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We Belong Together: Let's Go! With Our Virtual Fundraiser, WBGO Looks Back and Ahead

Rhonda Hamilton
Ray Conley
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WBGO
Rhonda Hamilton, host of the Sunday Spotlight and longtime fixture on the air at WBGO, back in the building.

One afternoon just three weeks ago, Sheila Anderson lingered in the foyer at 54 Park Place in Newark, N.J. “See, I missed this,” she said with a sigh, referring not just to the physical space but also the in-person banter with her WBGO family, on and off the air.

Her fellow announcer Lezlie Harrison, sitting in a chair near the front desk, murmured an agreement; this was her first time in the building in well over a year. Down the hall in the WBGO studio, Keanna Faircloth was also making her first return — filming her part in a virtual fundraiser, which is what had brought everybody back to the station.

We Belong Together: Let's Go! — combining exclusive, all-star musical performances and footage filmed on site that afternoon — takes place online this Thursday at 8 p.m. ET. (For tickets or information, visit wbgo.org/together, and watch the trailer below.)

We Belong Together: Let's Go! WBGO's 2021 Virtual Fundraiser

So how did this hybrid presentation come about? I recently spoke by videoconference with John Newcott, WBGO's Director of Individual Giving, and Ray Conley, the filmmaker enlisted to create the virtual fundraiser. (Hear a portion of our conversation on the WBGO Journal, via the "Listen" button at the top of this post.)

Together with producer Danny Melnick, Conley and Newcott set out to make a compelling presentation that drew from WBGO in-studio and concert captures while updating the story of Newark Public Radio in a vibrant present tense.

pedrito_crop_by_jc.png
Jonathan Chimene
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WBGO
Cuban percussionist and bandleader Pedrito Martinez in the WBGO performance studio.

“This all started when we were planning for our current fiscal-year budget back in the summer of 2020,” Newcott says. “The pandemic had just hit, and by May it was, like, screaming down the highway. And our then-interim president and CEO, Bob Ottenhoff, had suggested that he was seeing a lot of people shifting to these virtual platforms, and could we consider doing something like that?” Newcott conceived a complex program involving archival performances — by the likes of Jon Batiste, Pedrito Martínez and Melissa Aldana — and testimonials from an array of WBGO personalities.

Conley, whose first directive was to designate a scouting day, set out to make the spoken interludes as compelling in their way as the musical performances. “It’s a concert, but it’s also telling the story of what ‘BGO is doing,” he explains. “It’s easy to do a show that’s just wall-to-wall music and know that you’re going to keep people engaged. Because we wanted to get some other content in there... it was important that we didn’t have people just on their phones at home recording stuff. It was critical that we get people back into the space.”

Bobby Sanabria
Ray Conley
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WBGO
Bobby Sanabria, host of Latin Jazz Cruise, back in the building at WBGO.

Because everyone involved in the production was fully vaccinated, it was possible to fit the shooting into one day, with the bonus of announcers and staff running into each other in the hallway, often for the first time in 15 months or so. “We kind of got lucky in a way,” Conley says, “because if this had been, you know, four months ago, we wouldn't have been able to do it no matter what kind of protocols you had.”

WBGO president and CEO Steve Williams says the virtual fundraiser “reflects an organizational sea change, in progress but not yet complete, of a proportion not experienced by this organization since its inception, and mostly related to conditions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Williams, who took the helm at the start of 2021, elaborates: “New CEO, new (or renewed) considerations for internal and external collaboration, new application of the various technologies that support our efforts. This time we live in is sui generis, but we are by no means unique in our recognition of what is happening all around. All media organizations — big and small — are in the middle of the stream regarding strategic and situational objectives, and some of what was familiar in ‘The Before Times’ will scarcely be recognizable after we cross this period in our history.”

Alexandra Hill
Ray Conley
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WBGO reporter and afternoon news anchor Alexandra Hill, in a still from the virtual fundraiser.

“The timing of this whole project, there was just something almost magical about it,” marvels Newcott. “It got delayed a couple of times, and we hit some real big stumbling blocks. But then we doubled back and fixed it and turned it to our advantage. And so I just feel — and I know that Steve Williams, our president, has said this to me on a number of occasions — that there is a value to the experience of having put together this program that you can’t put any dollar signs on. That what it helped to do in terms of building camaraderie amongst the staff is just priceless.”

“I’d been back in the building a couple of times,” Newcott adds, “but seeing everybody else kind of go in and out, in this revolving-door sort of fashion, was very moving. I mean, it was really an incredible day.”

Doug Doyle
Ray Conley
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WBGO
Doug Doyle, WBGO News Director and host of SportsJam, back in the building at WBGO.

The fruits of that day — and of 42 years of programming at WBGO — will shine bright this Thursday, June 17 at 8 p.m. ET, when We Belong Together: Let's Go! goes online. For tickets and more information, visit wbgo.org/together.

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Nate Chinen