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We Attended the KCRW Pledge Drive - And Lived to Tell the Tale!

We Attended the KCRW Pledge Drive - And Lived to Tell the Tale!
Katie Bain

It's pledge drive time again at KCRW. Twice a year, the station -- one of the pre-eminent public radio stations in the country -- interrupts regular programming to ask for money. But this isn't your typical "send us five bucks and we'll mail you a bumper sticker" pledge event. No no, this one has Coachella tickets, trips to Kenya and the occasional Moby sighting.

And it's serious business; the station, which resides in the basement under the cafeteria at Santa Monica College, doesn't get much government funding these days. Thus, there are excel sheets, flow charts, lists and matrices coordinating the station's effort to raise their yearly operating budget. It is a well-oiled machine, complete with nearly 1000 volunteers on average, who answer phones, take pledges and dole out albums, restaurant gift certificates and the odd Macbook. This past Friday, the second day of the drive, we went! It went like this:

8:45am: Coordinating the drive is a full time year round position held by Beth Topping, who is currently in the control room preparing rewards packages to give away during Morning Becomes Eclectic, which begins in 15 minutes. She pulls items together from a massive computerized list of goods and services donated by more than 500 local businesses. "The donated items themselves are a way for businesses to give to support the station," she says. It takes a village to create authentic, independent programming.

9:00am: Morning Becomes Eclectic begins. During the drive, program host and KCRW Music Director Jason Bentley is joined by host and Director of Music Development Program Director for Music Anne Litt. Together, the two talk about all the places subscribers can use their Fringe Benefits card. (More than a thousand! And everyone who donates at the $60 level and beyond gets one!)

9:15am: Linda, the volunteer captain for this shift, has been working the drive for more than a decade. "This all used to be a lot more chaotic," she says, reflecting on the good old days before the donation system was computerized. "There was a lot more yelling."

9:20am: Volunteers take calls in the same studio where the station's live sessions are recorded and where artists including Adele, PJ Harvey, Sigur Ros and many others have performed. In the corner of the room, a piano that has been played by Nina Simone, Randy Newman, Carole King and Tom Waits is covered in computers and Warren Olney and Jason Bentley themed coloring book pages.

We Attended the KCRW Pledge Drive - And Lived to Tell the Tale!

9:25am: MBE is clearly one of the more popular times to come in and volunteer ("I came the first time just because I wanted to see what Nic Harcourt looked like," one dude says), although the demographic changes with each show. (Evan Kleiman has groupies too). There is not enough space for all of the volunteers, and makeshift stations have been set up in back corners and tiny rooms throughout the basement. The volunteers, an eclectic (sorry) collection of attractive and nattily dressed individuals ranging in age from about 20 to 65, all seem jovial. Most have brought reading material for the downtime between calls. This ain't their first rodeo.

9:30am: A bell rings, which means that a caller has just signed up for an angel level membership which nets the station a cool $365 $384. Yesterday during MBE, Will Ferrell and his wife Viveca Paulin made a deal that they would match donations if callers pledged $25,000. And they did.

9:33am: Total raised during MBE so far today -- $1,524

9:40am: A stay at the "desert hipster" Ace Hotel goes up for grabs and is gone in like, four seconds.

9:49am: Total raised during MBE so far today -- $4,029

10:00am: Of the burnout factor the drive can have on the DJs, longtime KCRW personality Matt Holzman, (who has done roughly forty pledge drives), says, "It's really important, and [we] actually care and try so hard to keep it together. The worst that usually happens is that the microphone turns off, and I realize I have no idea what I've just said for the last seven minutes. That's always a really scary thing."

10:20am: I enter the studio where Bentley, Litt, and show producer Ariana Morgenstern are broadcasting to the greater Los Angeles area (Oxnard, Ventura, Mojave AND the Antelope Valley), and online listeners in the world beyond. It's crazy quiet in here, as two of the more recognizable voices in L.A. chat about Mexican food and surf lessons and facials and KCRW hoodies specially designed by graphic designer Cole Gerst! You want this stuff people! Call now! 1-800-600-5279!

