Why break producers are the unsung heroes of fund drives

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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 (ecoessays@aol.com) 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.

One thought on “Why break producers are the unsung heroes of fund drives

  1. For what it’s worth, at The Public’s Radio (WNPN) we instituted a hybrid “pitch from home” pledge drive model because of the pandemic, but we’ve maintained it since due to staff preference. The one big caveat is that we were lucky enough to get a grant that paid for a half-dozen Comrex AccessNX portable codec kits, and we had two Comrex Access-racks at the studio already. Not everyone can do that, but there are less expensive ways of pitching from home that still work reasonably well. I won’t dive into that pool just yet. I want to focus on the other parts:

    1. OFF-AIR COMMUNICATION. We set up a Zoom room (on a paid account) for everyone: pitchers, producer, host, and board-op. (and anyone else) This is exclusively for OFF-air communication and visual cues. The producer is the “Zoom host”, the board op is the “co-host”, and one or both are responsible for muting everyone just ahead of the pitch break. The Zoom chat window is also available for mid-break communication.

    2. GOOGLE DOCS. The “live break plan” google doc is how the producer set up each pitch break and tells the two pitchers which scripts to use. The phone number and web address are prominently featured at the top (as a reminder to the pitchers) as is the one or two sentence summary of what this hour’s focus is: two-for-one match, contest for prizes, big news of the day, etc. This doc is also to help guide the board-op to know the in/out times, and what promos/testimonials/pledge spots (like Ira Glass’s famous “uber-guilt for 4 minutes” spots).

    3. STAGETIMER.IO. We use to have a custom-coded javascript countdown timer that worked in any web browser. When it worked, it worked great, but it would inexplicably stop/start working at random times…and nobody knew enough javascript to repair it. Recently we discovered http://www.stagetimer.io and while the free version isn’t enough, you can buy a 30 day license inexpensively and that’ll cover the whole drive and then some. It’s a great web service that works in any web browser, with both a nice big countdown timer but also color-coded graphics, the ability to flash the screen three times to get attention, and the ability to flash a message, too. Either the board-op or the producer CAN run it but usually the producer does.

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