Premium Room. Doesn’t it sound like that off-limits lounge behind opaque sliding doors at the airport? Each year, when this week comes around to remind us that free public radio is expensive, I stir milk into my coffee and listen and wonder about the Premium Room, the inner sanctum of community commitment, skill and talent, the room from which emerge whoops of achievement, the duck calls and cow bells for each thousand-dollar summit gained. Do those tele-volunteers sit atop mountains of T-shirts and tote bags?
Listeners cheerfully endure the incessant programming interruptions in a way that just feels so Missoula. Yes, you want your Pea Green Boat and your Prairie Home Companion, but you can’t begrudge KUFM its dear efforts. You find yourself feeling personally accountable to Michael Marsolek’s kindly pressure, and you pledge. Plus, your kid wants a T-shirt.
This year, pledging seemed inadequate, especially as the radio had been on in our house for 14 hours of every day since March 17. Besides, would there even be a pledge drive? Rumors abounded: a truncated three-day drive, total cancellation, eight hours each day instead of 18. The staff debated this sensitive dilemma: was it wrong to speak of cash when breaking away from suicide bombers and missing POWs? Or would listeners understand that this coverage was possible thanks, largely, to this week, which brings in 60 percent of KUFM’s budget?
I have a friend, I’ll call her Chris, who builds her time around the public service she believes makes a city a home and a good place to live. “I can’t afford to give them cash,” she told me one year as she headed off for her shift manning the phone banks. “But I can still give a piece of myself that’s valuable.” She was raised in the sort of home that teaches its children to better the world, without compensation or recognition. She is an authentic Samaritan, caring and un-self-conscious. C
hris moved away last fall, leaving the Blue Mountain All-Women’s Run, the Peace Center, Missoula Urban Development and me to muddle on without her. To honor her absence and uphold her ethic of civic responsibility, I called up KUFM and asked to be assigned.
For obvious reasons, this was not going to be an ordinary fundraiser. War coverage has appropriated nearly all the programming time over the last two weeks. Each day program director Michael Marsolek waits to see if “Morning Classics” will air; or will he face an uprising if “Car Talk” is preempted by news announcer Carl Kasell.
“Why don’t you come in for the Grand Reading of the Premiums?” said marketing director Linda Talbott, as she assigned me to the very first shift. I felt oddly, foolishly favored, the way you might feel if you won a high school math challenge that earned you a trip to the White House. I would be there, in the very room with the Voices. I would be in the Premium Room.
The room, as it turns out, has the underwhelming name of Phone Room and looks like a cleared-out supply closet decorated for an office birthday party. Giddy chat hums back and forth as Talbott goes over the phone protocol for the last time. These are big, clunky front-desk sorts of phones, in that color Sears calls Almond. The era of brushed steel and techno-tinyness has not yet arrived at the University’s radio station (or indeed in many of the campus offices). The premiums, numbering into the thousands, are hand-printed onto 5x7 duplicates and stuffed into cardboard boxes divided by price range. Someone asks for a printout of the premiums and hears, incredulously, that no such thing exists: none of the information is on a computer. Busy workers will dart from box to box hunting down premiums, calling out in success, and whipping them from hand to hand down to the volunteer who’s on the phone.
An undeniable thrill spikes the air, the excitement specific to any band of people collected for a cause they love. This is a pack of die-hard groupies, volunteers for a decade. Marsolek and Talbott signal the time has arrived, perch before the mikes, don their earphones. An anticipatory hush descends over the team. The Clearing of the Throats. The Choosing of the Pencils. The Eating of the Pizza.
We are squashed in cozily behind the tables, and when the phones aren’t ringing (and on this first night, in truth, that’s most of the time), easygoing gossip springs up. People trade stories of their grown children, anxious talk of the few who are enlisted. We talk about our marriages and the governor’s budget cuts. Some of us are strangers and newcomers but we speak beyond polite conversation and even propriety, as if the radio station has enabled profound talk. We talk a great deal of the war, but it is not quite possible to hear the hour of NPR that buzzes from a speaker. We marvel anew at the costs of Car Talk ($325 a week) and Dr. Science ($1 per episode). The staff fetches slices of pizza for us and soda, and a little later someone passes out brownies.
The calls begin to come. One man insists we change to Daylight Savings Time before he’ll pledge (we didn’t, he didn’t). Another rejects the list of premiums and sighs, “I guess I’ll just give you guys the money.” Someone confesses he’s never pledged before but “guilt got the better of me.” By the time we topple over the $5,000 mark, the usually composed Talbott rocks on the balls of her feet, conducting our symphony of noisemakers. By the final 12 hours of the drive, coming up this Sunday night, the announcers will hardly be audible as phones sing brightly in the background. In spite of the deliberate, thoughtful discussion of how this year will be different—more sober, restrained, and respectful of the world beyond our mountains—we can’t help ourselves: we cheer and celebrate. We feel pleased for the station and proud of our listeners (this sense of ownership emerges very quickly).
The shift ends, we put on our jackets and nod goodbye. I want to go home and turn on the radio to hear the names of friends who’ve pledged, to hear the Voices, now with faces assigned. This collection of people does what towns should do, it encourages support, invests in others. Pledge Week feels like home and it signifies an ideal that may be attainable: daily life bettered by friendship and passionate conviction.