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When it comes to raising funds, Channel 12 officials realize the importance of being earnest

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URBANA -- It's more than coincidence that Oscar Wilde's satire, "The Importance of Being Earnest," is being shown on public television this month. It has symbolism that shouldn't be lost on the crew at WILL-TV in Urbana.

The high-brow comedy is just exactly the type of program WILL, central Illinois's public TV outlet, prides itself on showing. In another sense, when it comes to raising funds -- and doing so, repeatedly, with on-the-air appeals -- Channel 12 officials realize the importance of being earnest.

Twice a year -- a total of 55 hours over 26 days -- the wholesome, home-grown staff at WILL put aside their financial statements, skip their Rotary meetings and X-out their datebooks. It's time, once again, to put the well-calculated message on the medium: "TV worth watching is TV worth paying for."

The station raises $1.1 million a year from private sources, 52 percent of its total budget. Step aside Indianapolis and St. Paul. Despite the obvious limits of a 323,000-household, WILL knows, quite well, how to separate viewers from some of their money.

Diligent-looking volunteers are perched at the phone banks. Casually dressed students work behind the cameras; spiffed-up WILL executives parade in front of them. A time-proven backstage setup that has pledge cards going out with the next morning's mail.

Camp at times, corny upon occasion, the pledge drive nonetheless is an art form that WILL has reduced to a science. It takes preparation, on-the-air professionalism and a few gifts to move the recalcitrant soul. Otherwise, no gimmicks, no actors need apply.

"Can you imagine an actor from New York City saying, on Channel 12, that he remembers Glenn Miller from a time when he was stationed at Chanute Air Force Base?" asks Debbie Day, WILL's highly regarded director of development (that is, fund raising). "This is a down-home area. In this market, sincerity is the thing."

Sincerity, of course, and the importance of being earnest.

"Public television operates nowhere else in the world like it does here," Day herself tells viewers. (Serious expression, straight gaze into the camera.) "There's a difference between public television and commercial television: It's the difference between caring and just watching."

A recent Saturday evening, nine days into Winterfest '85, was not atypical. WILL staffers Dan Simeone and Ann Marino, associate development director, are ready for on-camera appeals Nos. 100 and 101. In one moment, PBS film critic Jeff Lyons is on the monitor, talking intensely about film star Sam Shepard. The next, an equally intense Simeone, on loan from his WILL radio post, starts up with the medium-hard sell.

Adhering to a type-written "pledge break" formula, Simeone opens with a reference to Lyons and his movie reviews on "Sneak Previews," then sweeps a hand toward the tote board and WILL's funding goals. "We're winding down to the last few days," says Simeone. "Let's make these phones ring."

For the real hard sell, the so-called "call to action," Camera 2 has the diminutive Marino in focus. "It isn't free," she asserts, intensity level still on the rise. "It's not free TV. It does have a price."

Back to Simeone for the "membership levels" reminder, another ingredient central to all breaks. Contribute $250, he says, and a WILL director's chair can be yours. For $120, an umbrella with the station's logo, or a "Nutcracker" album, accompanies the tax deduction.

"Membership levels are part of every break, right away," explains station manager Bill Glaeser, himself an on-camera fixture during pledge week. "It's been proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that if you ask people for a certain amount of money, that's how much they'll pledge."

No longer, in the era of Reagan administration budget cuts, do dull-but-good-for-you public television programs come automatically when the tuner stops at Channel 12. As a result, the station is selling itself less as a cultural entity than as a venue for broadcasting diversity.

Time and again (133 times, 10 to 15 minutes each, during the Winterfest drive), WILL staffers and volunteers get involved in what has become a direct subscription drive for viewer support. Since nine out of 10 viewers don't help with the bills, the temptation to scold is hardly resistible.

"I feel like I have to yell to get out to them," Marino says as the lights go down and "Sneak Previews" resumes. "Sometimes I forget I have a microphone."

It's the dinner hour, and there's little activity inside or around the flat-sided brick building just east of the University of Illinois campus. Once the Purity-Sunbeam Bakery, now home to WILL-TV, arrows on yellow paper direct volunteers to the orange door to Studio X. Inside the newly built main studio, the pledge phones fall silent only moments after the on-air sequence ends. "Twenty minutes to the next break," a director, unseen from the floor, announces over the loudspeaker.

A few feet behind the Winterfest '85 set, sparked up this year with a red and blue toy soldier, volunteer Debbie Rugg already is helping turn over the shifts.

Rugg and her counterparts, known as "pledge captains," play vital but nearly invisible roles on the WILL team. Hustling behind the telephone crews, they gather up pledge cards and help the panic-stricken.

For now, Rugg is briefing a new crew of telephone bankers, a youthful-looking group costumed in black berets, feather boas and knitted scarves. They've come from Springfield, as it turns out, and 16-year-old Don Morris introduces them as, "The Doctor Who' Wierdo Club -- the absolute craziest people you'd ever want to meet."

It takes all kinds, it seems. And the EGADS (for Elite Galactic Advocates for the Doctor), are precisely the kind of special-interest viewers to whom Channel 12 carries a special appeal.

