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In the zone: Dr. Alan Chartock on-the-air with Ray Graf (l) and Joe Donahue (r).

Photo: Joe Putrock

Going the Distance

Breaking a personal record by broadcasting for 14 1/2 consecutive hours, Alan Chartock approaches radio fundraising as an endurance sport

By Josh Potter

What we’re facing is an emergency,” Dr. Alan Chartock says into the microphone. “Listen to me: What we’re facing is an emergency and that emergency is deadly serious.” It’s 7 AM at WAMC studios and the makeshift broadcast room is still. A dozen or so volunteers sit at long folding tables, lined with ’80s-era touchtone telephones, sipping coffee from paper cups while Chartock delivers his opening address.

“On top of Mt. Greylock, there is a five-bay antenna. A giant piece of ice fell from the tower onto some of those bays. They were either destroyed or severely incapacitated. . . Every day we lose now is a day that the tower crew may have trouble climbing that mountain and getting up there.” He sits in the corner, at a comically tiny table he shares with Roundtable host Joe Donahue and news anchor Ray Graf. His hands are folded motionless before him and it’s hard to tell if his eyes are open or closed under his trademark baseball cap. Without a script and hardly pausing to take a breath, Chartock speaks from some kind of trance.

“After a week of doing this, we’re all very tired. . . We think we can set a world record. We think we can end the drive today. . . I need 1854 of you to speak up and say, ‘Alan, I hear you; we are not stupid. We understand that this is a light in the darkness controlled by commercial radio stations.’ . . . Here stands this beacon of light and I just ask that you light one candle and end this fund drive.”

For the next 14 and 1/2 hours, Chartock will remain on the air. After nearly 30 years at the helm of WAMC, the Capital Region’s National Public Radio affiliate, and more than 90 fund drives, this is the longest the 69-year-old radio personality has gone in front of the mic.

“I love the drive,” Chartock says a couple days later, after managing to regain his normal sleep cycle. “Each time they drain everything I have out of me. [During the drive] you begin to operate out of pure adrenaline. Adrenaline is a drug, and at the end, when you stop, the adrenaline leaves your body and you couldn’t push a marble across the floor with your nose. That’s how low you get in terms of just tiredness.”

Barring a few masochistic souls, the WAMC fund drive isn’t the kind of programming that the average listener puts on in the background for a long drive or weekend cleaning; most listen long enough to feel compelled to pledge support or turn the dial in frustration. For those on the inside, though, there’s a strange over-tired/caffeinated energy that seems to overcome the room as the drive wages on hour after hour. Part church breakfast, part sleep-over birthday party, camaraderie turns to slap-happy silliness, as volunteers invent songs and slogans to pass the time and Chartock rolls out whatever he can to get his audience engaged and the phones ringing.

“[One tactic] that works, frankly, is shtick,” he says. “Sometimes it’s taking the opera prisoner, or maybe the weatherman, and then the next 20 calls are about ‘save the weatherman.’ . . . How you run a fund drive is, number one, you put the phones in the room [with the mic] so that when the phones aren’t ringing everyone suffers together. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. As a pedagogue, I learned long ago that if you ask a question and nobody answers, you just stand there.”

But when the phones are ringing, Chartock’s demeanor crescendos to a fever pitch. One of his most effective strategies this drive was playing a rabid sound bite of Glenn Beck to incentivize the station’s chartered bus trip to Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity later this month. “This country is dumbed down!” Chartock exclaims after the clip is played and calls begin pouring in. His hand unconsciously rises from the table to punctuate his point. It’s almost as if he’s conjuring donations from the ether, egged-on by the audible feedback loop of ringing phones.

Early Sunday morning, the station finally met its target $800,000 sum, enough to purchase syndicated content for a year, or in this case, repair the Mt. Greylock antenna that was damaged during a March ice storm.

“I have a lot of self-doubt,” he later admits. “People don’t catch it, but two days before the drive, I’m scared to death. Pete Seeger once said that if you’re not nervous before a performance, you’re not going to be that good. I always wonder if this is going to be the drive when people say, ‘I don’t have any money because of the economy,’ yet, they’re always there. My wife always tells me when she gives me the goodbye hug—I don’t see her for a week—‘Alan, remember, they love the radio station.’ I don’t fully remember that enough.”

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