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2/10/10

WBAI - Part 2 (Marathon 1)

This is the second and concluding part of a recollection that begins here.

We were about twenty minutes into the marathon, begging for money and predicting doom if we could not get it, when a listener threw us a curve. "I have no money," she said, "but I have a beautiful small Oriental rug that I will give to the first person who donates two hundred dollars."

That launched an avalanche of what we decided to call "barters." Apparently, there were many listeners who wanted to contribute, but didn't have the money. People started showing up with the most incredible offerings and volunteers tried to keep them in some order. There were small turtles that found a temporary home in the bathtub of our teletype room, bird cages were suspended above them and filled as the first canary barter inspired others, my office soon became cluttered with old cameras, Nazi helmet, many books, including a copy of Mein Kampf, somebody's evening gown, a bugle that had seen much use, autographed baseballs, penny jars, a beautiful ebony fan from a bygone era, paintings, you name it.

Fortunately, the barter items moved fast. With the help of Jean French, a young lady who had come aboard to help us get the word out about the re-born WBAI, I made full use of my contacts in the jazz world. Herbie Hancock was among the first to donate a performance, but we didn't have piano. Our music director, John Corigliano (pictured receiving his first Oscar), solved the immediate problem by bringing in his electronic keyboard. It was a primitive one by today's standards, but it introduced live music to the marathon and—if memory serves me—it was Herbie's first practical experience with an electronic instrument. By the second day, when a piano dealer offered us a floor sample upright, John's little keyboard had also accompanied Joe Williams. Also, the roster of jazz performers who wanted to do their part was overwhelming—our new piano was graced by many great players, including Randy Weston, Ray Bryant, and Walter Bishop. I brought my B&O recorder to the station and hooked it directly to a line feed, so all of this—the entire marathon—is on tape. Unfortunately, I recorded it all at 3 3/4 i.p.s. on four track (mono). Still, the little B&O did remarkably well—now, if I could only find a deck that can handle that format.

This NY Times Editorial didn't hurt
Lou Schweitzer, who gave WBAI to Pacifica, was so impressed with the marathon that he made a double-your-money offer that was eagerly responded to.We also received wonderful press coverage, even in some London papers that found intriguing the novelty of a station begging its listeners to keep it on the air. A retired British concert pianist sent us a tape of one of her concert performances, granting us permission to use it as we wished, and even some of our creditors became participants, making a  live appearances to discuss the money we owed them. This led to some listeners earmarking contributions to be used for specific bills, and I shall never forget the small group of boys who came down from Westchester to hand over their piggybanks because they wanted to help pay the printing bill. I also recall writer A. B. Spellman, a regular around the station, agreeing to sing Blue Moon for a contribution—looking up the dates, I see that he may well have begun work on his excellent book, Four Lives in the Bebop Business.

We used every trick we could think of, such as threatening to play Kate Smith records until  a certain tableau was reached—it was all as good-natured as it was urgent, but there were times when we had such amazing on-air performances that we had to hold back for fear that listeners might end up preferring marathon fare!

And then there was Yoko Ono, asking me if she might be allowed to go on the air to sing Japanese children's songs and make a special plea for the music department, where she worked as a volunteer file clerk. The press wasn't interested in her, yet, but her request surprised me, because she had struck us all as being rather withdrawn—one never knows, do one?

I don't think the current WBAI staff is any less serious about meeting their fund-raising goal than we were, but that first marathon had something special that not even we could duplicate a year later. It was honest, almost to a fault and the desperation went way beyond keeping one's job—we were determined to save the station, and I think that got through to old as well as new listener. Five minutes before midnight, July 3, 1965, our pledge total reached $25,000 and we stopped the marathon on a dime, as we had promised. It had lasted about 53 hours, taught us much about fund-raising, shown us how truly wonderful and devoted our listeners were, and boosted staff and volunteer morale beyond measure. Then, as Steve Jobs likes to say, there's "one more thing." When all the money was in, we had well over $30,000. I later was told that fund-raisers are considered successful if 70% of the pledges are realized.

As I stated at the beginning of this piece, it was the current WBAI marathon that took my mind back 45 years. I hear that the station has a history of uncollected pledges, amounting to many times the money we raised. I am really sorry to hear that, because WBAI is still, as Nat Hentoff put it in the Sixties, "the only game in town." If I may be allowed to offer an opinion without being labeled a bitter old fool, something is wrong with the current approach. For one thing, there do not seem to be any guidelines, each program host has his or her way and his or her "premiums" to offer. True, we also started without guidelines, but we quickly determined what worked and what didn't, so I sat down at the typewriter and threw together a little manual—well, manual sounds too dictatorial, this was more a list of useful observations, a guide to be utilized at will.


What I hear today is blend of professionalism and hopeless fumbling, with the pitches all too often sounding like infomercials. Most are not keeping the phones at WBAI ringing, some are probably driving listeners away. That also happened back in 65, but we learned from it and changed course when it seemed prudent to do so.

That's all I have to say, except that our success so impressed the California boards and managers that I was asked to fly out there and conduct marathons for them. They raised money, but the magic of spontaneity was missing. Marathons became annual events at Pacifica stations, but they grew more clinical with each year.

Fifty years on the air is an achievement, but it is not grounds for the kind of complacency I heard during the recent WBAI anniversary "special." Good luck good people at Pacifica.

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