"I don't think the networks would ever run it," says Marge Owen, president of the EGADS. "It's like being a Cub fan; either you like it or you don't."

WILL is one of the few U.S. stations that airs the long-running British science fiction series seven days a week.

"Like a lot of our shows, most of the people who watch 'Doctor Who' watch only 'Doctor Who,'" says Pam Christman, WILL's new coordinator of volunteers. "They're not interested in anything else on public broadcasting."

Followers have asked the station to purchase 106 more episodes and seven "Doctor Who" movies, Glaeser reminds viewers during the next pledge break. The EGADS have made the 90-mile drive to help cover the $27,000 cost.

"It's a great group to have," adds Rugg, who works by day at a nearby medical clinic. "They've done it before, and they work good as a group."

The evening's first "Doctor Who" nets $3,132 in pledges -- in less than three minutes. Before the drive's over, "Doctor Who" will attract $19,367 in viewer support -- second only to the $43,445 raised during Sesame Street-Mister Rogers segments.

The tiny Marino and willowy Day, the station's Mutt and Jeff, prowl the studio constantly between breaks. Checking on tallies or scratching out cue cards, mostly to keep track of fast-moving viewer "challenges," they join Glaeser and Simeone as the mainstay "talents" of the pledge week.

With planning sessions starting in September -- and a WILL radio fund-raiser to mount in October -- bones are numb and smiles are fading by the time the last Winterfest script rolls out of the typewriter.

"No one does that much live television any more," says Glaeser. "We're doing live television -- and doing it in large hunks."

Channel 12 has a full-time staff of 38 and about 20 regular part-timers. The whole team has played, supplimented by hundreds of volunteers, before the curtain rings down on a fund drive.

Although the operation usually runs tighter than a boot lace, no drive goes into the books without a surprise or two. There was the blown fuse, some years back, that took out the studio lights only moments before a break.

"Somebody asked the question: 'What are we going to do?' I said, 'We're going to do the pledge break,' " Glaeser says. "We went on and did it with the work lights."

More troublesome, still, what if the phones don't ring, at all? "If we have control, we can shorten the break," says Glaeser. "But I remember, once, standing up there, coming out of the 'MacNeil-Lerher Report.' The network was 'dark' for eight minutes.

"We stood up there and did something, I don't remember what -- but you can't take it personally."

After 10 years together, the Day-Glaeser-Marino triumverate knows what does and doesn't attract pledges during fund drives. They know, for instance, that someone has to be on the air or the phones don't ring.

The station meticulously tracks who watches what, Glaeser says. Station officials know, for instance, that "Masterpiece Theater" appeals most to college-educated women, age 50 and older -- and they know the pledging characteristics of the group.

Not surprisingly, the station's and PBS's public affairs lineup is most popular in Springfield. Arts and cultural programs play best in Champaign-Urbana (where fully 25 percent of WILL's viewer support is generated). "Decatur likes country music, the same goes for Danville," Glaeser says.

But all of the research, the years of experience, also can be frightening. Near the end, this winter's drive sputtered through a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon that kept some of their most loyal viewers outside during a strong programming sequence.

"Is it dark outside?" Marino would ask, less absent-mindedly than it seemed. "Last year, it was snowing, and two years ago we had a blizzard.

"It was great."

Caption: Above, Mike Trosman, floor director, makes sure things go smoothly during a pledge break. Right, station manager Bill Glaeser keeps himself fresh during the week by taking afternoon naps. WILL raises more money for its size than any other public TV station in the nation.

Caption: Raising money is something the staff and volunteers at WILL-TV, Channel 12, does better than any other PBS station its size. Here, Ann Marino holds a cue card.

Caption: Nancy Jeckel, herself a volunteer, explains the phone system to the Illini Statesman. Groups from all over the viewing area volunteer to support favorite shows.

Caption: Camera operator Cathy Razor makes good use of a phone book during a catnap. The crew rests when they can during the bustle of a pledge drive.

Caption: Nancy Jeckel provides nearly instantaneous tallies of pledges.

Pledge cards are usually in the mail the next day. Memo: cover headline PUBLIC TV reaches for the viewer's pocketbook

WILL's fundraising gets the dollars flowing

Kids by the hundredfold dragged their parents to the telephone. For $30 apiece, Charlie and Susie were about to become Friends of Sesame Street.

Better still, they could hear their names read on television.

It worked — 1,491 times during WILL-TV's recent winter fund drive. And the $43,445 raised during "Sesame Street" and "Mister Rogers Neighborhood" appeals — Just like the $8.400 drawn by the MacNeil-Lehrer news show and the $7,007 from a Judy Garland special — illustrate where public television is headed.

When It comes to raising funds these days, you sell each menu item, not the smorgasbord.

"Most people don't know that it's public television," says Debbie Day, director of fundraising at WILL. "They don't give to an institution. They're supporting Sesame Street because it's important to their kids and to their own values."

WILL's ability to raise $174,000, in a span of 10 days, is further testimony to its pragmatic philosophy. Viewership is pluralistic; the typical central Illinois household tunes in for two, maybe three programs a week on Channel 12.

