For more than half a century, KDKA-TV has been raising money for Pittsburgh’s Children’s Hospital–one example of the public service that is still a big part of local broadcasting everywhere.
There’s no snow here in Los Angeles, and twinkly lights on palm trees just don’t cut it. So why am I so filled with the Christmas spirit? Because back home in Pittsburgh, KDKA-TV is getting ready for the 53rd annual Children’s Hospital Telethon. Tomorrow (Dec. 19), the CBS O&O will clear out a night of network shows and focus instead on hundreds of homespun stories of local businesses, church groups and school kids who have been collecting money all year long for the Children’s Hospital’s Free Care Fund.
As always, the show will run commercial-free as it has since it began in 1953 as a special edition of the Wilkins Jewelry Amateur Hour. As far as I know, it’s the longest-running fundraiser in local television—even older if you consider its forerunners, KDKA-AM’s Depression-era Free Milk Fund and the Pittsburgh Press Old Newsboys Fund.
I know all this because for several years I served as a location or segment producer and on three occasions I wrote and produced the show itself. For a while, I held the record, long since surpassed by my friend and colleague Lynne Hayes-Freeland, who is now a reporter and talk show host at KDKA. While the show has evolved over the years, Lynne confirms that its focus remains the same. “The most touching moments are still the live interviews with the kids in the hospital. You never know what they’re going to say.”
I remembered that those moments could be funny and poignant at the same time and Lynn agreed: “So often the kids who have gone through the most are the ones with the most positive outlook.”
Although the Children’s Hospital broadcast was never a true “telethon,” that is, a marathon TV show, it was always an ambitious, multi-location live production that stretched station resources and personnel to the limits. It took months of hard work to prepare. Vacations were forbidden. But nobody complained. Like Lynn and me, many at KDKA grew up watching the show, so nobody wanted to miss out.
Some favorite memories from “telethon’s” past:
- Staying up until 3 a.m. with Creative Services Director Brad Crum writing lyrics for a Children’s Hospital theme song.
- Reuniting Pittsburgh’s own Mister Rogers with his original collaborator Josie Carey and their familiar puppet friends.
- Hiring a pre-SNL Dennis Miller as my associate producer, only to hear him address a stuffy donor on the phone as so: “Hey Ed, this is Denny Miller at KDKA. Hey, listen babe, I’m calling about Children’s Hospital.” Suffice it to say, Dennis’s considerable talents were more apparent onstage.
- The electronic miracle of cigar-chomping Ray Richards assembling a running closing credits montage on two-inch Ampex machines, each roughly the size of a Buick.
- Being ordered by a nervous general manager to crawl Mary Tyler Moore-style below camera frame to sniff the breath of an overly cheery news anchor to determine whether the individual had been drinking. (The verdict: innocent.)
- Bringing back veteran kids show host Hank Stohl and his puppets Rodney and Knish. Apparently the mop-top Knish was a childhood friend of news anchor Patti Burns. When he greeted her with a hug in the art department, the tough-as-nails Patti began to cry.
- The basso profundo voice of staff announcer George Eisenhaur proclaiming each successive total, which grew bigger every year, regardless the state of the Pittsburgh economy.
Last time I checked, KDKA was pulling in well over a million dollars a year for the Free Care Fund. Over the years, the greatest gains came from large local retail chains, which collect donations from thousands of customers. Their executives present large checks on the telethon, followed perhaps by a Cub Scout troop offering the proceeds from their car wash. Why would anyone watch such a show? One answer came in a viewer call, which Lynn Hayes-Freeland just happened to answer. “A lady wanted to know when she could watch this year’s Children’s Hospital show. She said that’s when she always wraps her Christmas presents.” And, no doubt, phones in a donation.
KDKA is hardly alone in supporting local charities at holiday time. In the early 1980s, Group W sent me to Boston and Philadelphia to launch similar fundraisers which continue to this day on WBZ and KYW. And in Pittsburgh, KDKA rival WTAE just ran its 20th annual Project Bundle-Up to provide warm clothing through the Salvation Army.
What has any of this to do with Market Share? Just about everything. Local broadcasters are unmatched in their ability to marshal the resources of viewers and advertisers for the good of the community. It is our birthright and our duty to keep it so. No network or “viral” campaign can approach this level of pride, compassion and generosity.
Yes, Virginia, public service is alive and well in the broadcast industry. It’s up to all of us to keep it that way.
May your holidays be full of friends and family and the spirit of generosity that suffuses the season. And may 2007 bring us peace, prosperity and a measure of wisdom.
Market Share by Arthur Greenwald is a series on successful station promotions which appears every Monday. We’re on the lookout for other good ideas for increasing local audience and revenue. If you have one (or more) to share, please contact Arthur Greenwald at [email protected].