Would you purchase a pledge premium from this man?
Let’s play a little word-association game. In fact, let me give you an entire phrase, and you pay attention to your gut reaction. Ready? Okay, here it is: public broadcasting pledge drive. Was that a sigh of resignation or a groan of displeasure that I just heard? Oh, don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal to have a negative connotation. Really, who wants their favorite shows interrupted and bookended by continuous appeals for cash?
Well, I did, at least for a time. I even video recorded entire TV programming blocks exclusively for their pledge breaks, some of which I transferred to audio cassette so I could study them during my daily commute. Was I insane? Maybe just a little. But it was all for a noble purpose: I was going to be one of those smiling faces reminding you how much you value public broadcasting and suggesting that you support it financially.This came about because I happened to learn of open auditions for volunteer, on-air “talent” around the same time I was preparing for my transition to a career in education. If I expected to command the attention of a classroom full of students or an auditorium packed with parents, it would be an asset to have developed better public speaking skills. What’s more, it looked easy and sounded fun. I looked forward to my audition.
I showed up on a quiet Saturday afternoon to a largely empty studio, where I was met by Rob, the on-air fundraising director, whom I recognized from his countless pledge break appearances. He explained that they were looking for pleasant people who were comfortable before the camera and could speak extemporaneously about the station and its fundraising efforts. To that end, I was to stand before the camera and speak about whatever I wished for 60 seconds. The powers that were would review the tape and decide whether I had what it takes to appear on live television.
Nervous with excitement yet brimming with confidence – I was a polite, young man with good communication skills and a soothing voice – I stood on my mark and waited for my cue. “Good morning,” I smiled into the camera, “and welcome to our fall pledge drive. I’m Bob Hunt, and I’m here…um, I’m here to…to urge your support for public broadcasting…” I saw Rob looking at me blankly. I had killed all of eight seconds, and awkwardly at that. “So…um…if you’re a fan of…of what you see here…”
I felt my head detach from my body and float toward the ceiling as I gabbled on for the remainder of a long, long minute. Still in a daze, I shook Rob’s proffered hand as he graciously escorted me from the studio. I drove off the lot, mortified at my complete failure. What had just happened? How could I have just fallen apart like that? I began to ruminate on everything I had done wrong. I suddenly thought of a host of things that I could have said – that I should have said. I wallowed in regret. And then, with a boldness contrary to my nature, I turned around. In a move that would make me legendary (or, more likely, notorious) among the pantheon of on-air volunteers, I became the first person ever to walk back into that studio and pathetically beg for a second audition. Rob must have been desperate, and I must have shown a trace of potential competence, because soon I was extolling the virtues of Bob Ross and asking you to show your financial appreciation for keeping his show, at least, alive.
As I gained experience with each pledge break, I quickly learned some basic truths about live TV. Foremost among these revelations was the fact that it’s not as easy as it looks, and therein, I suppose, is the reason why those who do it well are referred to as “the talent.” A pledge pitch spokesperson must pay devoted attention to call times, have a good idea of how to express the next assigned topic, and be aware at all times of not just the camera but everyone and everything else in the studio. You have to sense when the talking head before you is wrapping it up and anticipate your cue, and once you are entrusted with the final spiel that segues back into programming, you must heed the director’s mimed, 10-second countdown and master the art of delivering your last syllable just before time runs out.
Rob was kind and supportive throughout my tenure as a volunteer, often applying a dull layer of foundation to my reflective cranium and exhorting me to invest in a makeup kit. “A few bucks at Lazarus, Bob, and you’re all set.” He tolerated my many questions, bravely withstood my gaffes, and praised my successes. After I had done a few pledge weekends, I got a little better, the whole process seemed a bit more natural, and I found the experience fun after all.
Not that there weren’t challenges. One night Rob assigned me to pitch an evening of programming related to OSU football that included a memorable 1986 commencement speech by Woody Hayes. No doubt Rob was unaware of my sports-deprived girliemasculinity, but I held in there the best I could. I admired a bit that Rob did referring to Woody’s redemption as an “elder statesman” eight years after the infamous Gator Bowl incident that ended his coaching career. As I attempted to paraphrase Rob’s words later that night, I made a reference to Woody having resigned. Bad move in Buckeye Country. An irate fan rang up the pledge line to rebuke this “idiot,” proclaiming, “Woody Hayes did not resign. He was fired!” I assume the caller did not make a further statement of financial support.
There was the time I felt my throat inexplicably constrict into near-laryngeal paralysis while I was in mid-pitch, rendering me barely able to croak out the end of my sentence. And there was the time I was wrapping up a pitch with the area code and prefix of our pledge telephone number only to blank out on the last four digits. Normally this would not have been a problem, as a cheat card was affixed to the camera just above the lens. Only it wasn’t there this time. I instantly compensated by rattling off the last four digits of my home phone number, vainly hoping that no viewers were paying attention as the studio personnel were. Moments like these make you cherish your status as a mere volunteer.
The biggest challenge, though, was one that I hope I was able to completely conceal. As much as I was an ardent supporter of public broadcasting, our local station aired a handful of programs that I thought were of dubious value, mostly hour-long, personality-driven specials of the self-help and motivational speaking genre. I did the best acting of my life as I championed one guru whom I found particularly revolting, smiling broadly as I reminded viewers that the sordid spectacle we were interrupting would not have been possible without their generous support.
Eventually the need for volunteer, on-air talent waned as more programs began to produce their own prerecorded and branded pledge breaks. My stint as a PBS shill, for better or worse, came to an end. Years later, I look back upon the experience with great fondness, though I no longer sit through pledge breaks for the sheer pleasure and education of it. Except whenever I stumble across one of Rob’s seasoned pitches. He makes it look easy.