The Money Room: “Pledging” Begins at WGBH
The Money Room is a bit of history written by John Kerr, John Carver, and Sam Tyler whose fundraising careers at WGBH spanned three decades.
By John Kerr
The story of how one particular person got so smitten by ‘GBH that he became its main beggar.
“Pledging” Begins at WGBH
I kept searching for better ways to raise money to launch and broadcast our programs. Remembering that Ives had gone on air successfully after the fire in 1961, I’d heard from Hud Stoddard that WNET had had success going live on-air to ask for pledges.
I scampered down to Ives’ office and proposed that we might try using some of the space between programs for brief, live appeals to ask viewers for pledges. Maybe we could raise more money that way to support our programs and services.
After all, I argued, our air time was “free”, unlike direct mail. So if promoting our programs in breaks worked, why wouldn’t asking for support on-air work, too?
I proposed that we wire up three phones, put them on a table behind us, and have our staff jot down caller’s names and addresses, the amount of their pledge, and then send callers a return envelope for their check. I offered to sit on a stool in front of a studio camera and see if it worked.
Ives gave me permission to try it. Hope Green, my colleague in the tiny development office and later head of Vermont ETV, agreed to appear on-air with me.
Jeanne Brodeur called the phone company and bagged a dedicated and easy-to-remember phone number for us — 492-1111.
I think Helen Fox, maybe Marilyn Bernardo, and a third staffer sat at the three phones behind us for that first trial. I think the year was 1973.
Well, it sure worked.
We pitched for the couple of minutes we had. The phones behind us rang immediately.
“Pledging” at WGBH had begun.
Word quickly spread among development officers at various major public stations that we and a few other stations had found a successful new way to attract viewer and listener support.
We visited other stations to show how we did it. PBS’s new development office in Washington also encouraged member stations to try such efforts system-wide.
On-air pledge efforts quickly became a standard and significant way to raise huge amounts of money and to bring in new contributors and members. We added phones, perfected the pitches, encouraged other stations to try it, and compared notes about what worked.
Such efforts soon became clustered around highly-promoted PBS “festivals” of programming each March. The first “pledge week” was, I think, in 1973. Several other key stations also tried it. At WGBH, that effort raised an astounding $70,069.
Then we added special on-air pitching in December aimed at asking for tax-deductible contributions.
Each August, we then also launched a successful “Countdown” campaign pegged to midnight on August 31st when our fiscal year ended.
“Help us avoid a damaging deficit,” we begged — and the pledges and the money rolled in.
While other staffers went on vacation, I spent every July and August begging for money on-air at WGBH. As we raced to the end of our fiscal year at midnight on August 31st, Larry Heileman, dressed in a green eyeshade, banker’s vest, and sleeve garters as “Mr. Money” kept track of how we were doing.
It took a lot of work. But was fun. Each year, we celebrated “New Year’s Eve” at midnight on August 31 to the tune of Guy Lombardo’s Auld Acquaintence and the promise that we would launch a whole new arsenal of brilliant new programs for Boston and the world on radio and television thanks to viewer’s contributions
Between Asking, Quiet Phones
Between our efforts in those early days, the pledge phones on 492-1111 were unhooked to save phone costs.
I went back to David Ives’ office and asked him for $600 to let us buy ten simple answering machines from Lechmere Sales, a local department store. Such machines were new devices then.
Our station phone guy wired them up on a table in a back office room. Each had a recorded message asking the caller to leave their name, address, and the amount of their pledge.
We decided that our small office staff would then “burp” those pledges first thing each morning and send callers a pledge envelope. If callers failed to fulfill their pledge, we sent them a second reminder, and then a third on “snap-apart sets”.
It was a simple idea that worked.
In the first year, on an investment of just $600, we raised over $72,000 in pledges on those answering machines. We never unplugged the pledge phones after that.
Producer/directors Chris Gilbert and then David Atwood greatly improved the appearance of our pledge efforts. We recruited volunteer pledge-takers from area groups, organizations, and businesses.
It became customary to raise over $100,000 in pledges a night.
I still have no idea exactly how much money has been raised in fulfilled pledges over the years since we started “pledging” in the early ‘70’s. It is certainly is a big number.
Someone also calculated that we increased local giving 660% during those years.
Upstairs Downstairs Farewell
When the successful Upstairs Downstairs series ended on WGBH’s MASTERPIECE THEATRE, we decided to invite as many of the cast members to WGBH as we could find.
Dighton Spooner and I produced a special one-night national fund-raiser and pledge special anchored at WGBH with cutaways for local stations across the country. Lo Hartness and Amy Meyers called other stations, kept track of the national results, and pitted fans for “upstairs” with those for “downstairs” on a tote board.
We installed 100 phones in Studio A and put our best pledge talent on the air to pitch for funds for our work.
We asked some of our most loyal supporters of Upstairs Downstairs and WGBH to help us take those pledges in black tie. We ran snippets from the program, live interviews with cast members Jean Marsh, Simon Williams, Christopher Beeney, and others, and pitching for pledges that I did “to this station” with others. We were all dressed in evening attire.
As soon as we started pitching, all 100 phones in Studio A instantly rang. Each time a volunteer hung up, there would be another contributor on the line. It was an avalanche of grateful viewers calling in their support.
By the time that evening was over, PBS stations had raised well over two million dollars in one memorable, star-studded, record-breaking national pledge night which showed what a good series MASTERPIECE THEATRE was, how loyal our viewers and supporters were to our programs, and how generous they could be when asked for support.
Read more entries in The Money Room series.
Special thanks to Gene Mackles for the series wordmark.
So many wonderful stories of how WGBH found ways to raise money. What a great bunch of people we were so lucky to know.
So what were the viewers seeing? It would probably shock the fund raisers of today with their constant replaying old shows of self help, finance and music from a nostalgic era.
Here are two short videos of what was on the air in the 1990s.
Awesome, videos, Fred, thanks!!!
I think I was at that Dead concert…
What a good story! Thanks for sharing.