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.
We had a chance to be part of that “magic of television” when we went to see Kathy Smith, fitness guru, as part of a live studio audience. It was up to us to provide the laughter, applause, interested murmurs, and astonished gasps expected of live television. On cue, we put our hands together for Kathy Smith as she walked onto the Studio A stage. The whole show took about two hours to tape, including “bonus material” that would be on the DVD, which would be offered as a pledge gift when the show aired. As compensation for our time, the station set out an array of beverages and munchies. Afterward, we received two workout DVDs. On our way out, we stopped by the snack table and helped ourselves to two Red Delicious apples and one Granny Smith.
That wasn’t the first time we’d been paid in fruit, nor was it the only time we had to fake it. When Dr. Wayne Dyer was on the set for a weekend marathon fundraising pitch (he raised over $30,000), we, the phone volunteers, were made to clap every time the program went live, even though there was nothing going on in the studio that would warrant applause. BaBette Davison, the presenter, and apparently a huge Wayne Dyer fan, wanted to drum up enthusiasm for the doctor’s array of pledge gifts, ranging from a children’s book at the $50 level to a generous offering of two books, seven CDs, and six DVDs for $275. Surprisingly, caller after caller was asking to donate at the highest level. We hadn’t had that many calls since the young Irish lads from Celtic Thunder charmed the pants off the audience. Dr. Dyer proved extremely effective at selling the premium package, or, as he began referring to it on Saturday night, “the whole banana.” During the broadcast, the volunteers adopted the term, gleefully announcing each tally for $275.
On Sunday, when we arrived for our second shift with Dr. Dyer, several bunches of perfectly yellow bananas showed up in the studio. Props are few in TV pledge drives, and we were curious as to how the talent planned to use the produce. During most of the taping, the bananas simply sat in a bowl next to Dr. Dyer, barely in the shot. Finally, when Wayne and BaBette urged callers to pledge $275 for “the whole banana,” they held up the enticing fruit. As it turned out, the bananas were not as effective as the doctor himself — we got many more calls on Saturday night than on Sunday. But once the cameras were off, the bananas went from prop to payment. Dr. Dyer began tossing them to the volunteers, thanking us for donating our time. My husband and I had just finished two consecutive days in the phone bank, and we were happy to make off with a whole bunch of bananas.
Our time isn’t the only thing we’ve been asked to share at KPBS. Sometimes, the crew asks us to give of our talent and “act” while they tape us. When there are few calls rolling in, or when KPBS is taping a segment to air at another time, we pretend we’re on the phone, chatting it up with donors. It’s almost imperceptible on television, but it’s pretty obvious in the studio. When Laugh-In producer Richard Slaughter was there, he definitely noticed.
It was a quiet night in TV-land, the phones not quite as hot as Mr. Slaughter had hoped. Despite the scarcity of calls, he did his best to liven up the shift with jokes and hearty laughs. Afterward, he even signed a couple of autographs for the volunteers. On our way home, my husband and I talked about one of the other volunteers, a tall woman with nebulous, fluffy hair, who seemed to be on some kind of mood-enhancer. She had been talkative and exuberant during the pledge drive, her eyes seemingly glued wide open. We wondered how she would look on TV.
When we tuned in to a repeat of the broadcast a few weeks later, we got our answer. She happened to be sitting in the front row, in the seat closest to camera three, so in some shots she appeared almost equal in stature to the jolly Mr. Slaughter, a Santa Claus type with a large and endearing presence. We didn’t see it when we were in the studio — I guess we were too busy “acting” and trying not to stare at the talent, as instructed — but at one point, in the middle of a bit he was delivering directly to the camera, Mr. Slaughter turned his attention to the frizzy-haired woman.
“Call now,” Mr. Slaughter exhorted, into the camera. “Volunteers are standing by!” He gestured broadly to the phone bank behind him. My husband and I saw ourselves in the back row, acting like we were on the phone.
“We’re not kidding around here,” Mr. Slaughter chuckled, continuing his appeal. “We really need you tonight, because this poor lady” — here he motioned to the wide-eyed woman, who was nodding and talking animatedly into her headset — “is talking to herself.” His belly shook as he laughed, relishing the moment he had created.
The woman was so absorbed in her role-play, she didn’t notice that he was talking about her. My husband and I watched, cracking up, as she continued unperturbed. It was one of the few spontaneous moments we’ve seen in a TV pledge drive, and we had totally missed it while it was happening live.
The antics we’ve seen in Studio B have kept us highly entertained, and, of course, we’re happy to help out the station that brings Elmo to the children. In fact, it was Sesame Street that resulted in our first TV recognition, by our three-year-old nephew, Jacob. He was home, sick from preschool one day, watching TV in the den, while his dad, also sick, dozed in the other room. All of a sudden, Jacob started shouting at the TV, urgently calling his dad into the room. “That’s my Tio! He’s on TV! I know him!” Our nephew had no idea we were going to be on, but while we were taping, my husband and I had said to each other that we hoped Jacob would catch us onscreen with the friendly red puppet. Later, we were surprised when the phone rang one night, and Jacob’s little voice said, “I saw you on TV!” A couple of weeks later, when he visited our house with the rest of his family, he was still talking about it.
So far, only Jacob and a coworker of mine — who spotted us during a Chris Botti (he’s a trumpet player) show — have seen us. But we don’t do it for the recognition: it’s all about the free dinner, snacks, and soda. KPBS sincerely appreciates the donated labor, and I’m happy to be on TV every once in a while. Maybe, someday, I’ll volunteer my way up to commentator. ■