Rawlins Gilliland’s pledge to KERA listeners? Less boring, more fabulous

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor


SWITCHBOARDS NOW OPEN | Gilliland commandeers the mic for two days of the KERA pledge drive, and he’s determined to entertain while begging for dollars. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

Although  Rawlins Gilliland would never describe himself as a mad prophet of the airwaves, he does have at least one thing in common with Howard Beale from Network: He’s mad as hell, and he’s not gonna take it anymore.

As a long-time contributor — and, of course, devoted listener — to KERA 90.1 FM, the local NPR affiliate, Gilliland is all-too-familiar with the infamous pledge drives that have become long, intrusive and tedious.

He understands why people tend to tune out during the 240 days of fundraising each year. (Actual figure may be less; it just feels that way.)

“Most people would rather have their teeth cleaned by a bipolar dentist who reeked of boxed chardonnay” than endure another pledge drive, he says. So, as the fall campaign loomed — it’s scheduled to last up to 14 days, starting Oct. 14 — Gilliland decided to take action. While he did not want to insult his colleagues for their efforts, he nevertheless told KERA’s management they needed to make the pledge drive better. Lots better. And he wasn’t shy about saying he was the man who could do it.

He has facts on his side. Gilliland’s droll commentaries, often with a sassy gay twist, have engaged listeners for years. He has volunteered to host countless hours on the pledge drive, and his segments always are among the most lively and effective at getting calls in. “Begone the endless droning!” he seems to say. “Let’s bring in some fun!”

“They were very enthusiastic,” he says of KERA’s reaction to the proposal — so much so, they asked if he would consider two dates.

“Everything I’ve ever done well in my life is because someone told me they liked the idea and gave me to freedom to do what I needed to,” Gilliland says. “A fresh idea has a very short shelf-life. It’s only a really good idea when it’s still new.”

Toward that end, Gilliland may be the first person since Jerry Lewis to turn a telethon (or radiothon) into an entertainment event. On Tuesday, Oct. 18 and again on Monday, Oct. 24, he’s programming virtually the entire day of fundraising from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., bringing in special guest co-hosts from across the community to share in the duties.

He insisted that all his co-hosts meet three criteria: They had to be glib, multifaceted and devoted listeners of KERA. “All of these people are people I really know,” he says.

Among the local celebs set to share the air during Gilliland’s two day begathon: Former city councilwoman and current Arts District maven Veletta Lill (Oct. 18, 3–4 p.m.), gay publicist John Shore (Oct. 18. 4–5 p.m.), transgender restaurateur Monica Greene (Oct. 24, 9–10 a.m.) and Dallas Market Center V.P. and DIFFA volunteer Alden Clanahan (Oct. 24, 11 a.m.–noon). One of his guests will be Mary McDermott Cook, whose father founded Texas Instruments. Gilliland met her after he made a radical promise during the spring membership drive: Make a pledge and I will take you out for cocktails and dinner.

“One person called in because he said, ‘You had some skin in the game.’ I said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do.’ People respond to that.”

It’s that kind of response Gilliland hopes his experiment will yield. “I call it a sort of intervention to minimize the apocalypse of the pledge drive,” he says.
To pledge — please — and end the drive early, call 888-694-6931 or visit KERA.org.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 14, 2011.