BELLEVILLE, Ill. — It’s not yet 11 a.m., and Bob Romanik, sitting behind the microphone at his radio station in a rundown strip mall in the middle of America, already has said the “n-word” out loud — and on air — at least a dozen times.
Romanik is a surly 68-year-old former East St. Louis street cop. He hates Black Lives Matter and talks proudly about his Caucasian heritage to anyone who will listen. And do they listen. His controversy-courting radio program — he’s the self-styled “Grim Reaper of Radio” on KQQZ 1190 AM — reaches across this region, in and around Belleville, Ill.
The suburban community about 20 miles east of St. Louis drew attention in recent weeks because it was the hometown of James T. Hodgkinson, the out-of-work politically frustrated home inspector who up and left, drove a van to the Washington area, and then shot four people at a congressional baseball practice in Alexandria.
The nation was shocked, but Romanik — who seems to delight in launching savage attacks on local politicians and stoking his listeners’ many frustrations about race, crime and government — certainly wasn’t. Despite being a die-hard supporter of President Trump who has perfected the art of the dire populist message, many of Romanik’s biggest fans in southern Illinois are disgruntled Democrats like Hodgkinson.
“I can’t say for sure if this Hodgkinson guy listened to me, but he probably did,” Romanik said in a recent interview. “If people would be honest about what drove Hodgkinson to the point of violence, you’d probably see a lot of people right on the same page with him all over the country. But around here, for sure.”
Americans have conflicted feelings about the aggressive political rhetoric consuming Washington politics. But if America didn’t have an appetite for that sort of bare-knuckled political warfare, it’s hard to imagine someone like Romanik would still be broadcasting.
He bludgeons and berates his targets on air, takes pride in being hated and punctuates his rants with racial and homophobic slurs that some have labeled hate speech. In Romanik’s world, politicians are “rotten bastards” and “parasitical perverted punks.” Criminals are “lowlife scum.”
Crime — which Romanik blames on African Americans — is, in his eyes, washing over Belleville, and members of the once-proud white working class are powerless and directionless, victims in their own community. (The county sheriff disagrees, saying that there have been issues with low-level crime but that “it’s not somewhere you would call it crime-ridden.”)
During an on-air tirade in January, he used the n-word in attacking rapper Waka Flocka Flame, unleashing a series of violent threats between the two men.
Romanik made similar comments about rappers Ice Cube and Snoop Dog, reminding his listeners of what he believes is a societal hypocrisy: He is attacked for his disparaging comments about African American rappers, but it is considered acceptable for the rappers to make songs about hating police. Ice Cube, then with rap group N.W.A., in 1988 made “F— tha Police” a popular violent anthem that decried racial profiling — and law enforcement.
In the past few decades, Romanik says, the world has turned upside down.
He calls the Belleville News Democrat the “Belleville News Slime-o-crat.” He regularly refers to Mayor Mark. W. Eckert as a “punk” and “the failed Mayor of Belleville,” and attacks Eckert for mishandling local crime. Romanik frequently comments on politicians’ sex lives and masculinity and has long referred to County Board Chairman Mark Kern as a cross-dresser.
Kern, in a telephone interview, called Romanik a “small-minded bigot” who makes the community look bad: “Certainly, his racist rants, which occur on a daily basis, serve no purpose and are hurtful to the community and to people everywhere.” Eckert did not respond to requests for comment.
Earlier this year, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called upon the Federal Communications Commission to investigate Romanik and even provided readers with the chairman’s email and the commission’s telephone number for complaints.
“Romanik makes GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump seem like a model of good manners and decorum,” the paper wrote.
Months later, the shock jock still bristles.
“I’ve never heard of a real newspaper calling for less freedom of speech,” he said. “They can kiss my wrinkled old ass!”
An FCC spokesman said the agency has received “a number of complaints against the station for profanity” in recent months but declined to say whether Romanik and his program are the subject of an investigation.
At 10,000 watts, KQQZ’s radio signal could extend as far as 50 miles, an area that would include a large portion of the St. Louis metropolitan area. But Romanik doesn’t subscribe to Nielsen, which measures audience sizes for radio stations, and he said the total number of on-air listeners, as well as the number of people listening to his program online, is unknown.
Romanik likes to draw parallels between himself and Trump and says that he was in talks with the president’s election campaign about forming a radio partnership last year. A Trump/Romanik campaign poster — a gift from the president’s Illinois office — leans against the wall in his recording studio.
