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FIRST PERSON

There Are Just Some Things She Won't Do

June 05, 1995|ELLEN ALPERSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Good salespeople, they say, encourage prospective customers to see them primarily as problem-solvers. As allies.

This is why I would starve if my livelihood depended on hornswoggling people into believing I actually liked them.

I am not particularly sociable, although I usually can be trusted to practice the basic social graces. And I am not above feigning interest in, say, someone's child's chicken pox if I think I might get paid for writing about it later.

To me, it's unfathomable that some people make a living through telephone sales, cultivating relationships without corporeal presence. So it was with some trepidation, a few years ago, that I agreed to indulge in that telephonic ritual known as the KCRW pledge drive, a semiannual begfest to benefit the local National Public Radio affiliate (coming again to a radio near you later this summer).

Even if the KCRW gig involved taking money over the telephone, I rationalized, it was for a noble cause. Besides, subscribers called of their own volition, and I would be less of a sales agent than a recorder of promises.

I wonder whether the upcoming pledge drive will sway with the political winds. February's clamor for cash was particularly virulent because Newtie wants to "zero-out" support for public broadcasting. Volunteers, whose job had been simply to sit back and field phone calls from people wanting to know if the $75 massage therapy premium included hot oil, now had additional responsibilities. We were instructed not only to inform subscribers that donations were not refundable, but also to pry an additional $10 from each caller in case NPR gets lopped from the federal budget.

Suddenly, I had to mutate from a frequently grouchy semi-recluse into . . . a saleswoman.

My prospective customers included:

An initially uptight Beverly Hills urologist who pledged $100. I confirmed his address and credit card information, then asked if he'd care to issue an on-air challenge to a choice group of listeners--say, other Cedars-Sinai physicians?

No, he wouldn't.

To other urologists? No.

"OK," I said, "how about left-handed, blue-eyed Westsiders?"

He almost chuckled, then said, "Maybe people who have had a vasectomy? No, Newt Gingrich wouldn't like that."

I had a lovely chat with an actress from the TV series "NYPD Blue," a charming subscriber who was planning to give good phone herself in a few days, but had missed the orientation session and was concerned about filling out the pledge form properly. I didn't tell her about the 10 bucks.

A businesswoman from Orange County called to say that her husband had pledged $100 the day before, and she wanted to one-up him by pledging $125.

"Any other members of your household you'd care to challenge?" I asked, thinking this was either an exceedingly fun-loving group or the poster folks for dysfunctional families.

Stephen called to become an "angel," KCRW's term for subscribers who pledge a dollar a day for one year. Stephen was feeling angelic because he and his mate, David, were the proud new parents of a baby girl, who, he said, was well on the way to sleeping through the night. Then why, I wondered, are you calling a radio station at six o'clock in the morning?

I cheerfully took money from a television producer, an illustrator of children's books and a bunch of people whose occupations were not disclosed.

I dutifully read the disclaimer to each subscriber, and explained the limitations on gift premiums. But not once, in seven hours of volunteer service, did I try to squeeze out that extra 10-spot from people who, calling from car phones on the Ventura Freeway, were putting their lives at risk trying to read me their MasterCard expiration dates.

My fellow volunteers were better salespeople. The defense lawyer fielding calls to my right was clad in the uncourtly uniform of ripped jeans and sockless sandals, and looked as though he himself could use the 10 bucks he so fetchingly sought. The (temporarily) unemployed actress to my left methodically cut out grocery store coupons in between calls during which she, too, shamelessly beseeched respondents for a little pledge-helper.

So please, KCRW, take my time, take my money, but don't take me to task for being a less-than-perfect pledge pal.

Of course, I'll still try to get paid for writing about it later.

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