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Raising a glass of gratitude: BPR reflects on Michelle Keenan's 27 years of service

Michelle Keenan
Michelle takes a selfie with the BPR listener cruise crew in 2019.

Blue Ridge Public Radio bids a heartfelt farewell to Associate Director of Development Michelle Keenan who is leaving the station after an impressive journey spanning almost three decades.

Keenan's path at BPR (then WCQS) started in the mid-1990s as a volunteer, later becoming a part-time assistant in the Business Sponsorship Department, and eventually finding her home in membership, where her warm and friendly voice became a regular during pledge drives.

"Good morning, it is a pleasure to be here with you. I’m Michelle Keenan. And if you've been meaning to support BPR but haven't yet? Now is the perfect time; it is the last day of our fall fund drive!”

But the real magic – and work – happened behind the scenes, and from the beginning, Keenan owned it.

This American Life host Ira Glass with Michelle and members of the WCQS staff during his visit to Asheville in 2007.

BPR's Director of Business Sponsorship Steve Busey, recalled meeting Keenan during those early days when fundraisers involved a bustling phone bank filled with volunteers who took pledges on pieces of paper.

"It was 1997, and I had just moved to town and called the station offering to lend a hand, and she says 'Can you be here tomorrow morning at six?'” he said.

Her move to membership was natural, Busey said.

"The position fit her like a glove, and she did everything - from keeping the trains running on time to keeping everybody happy," he recalled. "It was so natural to her."

So was her knack for building relationships with listeners and the community.

“I vividly remember thinking I scored the best volunteer gig when I got to spend an evening tabling with Michelle at a Moth storytelling event in West Asheville,” recalls former BPR staffer Abby Bishop, who worked in the membership department with Keenan in 2018.

“What’s remarkable about Michelle is that she is genuinely interested - whether you are a volunteer, a major donor, or an upset listener. Michelle always takes the time to listen and have a heartfelt conversation," Bishop said. "In our time sharing an office, I overheard many phone calls that started with an angry listener and ended with a new donor.”

Longtime BPR supporters, Frances and Richard Healy, longtime supporter of BPR, agreed.

“Michelle’s smile, along with her giving nature, her inclusiveness, her honesty, " said Frances, " that always struck me as so lovely and perhaps not that common."

Often the first to arrive and the last to leave, Keenan's commitment was palpable, especially during pledge drives where she continued to juggle many plates at once, writing on-air copy, negotiating raffle prizes, organizing volunteers and crunching tallies just to name a few.

Michelle Keenan with sprinter and motivational speaker Charles Clark and BPR business sponsorship representative Carolyn Kovash.
Michelle Keenan with sprinter and motivational speaker Charles Clark and BPR business sponsorship representative Carolyn Kovash.

Former BPR Program Director Barbara Sayer was often in the studio with Michelle during those fundraisers.

“I think it's fair to say that at five o'clock in the morning, I was deeply uncommunicative,” Sayer recalled. “But where was Michelle? She was jazzed up, friendly, and welcoming. She was bringing in and training all the volunteers to work the fundraiser for the organization that they loved and believed in - just like we did. Who do you want out front when you've got something like that going on? You want somebody just like Michelle. She was terrific.”

Michelle Keenan, Helen Chickering and Dottie the dog in the BPR studios during pledge drive
Michelle Keenan
Michelle and Helen snap a selfie with Dottie the dog during a pledge drive break.

"The reason you listen is the reason to give and StoryCorps is just one of my absolute favorites. I know not to put on my mascara every Friday morning until after StoryCorps has aired. This morning I made a mistake because I got dressed in the dark and put my mascara on, and what do you know, it was a real tear-jerker, and there went the black streaks down my face! So if you have had those moments, place a value on your listening experience and support the station."

Terrific - and kind. Michelle was was always looking after others, ready to lend a helping hand or a listening ear. Her office was a regular stop for co-workers, volunteers, visitors and the many four-legged friends who knew she kept a stash of treats in her desk.

Michelle and the WCQS staff pose for a thank you listeners pic after a pledge drive in 2016.
Michelle and the WCQS staff pose for a thank you listeners pic after a pledge drive in 2016.

“Michelle is a real people person. She always has a smile on her face, and a kind word for everyone. She’s always thinking of others, whether it's remembering their birthdays, sending them cards or baking them treats – and she’s a really good baker!” said former BPR coworker Suzanne Hageman.

“Michelle was a ray of sunshine with her winning smile, her people skills, and her trademark laugh,” BPR's former Classical Music Host Chip Kauffmann said. Kauffmann and Keenan shared a love of baseball and old movies. The two became movie reviewers for the arts and culture magazine, Rapid River.

“I am just so thankful for all of the wonderful impacts that Michelle Keenan has had on this entire community and listening region,” Jodi John Pippin said. She spent several years working with Keenan in the membership and development department, beginning in 2015.

Of the many good memories, she said a work trip to Boston stood out. After a long day at NPR member station WGBH, the two headed to Cambridge for dinner.

“We sat at a quaint little bar while waiting for our table. We were served these beautiful, colorful cocktails that came in mindfully picked-out thin-rimmed glasses, complete with a piece of fruit on the side," she remembered. "And so when I think of Michelle, this drink is coming to mind because she is colorful, very sweet, and her work with listeners, donors, and coworkers was mindfully crafted. I was very lucky to work with her. I just wish her the best."

So do we.