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Pledge Drive

Seattle’s local public radio stations are holding their fall fundraising. Instead of the filtered voices of middlebrow civic education, programs are broken up with large gaps of odd pauses, location sound of muffled voices and antique phones ringing steel bells, and the struggling improv skills of the local hosts.

I like pledge season. There is a constancy about it. Every spring and fall the changeless clocks are shaken up and voices reach registers and say things they normally wouldn’t. A measured carnival feel comes over the air as the otherwise redoubtable voices struggle or fall headlong through a strained sort of fun. The race to meet goals that aren’t meant to be reached devolves to insistent pleading; phones ring in wild bleats or stay silent. Sometimes the voices try too hard. Other times they sound well-lubricated. The amateur vaudeville whoop-de-doo of it feels like a warm, clean towel, all brilliant clear light through refreshing air.

Back in graduate school–the first attempt–I worked the pledge drive of the NPR station where I volunteered. It seemed only appropriate to help out where they had given me what I thought was an in. I’m sure they believed it was more free labor. I saw the secret stash of pledge gifts piled in beat-up cardboard boxes along one wall of the conference room: Car Talk fuzzy dice, KUNR mugs in white cardboard cubes, Garrison Kellior cassettes. Red Bell phones like squat little heads with button pad faces were strung along the conference table where volunteers sat and had water and coffee in thin paper cups. Doors were left open and when someone called in a bell would be rung. The jazz guy would shout: thank you, Tinkerbell! Always two guys in the booth keeping up the patter, always the groaned relief when they went back to the network. Man, we’re really cookin’! I was glad to have someone there whose emotions I could read.

Reno was an inexplicable place for graduate school: a second-string sin city of aging casinos second again to Tahoe’s natural splendor, lost in desert as blasted as the Moon. I was always sick, sneezing and congested from the dust. The health service doctor warned me of drinking to get to sleep. I had no idea why I had gone, what I was doing, what graduate school was for. When the NPR station asked for volunteers, I was rapt. Was it real? I remember walking the University of Nevada Reno campus, through low concrete municipal buildings built in that slightly futuristic and municipal style of the late 1960s, to the building basement where the NPR and PBS stations hid. It was real. They trusted I had done college radio and let me fill the spaces of the last half of All Things Considered, and then whatever classical I wanted until the jazz guy came at nine. Just a little faster with the weather, the station manager said after my first night. It was breaks, prepping carts, taking and holding deep breaths and looking at the clock. I was always a little late or a little early, getting closer but never quite. Once a week wasn’t enough practice, but I had someplace to go outside of literary theory and the freshman dorm.

The pledge drive was a time to break rules in a respectable golly-gee way, like good kids wearing the same shirt two days in a row. I answered the phone and talked to real people happy to talk to me. With each pledge a young woman loved grabbing the bell and running down the hall shouting Tinkerbell, Tinkerbell! The radio was a thing that sent out and connected, but I was inside it now, at the center. It was warm and bright here, run down and non-profit bedraggled. It felt lived in, and there was always someone there.

Twice a year the pledge drive comes and I am reminded of that home on the air, made by the faceless voices of people.

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