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Ok, so we're shilling a bit, but it's a really good cause

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WMNF needs a new building. Seriously. If you're a habitual listener to the Bay area's only commercial-free, volunteer-staffed and largely listener-funded radio station, then you know this. They talk about it all the freakin' time, so you're aware of the situation in an abstract, removed way.

But have you been there?

The station's offices and studios are headquartered in a squat, ramshackle, slowly crumbling old structure on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., just east of I-275. It's got a certain funky, curmudgeonly charm to it, sure. If your Mom lived there, however, you'd be having nightmares about collapsing beams and wiring-fires and saving up for an apartment at Cozy Shores Condominiums For The Temporally Advanced. It doesn't look abandoned, but it looks like it should be. The eye automatically searches for the fading FOR LEASE sign always present on buildings of this age and color.

Inside, the vibe is contrastingly warm and vital. It's also extremely cluttered, in the way of an eccentric collector's residence when he runs out of room, rather than, you know, an all-holy mess. The lack of space contributes most of the sense of harried activity, because only a couple of folks are currently working in the front offices. Or maybe it's the stress radiating forward from the station's busy bowels.

Membership & Volunteer Coordinator Gene Moore led me down a short central hall past the main broadcast booth and music library to a general gathering room at the back of the building. In the past, I've prepped musical instruments and done shots with Music Director Lee Courtney (a.k.a. Flee) here. Today, it's the nerve center of 88.5 FM's summer donation mini-drive; eight or nine people of wildly varying age and appearance sit anxiously around a conference table covered with piles of paper and black, multi-line office phones. When the phones ring, it's with an appropriately urgent (read: really loud, really irritating) tone, and numerous arms piston out at the nearest handset.

"WMNF, may I take your donation?"

The station hits its listeners up for operations money and new-building cash exactly three times a year. For 18 years, from 88.5's inception in 1979, it was only twice a year with a week of pledge driving each spring and fall. But in 1997, Republican State Sen. John Grant yanked more than $100,000 of annual state funding for the station, after hearing it air the Iris Dement tune "Wasteland of the Free" ("We got politicians runnin' races on corporate cash/ Now don't tell me they don't turn around and kiss them peoples' ass"). WMNF was forced to hold an impromptu drive, which evolved into this week's annual three-and-a-half-day summer pledge-fest, with a goal of $150,000.

"Seventeen days is not a lot of fundraising — it's about one third of what most public media do," says Station Manager Vicki Santa. "We don't want to spend any more time raising money on the air than we have to."

All of the phone-answerers here today, like every other day of every WMNF fundraiser, are volunteers. They range from college kids to professionals to housewives. On my left is Mike Cooper, a 22-year-old full-time student at USF with a buzz-cut and sideburns; a tattoo peeks out of his shirtsleeve. Cooper heard the call for volunteers while listening to the station and eventually talked himself into coming down for an orientation.

"I started listening [to WMNF] more and more over the last couple of years, and I can never afford to give 'em any money," he explains with a laugh.

Cooper helps me out with most of the phone-answering basics; the sheaf of instructions and pledge cards on the table in front of me helps, as well. Each show has its own code and monetary goal. We're currently in the second hour of The Reggae Show, which needs to raise $2500 in operating money and one $1000 new-building commitment.

The phones ring. I reach out tentatively, but everybody must be conspiring against me, because I'm actually the first one to pick up. Unfortunately, it's not a willing donor, but rather a guy who wants everybody to know that I-275 is a parking lot south of the Howard Frankland.

Those volunteers not taking a pledge chat amiably. Conversational gambits range from the quality of the food at Stella's (it's great) to the sexiness of local band The Beauvilles (very, apparently).

My second call is from a woman who wants to know if the station accepts donated records on vinyl. I am pledge poison.

A volunteer takes a call from Brian Aulisio, trumpeter for Tampa reggae outfit [email protected] Aulisio admirably pledges all the money the band will make from tonight's gig at the Davis Islands watering hole Yeoman's Road Pub.

At 4 p.m., The Reggae Show ends. A few volunteers, including Mike Cooper, say their goodbyes and are replaced by other eager helpers. Suzanne Stark, an animated dental office manager and veteran WMNF volunteer, takes Cooper's empty seat.

"I've been listening for 14 years. I found it as soon as I moved here," she says.

Stark works the phones in motivated and canny style. She attempts to wring pledges out of any and everyone who happens to dial the station for any reason.

Shortly afterward, Development Director Maggie Council DePietra comes in to announce that The Reggae Show met and surpassed its goal. Cue general festive uproar.

The Sonic Detour begins. The show code changes. I finally get a donor on the line. When he asks what the basic membership donation is, I accidentally quote a figure $30 higher than the truth. He goes for it, however, and even tacks on another fiver when I tell him it will earn him a T-shirt as well. (If you're reading, sir, sorry about that, and thanks.)

Volunteer Ryan Talley mentions that he'd just like to say "hey" in the paper. Conversation shifts to stories about the people who call to say how much they hate the station and make a donation while they're doing it. A new, giant canister of Planter's Peanuts is opened. More volunteers arrive, more, actually, than there are phones to answer. They gladly stuff completed pledge cards into envelopes.

And the phones keep ringing.

Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by e-mail at [email protected].

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