Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Fond memories of the WXEL pledge drives

While writing about fundraising letters recently, I suddenly had a strong memory of the times when I was a volunteer during WXEL’s pledge drives. Looking back, that was such a wonderful time in my life, and I had so much fun at the station.

When I started community college in 1988, I decided that I needed to be culturally aware. WXEL was the public radio and TV station in Boynton Beach, near my home in Lake Worth, and initially I was just a listener to the classical music and National Public Radio news the station carried while I was working at the post office. Later, I become a donor of some money, and eventually a volunteer.

I thought I’d meet women who might want to date me, but the only women I met were way older. Still, I had a vast amount of fun at the station, when the station management would let volunteers like me in for pledge drives and sometimes let us talk on the radio.

I believed in public radio and TV, and had no trouble with those folks upset that we were interrupting their beloved programming with begging for money. It was to keep that great programming going, and to keep the station operating. Most people were glad to pledge money back then for their public radio and TV station, however, and that made it all worthwhile.

Working the radio fund drives was fulfilling, but the TV fund drives were the plum assignments because they were done live in a TV studio. It was a kick to sit there on the platform, with the phone next to you and the sheets for taking information. Often, a special show would be on and they’d cut in for the pledge breaks of 15 to 20 minutes.

It was a great lesson for me in patience and penmanship as I made sure I got all the information down, and sometimes people would ask me to wave during the pledge break so they could see who they were talking to.

Another favorite fundraising technique was the auction format, where people would call in and bid on items for sale. The bidders would connect with a person on the phone, like me, and I would be their representative. I remember one time when the woman who was watching the TV asked me to wave so she could see who was representing her. It was such fun doing that for people.

I loved watching the TV production process, with the stage director behind a camera and out of sight counting down until the break ended, and then the great words, “We’re clear!” That meant I could go back to slouching, go to the bathroom and enjoy some of the free food provided. And it also meant getting to talk with the wonderful people who also volunteered at the station to help raise money.

One disquieting note was that not everyone my age was a civic-minded person dedicated to helping advance the cause of public radio and television. It was becoming increasingly common for folks my age to be forced to work at the station as part of community service for some traffic offense, and occasionally even DUI.

One night, a retired gentleman even asked me what I had done wrong to merit assignment to the station, and I had to assure him that I was a real volunteer, not someone on community service.

The older women were all captivated by this one fellow who seemed to be such a charmer, and they were eager to introduce him to their granddaughters. I learned the truth, that he was on DUI probation, after asking him why he never drove to the station but rode his bicycle, and often hitched rides with the ladies there.

One time, during a public radio fundraiser, a group of people on community service came in and I heard one fellow tell a caller who complained about the fundraising, “Well, if you don’t like the pledge breaks, don’t listen!” I was so angry. These people were ruining the station and making things less fun.

One day, a very young woman was brought in. Her first question was, “Where can I smoke?” Then she recounted the binge of DUIs, traffic violations and other offenses that ended with her assigned to community service. I was enraged that she was even there, because her attitude was definitely not conducive to fundraising at the station.

Sadly, this became a problem near the end of my time volunteering at the station. WXEL’s staffers had always been very low paid, and there was an elite that got big paychecks for little work. It all came to a head when the head of the station hired a Palm Beach friend to a “development” position at the princely salary of about $70,000 a year. Employees revolted and revealed the extent of the problems at the station to the news media, and it made national news.

I remember one person from the station who came to an event at the science museum, and talking with her during a break at the telescope about how much I loved the station and hated to hear that the employees were so mistreated. She cried as I told her that I was behind the workers 100 percent, and I even donated to an alternative group that would hold the money until the station’s boss was out and a new management team in place.

The end result was a new top manager and the return of all the folks who had been fired during the revolt. I thought that things were going to be back to normal at the station, but it soon became apparent that the new boss and her evil henchman were determined to get rid of the employees who had triggered the revolt, which also included a volunteer walkout.

Suddenly, there was a new attitude toward volunteers and station management began instituting policies that included the need to have someone use a security badge so you could leave the building, with the result that someone was once locked in all night. Fundraising pitches became closely scripted, and there was a new atmosphere of fear and intimidation at the station. More of the “volunteers” were people on community service, and I began to feel very unwelcome. I knew about negative workplaces, and this was definitely one of them.

You could feel the new environment and the negative attitude toward volunteers who had supported the revolt. I felt so sorry for the people still working at the station; you could see the disappointment in their faces as they trudged through another fundraising drive.

Soon, I refused to volunteer and eventually stopped giving money, even after the management was replaced.

Today, WXEL is no more. The station was sold a couple of times and the call letters are different. The employees have all moved on.

If I could go back in time, though, I’d want to be at the time when things were so wonderful and we had so much fun raising money for the station. It didn’t mean much to the top brass at WXEL, who mostly were in it for what they could get out of it, but for the rest of us it was a fun ride and a great experience until things went bad.

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December 14, 2011 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , ,

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