Until AI robots replace (cringe) public broadcasting folk, we can explore best practices at stations to benefit their respective teams. Consider, for example, the unsung role of “break producer” for live on-air radio fund drives. Undoubtedly, such producers, when superlative, impact drive success heroically, something underappreciated.
I was fortunate to be directly involved with on-air drives at seven different public radio stations in five states. Approaches vary surprisingly at stations. Some lack dedicated break producers entirely, to their detriment. Often the conduct of our break producers inspired; on rare occasions, I was dismayed.
Even small stations should not overlook lassoing good break producers. They collaboratively manage pitch breaks, both preparing them and monitoring their execution. They help set up each break’s elements — its flow, length and tone. Ideally, they encourage like a cheerleader, while sometimes intervening and adjusting the unfolding break. They manage strategy break to break. They suggest proactively and tactfully, while cognizant of egos, deadlines and drive results. Overall, they help translate and execute management’s goals for a fund drive operationally.
These valuable producers act as extra ears independent from, but still tuned to, the roles and tasks of other immediate participants: hosting, programming, pitching, board engineering. Well ahead of drives, the not unimportant matter of roles needs clarifying to allocate a reasonable division of labor for best results. For example, in one case a station insisted I simultaneously don four hats for hours as host, programmer, board op and pitch partner — basically without pitch scripts. That’s asking too much to perform best, and unnecessary. This burden was compounded by a break producer who was neither organized nor experienced.
What might an all-cylinders control room look like while “fund-driving”? One effective four-person model uses a host and two dedicated pitchers led by a break producer. The on-air host might be also the programmer and board op (altogether plenty for that person’s plate). The break producer utilizes a big dry-erase easel (or electronic bulletin board) with a written outline of break elements, and a clipboard to jot sudden reminders, such as “40 seconds: mention hour’s goal + main premium.” Between breaks, they might suggest programming elements such as airing a testimonial, appropriate sound effects or background music, or reminding pitchers to regale listeners with details of station expenses, edifying endeavors, donors who need thanking, or the day’s premiums.
“But we’ve always done it X way!” Well, in contrast to the above four-person approach, if your station relies on just two or even three staff in the control room, you may not be realizing your fundraising potential. The result also may mean longer drive hours veering toward staff burnout and listener fatigue.
Talented duos and trios may finesse fund drives well. But as with the sun rising daily, we know there’s no such thing as true multitasking, and four heads are better than three (unless you’re Beethoven). Such stations will likely leave money on the fund-drive table. It stands to reason that a pre-planned, organized pledge break guided by a dedicated producer will be focused, efficient and therefore more effective. Some stations even record well-oiled pitch breaks to re-air in different dayparts. Break producers aid that efficiency and success as well.
Do not confuse a break producer with a potted plant, please. They should act as a key player listening intently while taking a leading constructive role. In turn, a break producer should not assume their judgment is supreme when it comes to crafting programming elements; leave such matters largely to those regular professionals who serve listeners daily.
While taking the lead, the producer confers with control-room participants as a team. That person monitors each break to assess: Is the break outline being followed? How’s the urgency/energy level? Is the phone number being announced enough? Is one pitcher over-dominating? Are the pitches persuasive, the messages landing? Staying on point? What could be improved? With their overview, break producers may provide valuable input for the next drive, too.
While anecdotal and solo, my perspective reflects experiences with seven stations. Has your station evolved into using break producers? How have they made a difference?
Mel Brooks or a peer said a good producer turns a mess of a group into a wonderful cast. Then they grab hold of an audience. So don’t go lacking. Success is in the details. Appointing a wise break producer for fund drives respects both staff and listeners. I’ve observed this role filled by various players: outside consultants, station PDs, a variety of fine staff. Indeed, live pitch breaks resemble trains and orchestras: They all need good conductors to perform best.
Peter M. Johnson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a radio consultant, a past producer for the Aspen Music Festival and GBH in Boston, and former music director of four public radio stations, including WSHU in Fairfield, Conn., and WDAV in Davidson, N.C.