On Having Scheduling Flexibility…

Posted on April 29, 2009 in Blog, Entrepreneur, Social networking | 0 comments

By Dwight Irving

Working for yourself often means having an a&$#*ole as a boss, but one benefit of this arrangement is that I have acquired “Scheduling Flexibility”.  I’m thinking of trademarking that phrase as it seems to be a popular euphemism amongst those recently unemployed with whom I’ve been networking.  However, having such flexibility is worthless if you use it just to take afternoon naps.  I’ve been using it to volunteer at various events and organizations.   I recently mentioned my work with LaidOffCampNY (May 1 & 2 in NYC, pre-registration is recommended), but I’ve also taken the time to volunteer with a local public radio station pledge drive, and a river clean-up, among others.

This period of Karma rebuilding feels good, and detracts little from my work in getting Crossroads Angel to launch (the open beta launch date currently looks to be late May). In the greater schedule of my life, I don’t spend much time on these activities, but I try to be in the right place when it helps most.

Being that my current project involves social networking in the performing arts, I thought I’d write a little about being a volunteer at the WNTI fund raising drive. WNTI is a local college radio station out of Hackettstown, NJ. They provide NPR news at the top of the hour, Car Talk on Saturday mornings, and free-form music the rest of the time. I listen to hear new artists that I haven’t discovered yet, and I like the mix of music genres that don’t fit into the normal commercial radio formats. They regularly surprise me, and I like that.

When WNTI announced their call for volunteers, I emailed Mel Thiel and we setup two morning shifts where I’d man the phones. I showed up on Monday morning a little before 7AM, almost an hour into Johnny D’s shift and just in time to hear Carl Kasell.  Mel and Johnny quickly settled me into the job.

Before I got involved, I thought that being a pledge drive volunteer would keep me hopping from one call to the next. That may be the case for Jerry Lewis’s Labor Day gig, but the calls came in slowly during my shift. The lack of activity emphasizes how important each pledge is, and the precarious balance some of these local treasures exist in.

The first call came in 30 minutes after I settled in. This caller is excited, as are all of the callers in my experience. Many of the callers want me to pass on messages to the DJs and station management about how much they enjoy listening. Being an active part of something that many enjoy passively is definitely good for the psyche.

Elizabeth, a long time volunteer, shows up with bagels to complement my date bars. That’s another thing that volunteer activities have in common, food is usually plentiful. Elizabeth is not microphone shy, as I am, and gets engaged in the promotion chatter. I stare at the phone and will it to ring.

The off-radio conversation drifts to the question of whether or not there are certain songs that drive calls. The consensus opinion is that it’s the anthems from our later teen years that drives that feeling of being on the team, and results in the most calls. Given that a free-form station has a varied audience age distribution, that makes it tough to figure out which songs to play. Being an analytical guy, I want to dive in with a multi-station analysis to define the ultimate pledge-drive playlist. That question may turn into a Crossroads Angel market research project this fall pledge-drive season.

Without the hard number data, Johnny tries the consensus selection of a Jimmy Hendrix standard. No luck this time, but it’s hard to say if it influenced any commuters to call in once they’ve reached their office.

Mel takes over with a shift at 9AM, and Elizabeth has to leave a bit after. Mel shows me a little of how the DJ operates the panel and gets the next songs and canned announcements going. It’s a very clock-driven job, and occasionally results in frenzied activity that I’m wary of interrupting with questions. I stay on the phones until the next shift change at noon. It was an uneventful day for me and the pledges were lighter than hoped for.

At 7AM the next morning I show up without food. I feel like I let the station down, but I have the excuse of a late night at another regular volunteer gig and didn’t pick up any prepackaged goods on my early morning, backroads, deer-dodging, rush into the station. Johnny D is dialing tech support with a problem in the audio server. It’s jumped ahead an hour when the GPS sync went haywire, and didn’t return to sanity when the GPS receiver returned to normalcy. This is the second time it’s happened recently, and the top-of-the hour NPR news has already overlapped a few seconds with the prior station promo. In such a clock-driven environment, this is a major failure.

Johnny alternates between his calm radio voice and his highly charged interactions with the support tech. It’s an amazing behind the scenes look at what it means to be a professional in this job. Things settle down in about 15 minutes, but then the hour jumps again causing another flurry of activity.

By 8AM Scott Acton, a volunteer DJ, shows up to help out. He mentions hearing the news overlap on his drive in and wondered what was behind it. Johnny fills him in, and we soon settle into a warm groove. Phone activity is light today, too. I wish I could do something more to drive callers, so we try playing a couple more anthems targeting various age groups, between Johnny’s normal mix of new music and station favorites (Depeche Mode anyone?).

Mel can’t make it in today, so Scott subs during her normal shift. Scott normally does a Beatles focused show, so this gives him the opportunity to show a bit more of his collection. He likes to add in interesting trivia between sets, something that I always enjoy learning from. Still, the calls are slow. The donuts someone provided this morning are decimated, and I’m getting on air a bit more.  I start thinking about playlists I’d use if I were to become a volunteer DJ, and before I realize it my shift is over and another set of volunteers arrives to ride the Karma train.

Many of the callers I heard from are station regulars. Dave the plumber, Paul from Washington, Crazy Sue, and so on. They’re virtual community members and the station folks often know them by voice. Hard to think that such minimal interactions as calling in for the occasional request, to debate the best live version of a Bruce song (Bruce?… Bruce Springsteen? C’mon, I already mentioned in a previous blog that I lived in New Jersey), or to call in a pledge every six months can create such a strong feeling of community.

A radio station and it’s audience are an obvious social network.  The strength of the network is driven by the activities of the station.  The community bonds to the station are linked to station formats and activities.  It’s a very centralized network, as opposed to enterprise networks with many local clusters of activity and inflence, with mostly radial lines connecting to the community from the core.   In the case of WNTI, Mel is likely the highest value connector, and Spider Glenn, the Music Director, is the key influencer.

Within that network, how do listeners turn into pledgers?  Is it spontaneous, or do localized influencers often play a part?  Can that information be used to optimize the network to improve the number of pledgers.

Please, take some time to vounteer with community groups.  You’ll feel good about it and it does make a difference.

You can hear me regularly every Spring and Fall on WNTI, 91.9 FM and streaming at www.wnti.org