10:26am: "Play Freebird!" I yell at the DJs. (No I do not).

10:30am: Bentley calls Scottish band Frightened Rabbit "so smart and literate" and says their album Pedestrian Verse is a contender for the best of 2013 list. So heads up people.

10:32am: While Frightened Rabbit's "State Hospital" plays, the studio crew discusses the new Emily Wells/Dan the Automator project Pillowfight. "It's really great, check it out," says Morgenstern. "Has anyone heard the new Strokes album?" asks Litt. No one responds. "I'll take that as a no."

10:38am: "We can act on impulse and creativity and act as true DJs" says Bentley, on why the station deserves folks' hard earned cash. "Don't get me started on algorithms," responds Litt in regard to corporate radio. They've got a point. The phone lines light up.

10:45am: MBE Associated Producer Collin Walzak hands Bentley a list of synonyms for the word "sustain." It seems that people can only handle saying and hearing the term "sustaining member" so many times. "The deal with a sustaining membership," a volunteer named Larry later tells me, is that "you sign up to automatically donate every month until you die."

The station currently has 18,000 such sustaining members, which they love because it provides a clearer sense of their incoming annual budget. KCRW General Manager Jennifer Ferro even said that if they can get 25,000 monthly members, they'll knock a day off the drive. (That number again is 1-800-600-5279).

10:50am: Total raised during MBE so far -- $21,370

10:55am: Out in the snacking area, (no food or drinks allowed it the studio), volunteers mill about toasting bagels and making tea. Local businesses donate more than $45,000 worth of food and beverages to the station to feed volunteers. Right now, a killer Mexican spread is being laid out.

11:00am: "I love this radio station," says longtime volunteer Sonya Perry while we split a bagel. "It's intelligent radio, and I meet so many likeminded people at the pledge drive. My whole family volunteers, and they treat the volunteers so well." Perry says that two years ago she lost her job, but coming here to volunteer helped her feel like she still contributed. This is real deal community service. With burritos and indie rock!

11:04am: "I met my boyfriend through the volunteer drive," says a woman named T. They've been together for two years. Turns out many couples have met in the pledge room, a few of whom are now married.

11:27am: Money raised during MBE so far today -- $34,030

11:30am: "The DJs are like celebrities" says a pretty woman who has just arrived for her shift. "One year I met Warren Olney, and it was like meeting Bono."

11:37am: In the studio, longtime volunteers trade pledge stories. "One time I answered the phone and it was David Lynch," says a guy who's volunteered since 2008. "And another year Moby stopped by to answer calls." "One time," a woman named Alice says, "I answered the phone and it was a bunch of stoned guys who took 45 minutes to pick out the album they wanted for their gift."

11:40am: Money raised during MBE so far today -- $36,275

11:50am: The energy builds as Bentley and Litt ramp up for the final ten minutes of the show, which is typically when the most pledges come in. Concert tickets are flying out the door! And albums! Dinners at Malo! Coffee mugs! A goddamn trip to Kenya is up for grabs! Pick up the PHONE Los Angeles!

11:57am: Three minutes to go. We're talking about the first station in the United States to play Sade! And Beck! And Massive Attack!

11:59am: MBE is over. In the past three hours, the station has raised $47,596 via phone calls from 356 donors, one of whom yelled at me because I had a hard time taking her pledge over a bad phone connection. Still, we got her signed up to donate $10 a month to the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank in the station's double duty charity package premium. "If I didn't care about the hungry people," she told me, "I would have hung up on you a long time ago."

12:00pm: The World begins as the pledge ticker on the wall resets to zero. Otra vez!

The KCRW winter pledge drive continues through Friday, February 8.

Follow us on Twitter @LAWeeklyMusic, Katie Bain @bainofyrexstnce, and like us at LAWeeklyMusic.

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