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Fundraising follies: Remembering WYEP's challenging early days of raising money

A man sits in a recording studio in a black-and-white photo from the 1970s.
Courtesy of WT Koltek
WT Koltek at WYEP, circa 1978.

WYEP is celebrating our 50th anniversary, and we’ll be sharing aspects of the station’s history throughout the year. This week, we remember some of the memorable on-air hosts who could be heard on WYEP’s airwaves during its first decade of existence.

Anyone responsible for any public radio station is always looking for the next dollar to pay the bills. The pressure to raise money was, at times, particularly dire in WYEP’s first decade. One of the volunteers who helped get the station launched, Sean Connolly, wrote in WYEP's program guide in 1975, "Money was a constant headache and efforts to raise it were skittish, random and largely ineffective. Two fundraising concerts lost money; a cocktail party designed on the premise that booze breeds checks netted much enthusiasm, oblique promises, tasty canapes and a few people fell asleep."

Bluegrass Jam Session host Bruce Mountjoy began at WYEP in 1979 and recalled, “There were some times we didn't make the electric bill, we didn't make the phone bill, when the power was turned off.” He added, “My brother was volunteering then, so I remember in the summertime one time where he sat in his car in front of the building for an entire day, waiting for somebody to come from the electric company so he could let them in to turn the power on.”

When WYEP began in 1974, all listener-supported media was just feeling its way, trying to stumble across the right combination of methods to raise funds. Sometimes the on-air fundraising was similar to what you might hear on the air today, if perhaps a little more chaotic. Here is a clip from a November 1974 morning show called “Radio Breakfast” hosted by B. Futz and Wade Berliner:

Hear a clip of the Futz and Wade Radio Breakfast from 1974.

Sometimes, though, show hosts would try various unusual tactics, including holding the airwaves hostage until somebody called in and promised to donate.

An archival tape of WYEP from September 1983 featured WT Koltek, a DJ at the station from 1976 to 1985, imploring his audience to give while hosting his show. “The big problem,” he told listeners, “is not enough of you are sending your tax-deductible, financial cash contributions to WYEP to help maintain this place, and that's why things fall apart. Now, if you haven't done what you can for WYEP, now is the time to do it.” After not getting a response, Koltek played hardball. “I'm going home, folks,” he announced. “Bye!”

Sixteen painful seconds of dead air rolled by, and then Koltek turned the microphone back on. “OK, enough of this.... There are thousands and thousands of you out there listening right now, and only a few of you out there listening right now have done your part to maintain this radio station. And this cannot continue in this manner. Because if it continues in this manner, I can assure you right now that this radio station will not continue in this manner. And this is no idle threat!”

In a 2014 interview, Koltek recalled a fundraising attempt using Lou Reed's album "Metal Machine Music."

“If you're familiar with it, it's basically electronic feedback. It's just this wall of noise.” He used the album as a threat during a membership drive. “We decided well, ‘OK, guys, if you're not going to call with your pledges, we're going to play 'Metal Machine Music' until you call, and if we get enough pledges, we'll take it off.’ Listeners started calling and we received enough calls to stop playing the Lou Reed album. Well, we took it off and then we started getting calls from people asking us to put it back on and they would pledge.”

Joe Coluccio, one of the hosts of the comedy show “The Lackzoom Acidophilus Hour” and an early program director at WYEP, had a story of another unusual fundraising technique. “I remember one time [station co-founder] Jeff Smith stood on his head for I don't know how many hours until somebody paid some money. People were calling him, very concerned, because his head was going to explode. Finally, he didn't get quite the money he expected, but he got down.”

A man plays a banjo while wearing a flannel shirt.
Bruce Mountjoy in his early years with WYEP.

Sometimes the station would settle for donations of supplies in lieu of money. In 1974, WYEP published a list of needed items, including gypsum wallboard, carpeting, and dehumidifiers. In 1981, Rosemary Welsch, then a volunteer host, made an appeal to listeners. “If you don't have the money,” she said, “anything that you can give that you could supply the station with— pencil or paper, a typewriter, old furniture, toilet paper is something that we use down here.”

Mountjoy, who had been with the station since its early days, recalled some of the challenges.

“There were easier ways to make money than putting a WYEP label on a pop can, standing downtown shaking the can, and handing program guides out to people, which we did once a year,” said Mountjoy.

He described another nontraditional fundraiser that WYEP used to do in which staff would essentially panhandle on behalf of the station. “We’d do a remote from Market Square. We would take pop cans and make labels on a photocopier — maybe color in the logo with magic markers and tape them over [the can]. And we'd be around town shaking cans.”

Perhaps the extreme financial urgency that sometimes occurred in WYEP’s early history is most exemplified by a fundraising letter from around 1976. The station’s general manager wrote the following: “Help! We might sink without your support, GLUBB, Glubb, glubb. Desperation & poverty breeds paranoia. Need money. Need money real bad! Lost 20 pounds this week. Long time no eat, no food!”

Be sure to join us at our 50th Anniversary concert at the Byham Theater on April 16 featuring Shawn Colvin and KT Tunstall (tickets are on sale now). And listen on April 30 as we share listener’s stories of WYEP memories during that day. If you want to share a story about how WYEP has been meaningful in your life, go to wyep.org/memories.

Mike Sauter started at WYEP in 2004 and held various positions, including Midday Mix host, music director, program director, and station manager.