In years past, the stars came out in person. They sat before microphones at a long, arched table that could accommodate eight people at a time. Sports stars, media stars, movie stars, music stars. They filled those seats or spoke to us via phone over giant speakers, always in front of a large, shifting crowd.
We began at 6 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m. Fifteen hours. We never took a break. Bands set up, performed, then made room for other bands. Co-hosts wandered the floors and stores, interviewing people live.
We had a massive call center on-site, staffed by dozens of volunteers who took shifts all day long. There also was a sizable tech crew, screens, boards, recording equipment.
We ran auctions all day long: trips to L.A. to meet Dr. Phil, trips to New York to have brunch with Jane Pauley, autographed movie scripts, the chance to catch football passes from Matthew Stafford, personalized phone greetings from famous actors, even a guitar signed by the rock band Kiss.
Throughout the day, throngs of people gathered to watch the show, take photos, and make donations. And when we announced our final tally, at one minute before 9 p.m., there was a loud drum roll, and an explosion of applause.
The results always stunned me, such kindness, such generosity. The last few years the tally of each show has exceeded $1 million.
And 100% of that money went to needy Detroiters.
We’d done this eight years straight.
And then came this year. And the world went upside down.
SAY Detroit is a charity. And like every other charity in America, we have battled the dark shadows of COVID-19. Basic challenges, such as getting our staff to work. Complicated challenges, such as opening the first walk-up COVID testing center in Detroit, or bringing police and at-risk youth together for meals in our new Better Together program.
Now the current challenge: how to stage our biggest event of the year, the annual radiothon/telethon, which is always held at the Somerset Collection in Troy.
It was a head-scratcher.
The show must go on
We went back and forth with security, health and organizational advisors. We surely didn’t want to cancel. To do so would hurt not only the nine separate charity programs that SAY Detroit operates — from a medical clinic to a rec center to housing, veterans and seniors programs — but would also deny many other Detroit-area charities the monies we share with them from the radiothon funds.
In the end, we chose to divide and conquer.
And so, this Thursday, Dec.10, at 6 a.m., my radio partner Ken Brown and I will be sitting alone at a socially distanced table atop a specially constructed platform over a fountain in Somerset North’s Grand Court. No crowds. No handshakes. Just the two of us, a huge screen, and a lot of open space.
Meanwhile, our call center volunteers will be at StartupNation in Birmingham, socially distanced and masked, of course, to keep them safe.
Our charity guests will be appearing, one at a time, at our safe and socially distanced SAY Detroit Play Center at Lipke Park.
And our tech and engineering team will be scattered, including at WJR in the Fisher Building in Detroit, socially distanced and masked as well.
Meanwhile, the celebrity guests, every one of them, will come to us via a Zoom-like link, where we can see them on a giant screen. Amazingly, despite the burdens of 2020, every guest we asked said they’d be happy to be part of the effort.
Which means folks such as Hugh Jackman, Dr. Phil, Kate Hudson, Hoda Kotb, Tim Allen, Matthew Stafford, Desmond Howard, Juwan Howard, Paul Stanley (from Kiss), Jane Pauley, J.K. Simmons, Lily Tomlin, Lomas Brown, Dave Barry, Mike Tirico and many more will all be viewable and listenable during the 15-hour marathon.
Hey. The show must go on.
Let’s band together (again)
Which, by the way, is true for every charity out there. Sometimes we forget charities also operate like businesses, they have staff, offices, operational expenses, bills to pay. A pandemic shuts them down the same way it shuts down a restaurant or a bowling alley.
The ramifications can be even more dire. Special needs children can’t get the therapies they require. Hungry shut-ins can’t get the food they need. Vital distribution programs that rely on large groups of volunteers have to halt because they can’t gather that many people together.
So many charities I know have shared their concerns about staying afloat this year due to COVID-19. They rely on donations to stay in business, and it’s easy to understand why people might tighten up their giving, worried about their own economic hardships.
Incredibly, Michiganders seem to defy that. They continue to give when things are the hardest — sometimes even more when things are the hardest.
We’re hoping you’ll do the same this Thursday and donate at mitchalbomradiothon.com. (You can even do it now.) It might not be the same in-person show, but in some ways it’ll be even bigger and more intimate, with so many star guests now lending their faces to the cause.
And while there won’t be crowds around us when, after 15 hours, we make that final tally announcement, the impact will be just as great. Maybe, considering all we’ve battled in this long, strange year, even more so.
The show must go on. But more importantly, the work of helping others must go on. In truth, it can never stop. If we’ve learned anything from 2020, it’s that.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.