It sounded like a good opportunity. The classified ad on HotJobs, through Madison.com, offered full-time employment running "high-end marketing promotions." The company, Mad Town Events, promised "a once-in-a-lifetime chance to break into the hottest area of marketing," working for such national clients as D.A.R.E. America and Toys for Tots.
So Rebecca Altman, 27, an Edgewood College grad who in recent years has run her own Internet business, decided to check it out. She soon found that "a whole lot of things didn't add up."
For starters, when Altman applied for an "event marketing manager" position, she was summoned to a rent-by-the-month shed behind the defunct Kmart on East Washington Avenue. "Maybe they're trying to keep their overhead down," she reasoned. Then she noticed that the testimonials on the walls were for a business with a different name.
Altman says she waited for an hour and a half, and her questions to the receptionist were rebuffed. "That's what the interview is for," she was told.
When Altman was called in, so was another applicant. The owner/hiring manager, Lonnie Kohlhorst, went back and forth between the two. Tellingly, says Altman, "Most questions had nothing to do with our skills but how hard we were willing to work." Kohlhorst said the job involved helping different charities. "He didn't tell us how we'd be helping."
Mad Town Events - a.k.a. Mad Town Promotions Group - stresses that it needs workers who can start right away. Altman was told the job involved 10-hour days, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. There were just six slots available; five people were waiting for interviews when she left.
The next day Altman got the good news that she made the cut. Her suspicion: Just about everyone does.
Altman did a bit more research and discovered that the company's website only lists job opportunities, not any way to hire its marketing and event services.
Then she found that Googling website text yielded dozens of other companies, all over the country, that use the same language. Some had critical write-ups on sites like RipoffReport.com. Prospective employees found these high-end marketing jobs consisted of selling cheap merchandise from tables in front of stores like Wal-Mart and Walgreens. Sellers are independent contractors, paid in commission and bonuses, with no salary or benefits.
Altman decided the job wasn't for her. But she wants people to know that the ads Mad Town uses to recruit employees are misleading. (State consumer protection and wage officials say they've gotten no complaints.)
Kohlhorst did not return calls seeking comment. But John Lindsay, a national spokesperson for D.A.R.E., the anti-drug program for school kids, says Mad Town Promotions Group is an approved supporter. It's part of a nationwide network of about 100 for-profit providers that sell merchandise from D.A.R.E. and other groups.
Here's how it works: D.A.R.E. gets 18% of the sale price of merchandise (caps, T-shirts, coloring books) that bears its name, and 5% of other items. At Christmastime, the groups sell toys that get donated back to D.A.R.E., making their money off the toy price.
D.A.R.E. runs background checks on office owners like Kohlhorst (his only blemish: a recent citation for fishing without a license) and has a process for reviewing complaints, mostly about overly aggressive sellers. "When they're transgressing or someone steps over the line," says Lindsay, "we want to know about it."
Mad Town marketers have set up shop at area Wal-Marts, Shopkos and gas stations. Lindsay says most offices have five or six teams working daily. Stores that host tables get $100 a week, unless a law enforcement officer arranges the deal; then the money goes to his or her department.
Lindsay says cuts in federal support have forced D.A.R.E. to rely on fund-raising. But he admits selling items from tables in all kinds of weather is grueling work: "My hat goes off to them. I do admire their tenacity."
John Richter takes it personally, pun intended. The Madison resident was peeved to see WKOW, Ch. 27, hook up with eHarmony.com, for its personals service. The national dating company, founded by an Evangelical Christian and formerly promoted by the Rev. James Dobson of Focus on the Family fame, accepts only ads from and for heterosexuals.
WKOW, says Richter, "has chosen to ignore/insult the GLBT community. Are you gay, lesbian, bi, transgender? Go find your kind somewhere else." (Like, for instance, Isthmus Personals - they're great!)
"By using eHarmony, they have chosen to exclude a portion of the community as if it doesn't exist or matter," says Richter. "We do exist, we do matter, we do love and are part of the community in which they serve."
Richter's complaint took WKOW officials by surprise. "I had no idea that was even on there," says Al Zobel, the station's news director. Beginning on June 13, WKOW switched to a new national web provider, World Now. "We built 90% of the website content," says Zobel. "Everything except lifestyle and classifieds," which were provided automatically.
This week, WKOW contacted World Now, Zobel says, "and they are going to remove the eHarmony link from our personals page." Evangelical Christians - the ball's in your court.
Chernobyl: The Madison connection
In the mid-1990s, Norma Berkowitz traveled to the Ukraine and met with people setting up community centers in areas affected by "the most horrendous nuclear disaster anyone has ever faced," the meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986. The UW-Madison professor of social work was deeply impressed.
"We should do something to help them," Berkowitz remarked. Her colleagues thought it was a great idea. "Why don't you?" they responded.
Thus began the Friends of Chernobyl Centers, U.S., a Madison-based group that raises money and awareness for these Ukraine-based efforts. Berkowitz, the group's president, says it has dozens of donors in Madison and elsewhere.
This week the group is hosting a delegation of five Chernobyl-area leaders, which will meet with about three dozen local public health professionals. The visit includes a town meeting on Chernobyl this Saturday, June 27, in Room B1B in Lowell Hall, 610 Langdon St., 7:30 to 9 p.m.
Few issues are as polarizing as the debate over nuclear power, and Berkowitz's group has stayed clear of it. "The important thing," she says, "is to learn how people survive nuclear catastrophes and what they need in order to rebuild their lives and communities."
Now you know
From a voice mail to Isthmus, left by a woman with a heavy German accent: "I'm calling you regarding these three murders in Wisconsin, Madison. And has the police chief arrested anyone? And, you know, these are all gang-related. And somebody's funding this gang, you see, and they're only killing white citizens, isn't that highly suspicious? There is something going on. This is happening all across America."
The caller went on to implicate "the Jews" and "the Obama campaign," whose powers include the ability to "create artificial rain, earthquakes and fires." The message concluded: "This is what you have to investigate." We'll get right on it.