor.” Mertz also cites linguist Noam Chomsky and independent war reporter Dahr Jamail.
His dream guest is veteran war journalist Seymour Hersh, who won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War and exposed torture at Abu Ghraib.
In the meantime, he has been asking listeners to e-mail their top choices for the all-request 10th anniversary show, which will air June 7th. Rather than dusting off the archives, he’ll do a new, live interview with each guest.
Afterwards he’ll give away new “This Is Hell!” posters during a meet-and-greet at Cary’s Lounge (2251 W. Devon). He started the after-show event last year. “I hate doing public appearances, but one thing I have to do to promote the show is to do things in public,” he says. “One time Martyrs’ wanted me to be part of a debate on the war in Iraq. I said, ‘There are tons of experts on that in town – why don’t you ask them?’ It’s part of the glorification of celebrities, like getting Angelina Jolie to talk about hunger; there should be more interest in talking to experts in the field.
“I thought that this is a way in which I’m not going to be talking about something bigger than the radio show. The listeners can meet each other.”
– Cara Jepsen