Monday, May 9, 2011

Marathon metamorphosis...

Since WBAI is currently in what they call a "fund-raising mode," I thought this would be a good time to point out how that aspect, too, has changed.

It is interesting to note that a doctor or medical researcher in Peoria or Perugia can stumble upon a formula that appears to make mice prefer lettuce to cheese. It may, says the press release, eventually work on humans, and that's all it takes for it to become a story on the evening news. Fat cheese lovers are interviewed, we get a glimpse of happy lettuce growers, and we are told that this wonderful discovery may become a reality in a few years.

Then there is WBAI, where one can for a hundred bucks or two buy a DVD that kills cancer, leukemia, AIDS, and a number of other diseases hitherto thought to have been incurable. Amazing, but we don't hear a single mention of that on the other stations. Why?, we ask. Elementary, my dear listener, says Tony Bates, launching into a feverish explanation of how the evil pharmaceutical industry spends billions to suppress such information. God, say the gullible, it's another conspiracy! Why didn't we draw that conclusion ourselves? 

Cures and conspiracies are stuff WBAI fund drives are made of—in fact, the program schedule is going more and more in that direction. Mind you, I am not trying to canonize the pharmaceutical people, who are known to do outrageous things to sell their products—even some that prove fatal—but  let's be reasonable. Although we should be wary of the industry, logic tells me that if such simple cures existed, Pfizer, Johnson, Merck, Lilly, et al would have found a way to bottle them for sale rather then bottle them up. Does alternate medicine have merit? Of course it does—and has for hundreds of years—but those who peddle it for profit tend to exaggerate. Profit? Well, that was not something one expected to get from WBAI, but there's one major change: the little station that used to attract big talent and nurse creativity has become a cash cow for all kinds of charlatans, some of whom are on the staff.   

New York Times editorial
Granted, these are desperate times at WBAI, but what else is new? There was a time when truth mattered and we proved that it would work in fund-raising, too. As we launched—at about 4 hours notice and with no real preparation—the only premium we offered was a promise to continue broadcasting the good stuff. It was all about WBAI and its programs—nothing else mattered. Well, there was that phone call from a listener who threw us a curve. 

We were about twenty minutes into the marathon, begging for money, reading overdue bills on the air and predicting doom if they weren't paid. Ironically, some of the very things we threatened our listeners with are common air fare on today's WBAI (the outright commercialism of  "Liquid Sound Lounge" and "Soul Central Station", the shallowness of "Heart of Mind", the bias of "5 O'clock Shadow", etc.). When we played Kate Smith or  bubble gum music as examples of things one could expect to hear at 99.5, our three phones rang  and the tally went up. Then came the aforementioned call from a lady said that she didn't have any money, but there was this beautiful small Oriental rug that she would give to the first person who pledged two hundred dollars. We were not prepared for that, but it sounded like a good idea and 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 quickly devised a system to keep them in some order. Tiny turtles found a temporary home in the bathtub of our teletype room, under the caged canaries, and my office soon became cluttered with old cameras, a Nazi helmet, 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.

WBAI music director John Corigliano and his Oscar.
We were use to receiving gifts from listeners and WBAI was a magnet for creative people. I recall the day Oleg Cassini walked into my office with one of his original dresses, suggesting that we might want to auction it off. I didn't know who Cassini was, but my secretary all but swooned. Then there was the painter, Elaine de Kooning, who brought in a couple of her canvasses. Others, from Jose Feliciano to Tiny Tim came by to contribute their talent and give us the first hint that they even existed.  James Mason played records from his collection of ethnic music, and Celeste Holm read children's stories. I bring this up to illustrate yet another change.

Of course, the marathon turned out to be a perfect opportunity for generous visits, so 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, so our music director, John Corigliano, solved the 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—gave Herbie Hancock his 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. 

The response from the jazz community was overwhelming—our new piano was graced by many great players, including Randy Weston, Ray Bryant, and Walter Bishop. 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! I brought my B&O recorder to the station and hooked it directly to a line feed, so the entire marathon is on tape. To save money I recorded it at 3 3/4 i.p.s. on four track (mono), but the quality is surprisingly good, as you can hear on the attached audio file featuring the late pianist, Ronnie Matthews

Please note that there is 10 seconds of silence at the start.

No comments:

Post a Comment