Corporate supporters, too, are becoming more interested in programs than in the institution of public television.

"We're not a cause, and were not trying to market ourselves as that" explains WILL station manager Bill Glaver. "A cause is something that you want to get rid of, make it go away. We expect to be here for quite some time."

That requires breaking in on a National Geographic production with a stuffed baby seal gift and an appeal to the nature lovers. It means running the tape of Tennessee Ernie Ford's patriotism-and-gospel music show, with WILL's Rita Schulte interrupting to remind viewers:

"As Ernie says, 'If it don't rain, the creek ain't gonna rise.'"

That's the way it's done in the modern era of get-what-you-pay-for-public television. The spiel may be Impromptu, but scripts otherwise are drafted with specific targets in mind.

"We really gear to talking programs more than anything else," says Day. "If we took a break, and didn't know what the program was, It would be hopeless."

Winterfest '85, this month's drive for new supporters of Channel 12, fell about 11 percent short of expectations.

"Trying to figure out why is difficult. but one of the things we can speculate about is that we had a significant increase (during WILL-TV's spring fund drive) last March," says Day.

Not surprisingly, her second explanation deals with programming. The full Public Broadcasting Service lineup was weaker than a year ago, she says, when critically acclaimed series like "The Brain" and "Civilization and the Jews" made debuts.

"The big, new, U.S.-made specials run in a cycle that requires underwriting about three years in advance," she says. "And you have to remember, three years ago, all funding was impacted by the threat of big federal funding cuts."

The baseline cuts in government funding, threatening the very existence of the PBS system, ultimately were headed off by Congress. This year's federal support to Channel 12 is $375,119, slightly less than 1984-85

The University of Illinois, which holds the broadcast licence for Channel 12, contributed $486,299.

The station is managed by Don Mullally, the U of I's director of broadcasting. WILL airs educational programs during the mid-day hours, but it is far from a classic university-run station.

Slightly more than half of its $1.99 million budget comes from private sources, spanning anything from $15-a-year student memberships upwards to $53,000 from top corporate sponsors. Individual contributions average about $52; most corporate gifts are in the range of $1,000 to $7,000 a year, according to Day.

"We're really sort of unusual," says Day, who's current head of PBS's national development advisory committee. "If you look at a profile of station 'types,' we behave like something in between a university licensee and a community licensee."

When it comes to fundraising, WILL behaves very seriously indeed. As development director (for WILL's radio stations as well as for Channel 12), Day carries the same rank as station manager Glaeser.

The station spends more than $100,000 a year on various fundraising expenses, or about 10 cents on the dollar.

Despite the Winterfest shortfall, Channel 12 set the pace, once again, for public TV stations of the same market size. Not unusually any more. it also out-grossed all but 20 stations in the entire system -- including many in markets twice as large.

"The results speak far more loudly than I ever could," says Giaeser. "Channel 12 is far and away out-performing a-expectations.

When it's time for on-the-air fund appeals, Day and Glaeser, along with Ann Marino, WILL's associate development director, pull the bulk of the on-camera time. Dan Simeone, news director at WILL-radio, becomes the fourth gear in the transmission. (When WILL-Radio does a fund-raiser, Glaeser reciprocates.)

"Any time you turn the station on. one of us is there, on-camera," says Glaeser, who attributes the station's successes to "good chemistry" between the four workhorses

"None of us were hired for our ability to go on the air and do fund drives," he says. The hours run long, there's not always time for an afternoon nap. And, near the end of a drive, tempers have gotten short

"But we believe in it" says Glaeser, "and that makes it a lot easier "

Caption: Ann Marino makes a final appeal to Channel 12's viewers.

Disclaimer: These citations are created on-the-fly using primitive parsing techniques. You should double-check all citations. Send feedback to

  • APA 6th ed.: Murphy, Michael (1985-12-27). When it comes to raising funds, Channel 12 officials realize the importance of being earnest. Illinois State Journal-Register p. 8A.
  • MLA 7th ed.: Murphy, Michael. "When it comes to raising funds, Channel 12 officials realize the importance of being earnest." Illinois State Journal-Register [add city] 1985-12-27, 8A. Print.
  • Chicago 15th ed.: Murphy, Michael. "When it comes to raising funds, Channel 12 officials realize the importance of being earnest." Illinois State Journal-Register, edition, sec., 1985-12-27
  • Turabian: Murphy, Michael. "When it comes to raising funds, Channel 12 officials realize the importance of being earnest." Illinois State Journal-Register, 1985-12-27, section, 8A edition.
  • Wikipedia (this article): <ref>{{cite news| title=When it comes to raising funds, Channel 12 officials realize the importance of being earnest | url=,_Channel_12_officials_realize_the_importance_of_being_earnest | work=Illinois State Journal-Register | pages=8A | date=1985-12-27 | via=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=20 July 2024 }}</ref>
  • Wikipedia (this page): <ref>{{cite web | title=When it comes to raising funds, Channel 12 officials realize the importance of being earnest | url=,_Channel_12_officials_realize_the_importance_of_being_earnest | work=Doctor Who Cuttings Archive | accessdate=20 July 2024}}</ref>