As phone volunteers for KPBS TV pledge drives, my husband and I have been in the studio with Irish crooners Celtic Thunder (well, half of the group), David Foster (music producer), a zombie doctor (obsessed with brains), and Richard Slaughter (producer of the ’60s live-comedy show Laugh-In), among others. We’ve sat in the studio audience for the taping of one of Kathy Smith’s “the more you move, the more you’ll want to move” fitness presentations. We even got to hang out with Dr. Wayne Dyer of Wishes Fulfilled fame. He didn’t fulfill any of our wishes, but he did give us a bunch of bananas. I often jest that we work in TV, and we get paid in bananas.
On one occasion, when a self-help author by the name of Dr. Amen was in the studio, I took a call from an older gentleman insisting I tell him the doctor’s first name. Dr. Amen had not been introduced to us ephemeral worker-bees, and I didn’t actually know what his name was. I looked at the list of gifts, which detailed the prizes that came with each donation level, and whispered the question to my husband; but we couldn’t find the requested information anywhere. On the big-screen TV in the studio, which provides a backdrop for the camera, it said only: “Change Your Brain, Change Your Age.” The caller on the line was growing impatient, so I explained to him that I was a volunteer, then assured him that I was still looking. He demanded to speak to my supervisor.
“I don’t have a supervisor. I’m a volunteer.”
Meanwhile, the doctor had finished reading his script and was walking off-camera. I raised my hand.
“Excuse me, Doctor. My caller would like to know your first name before donating to KPBS.” The doctor couldn’t hear me over all the other noise, but our volunteer manager caught up to him and asked him the caller’s question.
“My name is Daniel,” he grumbled, as he made his way past the bank of phone volunteers. I returned to the call, which I had put on hold, and informed the caller that we had just spoken to the doctor himself, and that his first name was Daniel.
“Oh, s-s-sorry to bother you. I just wanted to know,” the caller stammered, humble now that I had spoken directly to a minor celebrity on his behalf.
“Now,” I said, “how much would you like to donate to KPBS today?”
“Oh, n-n-nothing, I just wanted to make sure it was a real person.” Then the caller hung up.
That’s not how most calls go — people do pledge money, and most are polite and happy to contribute. But once I got a call from a guy with a Scottish accent, who, pretending that he would make a pledge, got as far as the credit-card information before asking me if I was a Christian.
Another time, a lady desperately wanted to know when Dr. Wayne Dyer was going to be on KPBS again.
“I’m not sure,” I told her. “I’m a volunteer here, and I don’t have the schedule in front of me.”
“They should give you the schedule,” she insisted.
Trying to be helpful, I said, “Well, ma’am, if you have a TV Guide or internet access, you can look it up.”
“I don’t have the internet,” she said defensively. “I just wanted to know, because I used to practice oncology, and I met Dr. Wayne Dyer many years ago, when he was operating out of a church basement and the back of his car.”
I sensed a potential stalker situation. “I’m not sure when Dr. Dyer will be on again, but thank you for watching KPBS.” It was my turn to hang up, before the call got any weirder. Plenty of other callers were waiting to get through and give money in return for thank-you gifts from the “father of motivation,” who lives with chronic lymphocytic leukemia and has written more than 30 books.
My phone rang again immediately.
The night Dr. Daniel Amen was there, the program wasn’t pulling in a lot of cash. Because his gift book was titled Change Your Brain, Change Your Age — in addition to all his other brain-based books and DVDs — my husband and I had nicknamed him “Zombie Doctor.” Like all zombies, he was after one thing: brains.
Dr. Amen stood on a specially constructed box so that he would be at eye-level with Jessica Hanson York, the tall presenter who appeared with him for that segment. Jessica, marketing manager at the Mingei Museum, often hosts pledge drives. We’ve yet to come across a list of credentials one needs to be a commentator on KPBS (one of the presenters said he got his start as a phone volunteer), but with her stylish haircut and dangly earrings, Jessica brings a “hip” presence to the proceedings.
We’d seen other “talent” on that box — I think one of the Celtic Thunder guys had to stand on it, and Don McLean, too. The box is about six inches high, made of wood, and marked with a black “T” on top. The studio supervisor, a hard-working man with a serious headset, makes sure it doesn’t show up on-camera. A makeup lady carefully touches up the talent as they wait for their cues, connected to microphone wires and placed on marks in front of the cameras.
Awesome fakery goes on behind the scenes at KPBS, as we’ve seen in the skillful set-building they do. Check out the desk on Evening Edition (weeknights at 6:30) — it looks like a heavy piece of furniture, outfitted with fancy wood veneer and gold trim, as respectable as any big-budget news desk. But like many things on TV, it’s just an illusion — Styrofoam and particleboard painted to mimic expensive finishes.
As KPBS staff members like to say, they were recycling way before it was cool. We’ve seen old sets morph into new ones; some of the pieces have been there since the station began broadcasting in the 1960s. On the station tour that is one of the perks of being a volunteer (in addition to the occasional on-camera cameo), participants are herded through the prop room and past the on-site woodshop, where the magic of television is made. Among the curios, a giant eyeball pokes out from the rafters. The employees posit that the eyeball has never been featured on a show, only at staff Halloween parties. Too bad. It would make a great prop for Zombie Doctor.