Wazz & Carletta

For more than 20 years, iHeartMedia country WGAR Cleveland (99.5) ran their radiothons for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital the same way most stations did, with all the local air talent taking shifts throughout those days. Two years ago, WGAR changed it up. PD Carletta Blake and APD/MD Steve Wazz — a team that had been in mornings together barely six months — stayed on the air the whole time, 13 hours a day for two days. The modification worked so well, they decided to keep the approach. “It kind of began out of necessity,” Blake tells Inside Radio sister publication Country Insider.

Like many things in 2020, the plan was developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Working each day with just two hosts kept the number of people inside the station’s studio — and talking into the same microphones — as low as possible, minimizing the health risk to staff. As the two hosts found their groove with the extended hours, they discovered something else: They liked it.

“It seemed to work so well that we just decided to do it again,” Blake says.

“Plus, we hate sleep,” Wazz adds.

Wazz and Blake will take this approach to the radiothon for a third year on Thursday, Dec. 8, and Friday, Dec. 9.

“Everything that first year was so different,” says Blake, who joined WGAR in 2019 and moved into mornings with Wazz in May 2020. For one thing, she had never done a radiothon where the station’s St. Jude representative wasn’t with her in the studio. “We had her pulled up [on] Zoom all day, which ended up being pretty good,” she says. On the downside, having a centralized phone bank for donation calls that year meant she and Wazz had a harder time recognizing when something they said sparked a response from listeners.

Also, more than doubling the length of an airshift was physically demanding. The wear and tear of 26 hours on-air over two days was real.

“It sucks because your voice is tired and it’s emotional and you’re drained,” Blake says.

Wazz says he and Blake are usually dragging on the Monday morning following a radiothon. However, he adds, “it feels like you’re in there for all those families that are taking care of their sick kids at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.”

Blake agrees. “If they can go through what they’re doing, it’s more than worth it, especially if it works, which it seems to.”

WGAR afternoon host Lee Ann Sommers takes a support role during the radiothon, handling the station’s social-media content and expanding the station’s efforts to reach people on behalf of St. Jude beyond what goes out over the airwaves.

“She does a lot of build-up, pre-radiothon, and a lot of pay-off post-radiothon,” Blake says. “She’ll also answer phones and do live stuff online, talking about everything.”

“The Bobby Bones Show” runs in evenings on WGAR, essentially extending the radiothon by another four hours each day. Bones and his crew also provide WGAR station-specific content related to the radiothon.

“Bobby and that entire staff give us so much flexibility,” Blake says. “We send them liners every year and have them cut things well in advance about continuing to donate on Thursday nights through the texting platform or online or thanking everybody for Friday night.”

In addition to having a representative from St. Jude who comes on WGAR to talk with Wazz and Blake about the hospital and its work, the two hosts use the online toolkit St. Jude provides to help them plan their radiothon schedule and content.

“It has a ton of topic ideas and hourly ideas — quick hits, liners, breakdowns of how much things cost,” Blake says. “They also provide you with story-songs, where they take a song we might normally play and have audio from a patient or family telling their story laid on top of it. They also have digital support with videos and social elements from not only patients and their stories, but also all of our country music family.”

Using Wazz and Blake as sole hosts for the radiothon seems to have worked well for WGAR. After a soft fund-raising year in 2020, when the pandemic threw everything into disarray, WGAR rebounded in 2021 by raising more than $241,000 — a record for the station.

Blake says planning radiothon days for one set of hosts instead of several can simplify the process. “I’ve built out radiothon days with a lot of different staff,” she says, “and sometimes it's easier to build out when you're looking at the two full days as an entity and not trying to put in different things at different times.” She doesn’t necessarily advocate for every station adopting WGAR’s marathon-hosting approach, though.

“It depends on who’s there,” Blake says. “If you’re questioning whether a talent is going to be the best person to give the message, maybe you find other ways for them to be involved. I would definitely suggest sending that person to Country Cares,” the annual gathering in Memphis, TN, where people from radio stations get to tour the St. Jude facilities and hear directly from patients, families and doctors. “That way they can see what it’s like first-hand.”

Most importantly, Blake says: “Just go with your heart. Don’t worry that you’re ‘doing it wrong.’ There’s no wrong way to help save the lives of kids.”