Chet Buchanan: Up in the Air with HELP of Southern Nevada

IT’S A HOT AUGUST AFTERNOON at the offices of KLUC 98.5 FM, but local radio personality Chet Buchanan is already thinking about parkas, gloves and heaters. Now is the time the Morning Zoo host starts planning for his annual December ascent 30 feet in the air. He’ll spend 12 days living on a wooden-scaffold platform in a lead-up to the Christmas holidays—and he won’t come down at all, not even once.

For 15 years Buchanan has been conducting Toy Drive and raising awareness on and off the air, encouraging listeners to donate toys, bikes and gift cards to HELP of Southern Nevada. Their joint mission is to bring some holiday joy to less fortunate children across Southern Nevada—and Buchanan’s effort is unlike any other in Las Vegas, or the country.

Toy Drive 2012 netted 3,280 bikes, $268,000 in gift cards and 18 trucks full of toys. With assistance from HELP of Southern Nevada, the haul was distributed to families in need of merriment. This year will be HELP’s 10th year partnering with Buchanan and KLUC. To mark the decade-long alliance, diamondcake sat down with the man who consistently and, literally, puts his derriere on the line for a worthy cause.

How did Morning Zoo host Chet Buchanan become the ultimate voice for charity in Las Vegas—maybe the country?

Thank you, and the answer to your question is: I don’t know, but it always seemed like the right thing to do. We have a 100,000-watt radio station with 500,000 listeners. The idea of using it for good, instead of evil [laughs], resonated not only with me, but with everyone at KLUC. So that part of it always made sense. You can’t lose by doing good.

And yes, there’s certainly a benefit from having your name out there, no question about it. But if that’s the only reason you’re doing it, it rings hollow and people see through it. You know how they say dogs and little kids can smell fear? Well, people can smell BS—even through the radio.

I think that’s why Toy Drive works. It’s because we, honest to goodness, just want to gather toys. You start with this—and all the rest follows. I think that’s why people come along. They know it’s genuine, it’s real.

How did it all start?

I have to give a lot of credit to KLUC program director Cat Thomas, who could have easily rolled his eyes and said, “Yeah, great idea, but no thanks.” I had the up-in-the-air idea since I was a little kid in Seattle and wanted to be a DJ. I thought it would be cool to live on top of something like the Space Needle and raise $10,000 for charity—$10,000 would be awesome, I thought then.

The fact that we’re heading into our 15th year with Toy Drive and have raised over $10 million worth of toys, bikes and gift cards is pretty incredible. And collaborating with HELP of Southern Nevada enabled us to take Toy Drive to the next level.

How so?

It’s one thing to bring the toys, bikes and gift cards in. It’s another to get them out. HELP of Southern Nevada is phenomenal, and their operation gets better every year. That’s the behind-the-scenes stuff nobody understands. The amount we raise is impressive, but it’s mind-boggling to see HELP of Southern Nevada distribute it all. It’s like a kid going to Disneyland who looks around and says, “Wow, Disneyland is amazing.” Today when I see how HELP of Southern Nevada handles the volume, I can’t believe they pull it off, sort of like a kid at Disney.

I like how HELP of Southern Nevada organizes distribution—like a shopping mall.

Exactly. And they’re careful to try to preserve people’s dignity with the layout. Look, it’s tough to ask for help. I think perhaps a very small number of people have a skewed idea of who benefits from Toy Drive. But we hear from people every year, and even now in August, who say, “Hey, I want to say thank you. A few years ago, our family needed help. And for the last three years the tables have turned and we’ve been able to donate.”

I always say that it’s not a handout, it’s more like a hand up. Look, people are having a rough enough time. When the kids suffer as a result, it’s like another punch in the gut for the parents—they get punished twice. It’s not right.

I Googled epically to find someone else who lives 30 feet in the air for two weeks for any charitable effort, much less one as big as Toy Drive. I couldn’t find anyone. Are there other drives like yours?

Respectfully and humbly, not that I know of. And we’re pretty proud of that. Again, that goes back to Cat Thomas and to CBS Radio’s willingness and ability to match the community’s commitment. My commitment. I’m down for anything: We’ve had 60-mph wind gusts. We’ve had sideways rain. We’ve had snow and hail. And I’ve never once come down from the scaffold.

The closest I ever came to coming down was in Toy Drive’s second year when we were at Boulevard Mall. My dog, BJ, used to stay up there with me, and he ran away. He was scampering around in the middle of Maryland Parkway, and I thought he was going to die. I had one foot on the bottom step, the other hovering above the parking lot. Finally I yelled at him—and he stopped and came running back. In the last five years, since NV Energy began taking me up in the bucket, I don’t even touch the stairs. I don’t even come close.

Not even when a storm is battering you?

There have been a few times when the weather was really bad. The staff, who used to have a motor home onsite for themselves, would tell me, “Why don’t you sleep inside tonight?” I said, “No way. All it takes is one person to see me.” Once after KLUC’s post-drive meeting someone asked, “What can we do to make it better next year?” I said, “Get rid of the motor home.” To which someone responded, “What about the staff?” And I said, “They’ll be fine. They can go to their homes and enjoy their indoor plumbing, take a shower.”

We don’t want any hint of impropriety. I’m sure there have been people who spotted the motor home and said, “That’s where he sleeps.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

Does sleep come easily high above NV Energy’s parking lot on Sahara Avenue?

You know, I’m so tired after standing up and being “on” all day, it’s not that tough to sleep. It takes a night or two to get used to the air mattress. But after that, hey, bring it on. I just burrow down into the covers and I’m good.

Do you train at all before climbing the metal stairs to your perch?

No. I practice math, maybe. I have a daily routine up there. Of course, we always want to beat the prior year’s record. It’s kind of a Jerry Lewis thing—one more toy, one more bike, one more gift card. The focus is intense and I’m always tracking numbers. Time goes by very quickly—from hey, we’re only two days in, to oh no, we only have 10 days left. We have to get going.

Can you describe a recent Toy Drive highlight for you personally?

The highlight moment was this past year when Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf came up. Andre looked me in the eye and said, “Hey, man, I have to tell you. I know you want to do more every year. Be okay with that not happening. Because one year, I guarantee you, it’s not going to happen. Don’t let it devastate you, just keep going. I know you’re a competitor. I know a little something about that.”

Of course, Agassi knows quite a bit about these things. The whole time I’m thinking, “He’s right.” But when he left, I said: “No way, man.” [Laughs] If it doesn’t happen one year, it will be disappointing. But each time it’s one of those situations where, once it ends, you start getting ready for next year.

Do your listeners offer to bring gifts up there?

A guy came up one night. The Seahawks were playing and he didn’t want me to miss the game, so he showed up with a satellite dish. That was cool, but I never watched the TV. People would come up to visit and say, “He doesn’t have it so bad. He has a TV!” So we got rid of it. If I need to catch up on news, sports or weather, I use my phone.

We have what we need up there to get it done. There’s way more than enough food. I’ve also found out that when it rains, the last thing I need is a bunch of stuff around. We keep it tight, stay focused and get to work because before we know it, it’s over.

For more information on the 15th Annual Chet Buchanan & The Morning Zoo’s Toy Drive, visit kluc.cbslocal.com. To learn more about HELP of Southern Nevada, visit helpsonv.org.






Previously published in diamondcake. Updated by smallTALK. Archived for HELP of Southern Nevada.

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