<historical present tense>

I got directions on the phone, but King's Hall, on the EMU campus, has plenty of signs, taped to doors and windows, with labels and arrows (WEMU this way ---->) that I follow up a couple flights of stairs, past silent, yellowish, vacant, not-particularly-well-maintained doors, then at last into a corridor filled with voices.

It's not exactly as I expected, but it occurs to me that the place is exactly WEMU: a slightly shabby, late '70s sort of friendliness, combined with a real, genuine radio station vibe. I sign in and head past a glowing "On Air" sign protruding from the upper wall to the room where 3 of Ann Arbor's minor celebrities sit, two at a table in the main part and one surrounded with CDs and LPs behind a pane of glass, all with headphones and cylindrical radio microphones. Also in the main part of the room sit around a second table (this one covered in telephones and colorful, laminated instruction sheets) five 30- or 40-year-olds and an empty chair, which I take. The guy across from me, wearing a shirt that says, "I'm actually very busy on a cellular level," gives me a strange look.

After a brief explanation from some guy who appears to be in charge of something, I prepare to answer the telephone in front of me.

There's an old adage about the military - long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of pure terror - that describes the situation at WEMU with a certain accuracy. You sit, you and the other volunteers, reading the paper, listening to the hosts in the other room, easting delicious donated Zingerman's sandwiches (a veritable plethora are available from the table in the hall), keeping fairly quiet because the mikes will pick up loud conversation, and then a phone rings (a very loud ring because it has to be heard on the air) and every nerve in your body screams, "Answer it!!" but you can't because it's next to someone else and even when it's next to you you have to wait for the second ring and -

But I digress.

Actually, the work turns out to be quite fun: the food is good, the people whose pledges you take down are cooperative, the hosts are friendly (though Michael G. Nastas is considerably younger and more pimply than I imagined him). That Sunday, I sit at phone number 2, which will only ring if the first phone is in use, so I only get 5 calls, total, but it's nonetheless enjoyable; the hosts gradually ratchet up the rhetoric until, by the end of the Big City Blues Cruise (the program during which I'm answering phones that day) they're yelling in Baptist-preacher tones ("Everywhere else, ladies and gentlemen, there's Britney Spears; only here - yes, here, on WEMU, can you listen to Aretha Franklin, the queen, the goddess of soul! And if you don't help us, we will disappear, ladies and gentlemen, and one day you'll tune your dial to 89.1 FM and there will be nothing but static!") and the phones are ringing constantly (even the guy at #6 gets a couple calls).

The pledge process is as follows:

  1. Answer the phone (during the second ring).
  2. Take down the pledge amount, the person's name, their telephone number, their address (their credit card number, if they're paying that way) in the spaces provided.
  3. Check off various boxes (does your place of employment have a matching gift plan?)
  4. Try to get them to increase the amount to the next iteration - simply put, there are a series of "rewards" for various amounts, ranging from a WEMU coffee mug for 40 dollars to a "day sponsorship", a chance to have a message read on the air several times, for two hundred.
  5. Take down a message, a comment, to be read on the air.
  6. Hang up (politely).
  7. Give the message to the program hosts.
  8. As they say on the SNL NPR sketch, good times.

The next day I arrive, same parking lot as before, and walk again to King's Hall (which, I notice this time, has something that looks like a satellite dish on its roof), enter, take a seat (this time phone #1 is offered). The other people there are older this time, retirees, it appears, and the program a little less popular, but, as mentioned, I'm on phone #1; the rings come fast and furious. Well, not furious, perhaps, but certainly fairly fast, or at least slightly faster; I take close to ten pledges during the course of the afternoon.

The hosts complain while songs are playing of the changes the current fundraising process has brought; now that goals are announced by the dollar amount rather than number of calls, fewer pledges are made; the graduate students who before would give perhaps $20 apiece now phone more infrequently. We eat Subway sandwiches (mine's turkey, if you're interested) and wait for phones to ring.

I work on my radio voice, answering phones with what I hope is a smooth and practiced flair. At one point the aforementioned Michael G. sits down at phone #2 next to me and begins to answer, himself, and I find myself slipping into the same sort of phrases he uses; once, we ask, "does your place of employment have a matching gift plan?" simultaneously to the comma, letter, and sub-inflection.

Which is, I think, kind of cool.

This is taken from a much longer log that I was required to write for humanities in 12th grade, detailing the details of the 30 hours of community service the class required] (if you're interested, another excerpt is at November 2, 2000). Here are the comments I got back from the teacher (with bullets substituted for his dashes):

  • There is a certain sense of worldliness in your tone throughout - that you have been there, done that in comparison to others you come in contact with???
  • Hard to imagine that you are so experienced at such a young age > your 1st 18 years must have been extremely busy to have acquired such vast experiences.
  • Being relatively bright is but a gift that many possess as perhaps you are becoming more aware of > the challenge is do something with one's abilities rather than only be aware of one's abilities.