Getting ready to start our Michigan Humane Society telethon, I looked upon the phone bank in our extra studio and thought back to my days at WFUM–not WFUM as it is today, a repeater for Central Michigan’s WCMU, but when it was a full-fledged operating PBS station for the University of Michigan. There had been some turmoil and debate about how to effectively run WFUM. It was branded “Michigan Television” to coincide with the successful statewide “Michigan Radio” network also run by the university. The unfortunate thing for the station was that while it was run by U of M proper, it resided on the campus of UM-Flint, which was two counties north of Ann Arbor. The big problem then became, how does a PBS station run by an entity not in the market successfully run the station? Truth of the matter is, they don’t, but that’s another story for another day.
The operation was a rag-tag outlet, as I imagined most PBS stations tended to be. People worked various roles–it wasn’t uncommon for a manager to man a tape machine or audio board during productions. Graphic designers also designed and constructed sets and props. It was a great opportunity to come in as an intern and have a chance to work on a lot of things.
Another thing that was common at the station was finding new and exciting ways to generate money. With any PBS station, viewer dollars were important, and with the station on the decline, Ann Arbor didn’t want to cough up any money. One of the ideas that the powers-that-be had was to bring back the “live” pledges during programs. In most PBS programs, the phone banks you see in the background aren’t real. People pretend to answer phones, or at the very least they were pre-recorded from another time.
Our station decided we were going to have a real phone bank hooked up and take calls on the air. I found myself a witness to the experiment’s debut from behind a camera, during a Peter, Paul and Mary special on a weekday evening. To a 21 year old guy starting out, things didn’t seem much bigger than a live pledge event, being part of a live program at a PBS station in Flint, Michigan. Excitement was building, as we got through the first segment of the folk trio’s music. As each second to our live hit drew closer, you could feel the excitement build. Finally, it came to us.
Our host for the festivities, Jim Gaver legendary host in the Flint area bounced in front of the camera, making his appeal to the viewers as to why WFUM was worth supporting. After a minute of pleading, aside from his pleas there was a deafening silence–none of the phones were ringing. People began thinking we’ve made a huge mistake, airing a live pledge break and the worst possible thing happened: no one was calling. It was an embarrassing time for the station and it’s people.
But then something remarkable happened. The ringing of one of the phones pierced through the studio. It was shortly followed by another, then another. Soon the phone bank was full and people were calling in with their support. As the break ended, everyone in the studio was energized and ready for round two. With every subsequent pledge break, calls seemed to come in more frequently. During a sound break, one of the volunteers at the phone bank called Gaver over to him with a wave. Gaver looked at him and said “We’re in the middle of a live piece” but the volunteer insisted. When he went to the phone bank and talked to the man, his face turned from concern to pure shock. He talked into the phone for a little while–a little too long for the producer and director’s liking, and came back to his spot in front of the cameras.
When that pledge break ended, everyone wanted to know what the deal was. Gaver then made the announcement: a donor gave $10,000, but also wished to remain anonymous. He didn’t even want a mention on TV. There was a gasp, followed by murmurs of astonishment.
Two years later, I left the station. Two years after that, it was taken over by WCMU and WFUM was now WCMZ. However, I still carry the lessons that that mystery donor taught me: compensate the things you think are worth paying for, don’t actively seek credit for good deeds and always let people know you appreciate what they do.
I’ve been away from WFUM for six years now, but I still carry the lessons I learned there with me every single day.