Off the microphone, Romanik is playful, intense and perpetually swearing. He is an incessant talker with a fast-twitch mind and a short attention span. He grew up dirt poor in the notorious Roosevelt housing projects in East St. Louis, where, he says, he first developed a hatred for elites, seeing wealthy men drive into his neighborhood to take advantage of cash-strapped young women.
A hatred for politicians developed, as he saw them as hypocrites attracting votes in poor communities without delivering on their promises. Romanik vowed never to let another politician — or government administration — control his livelihood or his speech.
“My old man used to say, ‘The government can take your freedom, they can take your money, and they can take your life, but they can’t take your manhood,’ ” he said. “Once you lose your manhood, you’re dead.”
Romanik made his money in building strip clubs and later renting properties to strip club owners. He spent 20 months in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., after pleading guilty to bank fraud in 1999, making him a felon.
Despite being a registered Republican, Romanik considers himself a “political mercenary” who fights for principles over political parties. Like Trump, he said he began to sense a desperate frustration among white, working-class communities about five years ago. Also like Trump, he believes politically correct speech is a tool used by elites to silence the majority.
Romanik says he’s not racist or homophobic but that he’s “a realist” who says what the majority is privately thinking. He refers to himself as a “guardian of the First Amendment.”
He believes he has a knack for knowing what topics and trigger words will incite his audience and admits that he used that approach during a recent bid for political office. In November, he received 43 percent of the vote during a failed run for the Illinois state House in District 114, losing to Democrat LaToya Greenwood, who received 57 percent. He said he plans to run for an Illinois senate seat in 2018.
“I saw early on that there were so many people who felt like me,” he said. “It wasn’t pro-Trump or pro-Romanik; it was anti-establishment. These people don’t all love me, they don’t think I’m a nice guy, but I’m their voice. I’m the lesser of the evils because I’m saying what they wish they could say.”
Among Romanik’s local fans is Jim Egler, a 64-year-old Belleville resident who voted for Obama twice and Hillary Clinton in the fall — a vote he said he “wasn’t proud of.” Despite Romanik’s vocal embrace of the president and use of racial slurs, Egler considers the radio host a spokesman for the people. He said he enjoys Romanik’s show because he never knows what he might say.
“I have nothing against gays and lesbians, and I don’t care what they do, but when gays and lesbians take precedent over jobs and feeding the poor, that’s a problem,” Egler said. “The Democrats have really upset me the past 10 years. They’ve gone too far, and Romanik gets that.”
When Romanik shows up at local restaurants, he is often mobbed by listeners, many of whom swear at him affectionately and shake his hand. Romanik, who claims he is worth $40 million, is known to give out thousands of dollars on the street each week and leave local waitresses $100 tips. He keeps large bags of dog food in his six-vehicle fleet of bright red Chevy SSRs and uses them to feed strays, which leave the hardened former cop mushy.
Last summer, when several popular Illinois state parks were on the verge of closing due to unpaid electric bills, an anonymous donor paid thousands of dollars to keep them open for the public. Romanik says that was him.
But for every person he endears, there are many more he offends. During a recent interview at a local Applebee’s, the silver-haired, loudmouthed Romanik — wearing alligator skin boots, blue jeans and several chunky diamond rings — regularly said the “n-word” within earshot of a black family. They listened uncomfortably as he gushed about his plan to invite David Duke on his show to debate with members of Black Lives Matter.
At New Jerusalem Seventh-day Adventist Church in East St. Louis on a recent Sunday, black churchgoers said they were well aware of Bob Romanik’s radio show, but opinion differed on his use of racist terms. At least one man defended the host’s use of the word, but many others said he had no right to use racial slurs and was ignoring decades of painful prejudicial history.
“When he was going on the radio and talking about corrupt politicians and defending the people, I was a fan,” said Steve Moore, who is black. “Now he’s become more racial and started using demeaning words, and that’s why I stopped listening.”
At the church, members said it would be unfair to suggest any link between Romanik’s words and Hodgkinson’s actions but noted that Romanik speaks to a humiliating pain among the white working class that black Americans have felt for a long time.
On a recent weekend show, Romanik’s target was, once again, the crime allegedly arriving by way of nearby East St. Louis, a majority-black community with a history of extreme poverty and crime. A recent home invasion had left two people shot. The victims were white and the shooter was black, Romanik reminded his audience, before turning his ire on the local politicians for ignoring the black-on-white attack: “Belleville is a hellhole. Belleville is another East St. Louis up and coming.”
“They would rather lose a life than lose a vote,” Romanik added, referring to local politicians. “They don’t want to make Belleville look bad. I don’t give a damn about Belleville looking bad. It looks really bad when there’s dead bodies lying in the street.”