As I have discussed throughout this week, my role as the Morning Engineer at WAMU is to work closely with our morning host, Matt McCleskey, to plan and put together the best combination of national content fed to us by NPR, local content provided by our newsroom, and local promos and underwriting to inform our listeners and pay our bills.

But in public radio, there is one particular event that occurs two or three times per year that listeners may not be wild about hearing, but is nevertheless necessary to keep WAMU afloat. I speak, of course, of the pledge drive — or as we call it, the membership campaign.

During membership campaigns, we dedicate time during our shows to ask our listeners to donate to the station in order to support our programming costs. Some listeners may not be wild about it, but the fact remains that pledge drives are an effective fundraising tool. After all, if listeners are going to pay to support public radio, you have to ask them for their support, and remind them of why they should invest in the station they listen to.

The membership campaign is an all-hands-on-deck kind of week at WAMU. But while many — if not most — of the staff are focused on encouraging listeners to donate, my job as an engineer is to carve out airtime to allow our hosts and staff to pitch to the listeners.

Carve Out Some Pitch Time
The trick to pledge drive pitching on the radio is that we still need to provide the essential programming that our listeners rely on. After all, no one would listen during the pledge drive if we spent the entire time doing something like an extended telethon. That’s especially true during the morning drive-time shift.

So the general philosophy is that we aim to allow roughly 10 minutes of time for live pitching per each half hour. But the exact amount of pitch time that we have to work with varies a bit, depending on the program clock that we’re working with.

One of the tools at our disposal at WAMU is that we have a media system that is able to automatically record incoming segments of Morning Edition according to a preset schedule. This actually gives us a lot of flexibility during the pledge drive because we can record the segments that we would normally air during live pitching and play them back later in the hour at a more advantageous time.

The program clock that controls Morning Edition. Source: NPR

The program clock that controls Morning Edition.
Source: NPR

An Example Hour of Live Pitching
So if we refer back to the Morning Edition program clock, here is an example of what we might do in an hour of the pledge drive:

  • At the top of the hour, we would skip the billboard, and instead pitch until :01 past the hour. Not only does this buy us more pitching time, but since we’re going to skip several segments of the show, we don’t want the Morning Edition hosts to promote a segment in the billboard that we’re not going to hear.
  • We air the first national newscast until :04 past the hour, then a miniature local newscast, and then a short 1-2 minute live pitch, mainly to introduce the fundraising goal for that our and give out the web address/phone number.
  • We would air the A segment live from :07:30 to :18, and the network newscast from :19 to :20:30. We would also have to play NPR’s long funding credit until :21:20.
  • We would then have about seven minutes to pitch, ending at about :28:30, when we would then do station business like the weather report, promos and underwriting.
  • At :30:30 we would take NPR’s short “funny story” story from the network, but then at :31 past the hour we would play the recorded B segment that occurred while we were pitching.
  • That recorded B segment would end at roughly :38:45, giving us about 2-3 minutes for a short pitch until the NPR newscast at :42.
  • After the NPR newscast, we would have several options, such as combining the C segment with a D segment, or a D segment with a prior E segment — basically we could throw together a package of any recorded network content that we had not put on the air within the past 2 hours to fill airtime until around :52 or :53 past the hour. And then we would pitch again until the end of the hour.

This isn’t a routine that we follow exactly every day of the membership campaign, because we are also making decisions about which segments of Morning Edition are important for us to keep on air, and which segments are best to pitch out of. So a lot of the time we may do more creative re-arranging of segments after they’ve been recorded from the network in order to put the best content on the air.

Recutting some NPR network segments during WAMU's latest pledge drive. Source: Anthony Washington/WAMU

Recutting some NPR network segments during WAMU’s latest pledge drive.
Source: Anthony Washington/WAMU

But what is reflected in this sample routine are several key elements towards a successful hour of pitching. This routine gives us roughly 20 minutes of time spent pitching over the course of the hour, which is ideal. It also gives us two longer pitch breaks of 7-8 minutes apiece, which is a good length for our host (Matt) and a guest pitcher to “seal the deal,” for lack of a better phrase, with the listener, while not being too long that it starts to get annoying.

But we also manage to use the shorter pitch breaks at the top of the hour and at approx. :38 past the hour to catch listeners who may have just turned in. Radio listening is typically measured by quarter-hours, and especially during morning drive, it’s typical for listeners to only tune in for about 10-20 minutes at a time. So being able to have some amount of time in every quarter-hour of the show to pitch allows us to reach the most listeners effectively.

Engineering during a pledge drive takes a lot of quick thinking, quick editing, and the ability to focus on multiple tasks at once. But I think it’s quite a bit of fun — certainly a change of pace from the normal daily routine, and a great chance to do even more local live radio, and to help support the team effort to raise money to keep the station afloat for the years to come.

Bringing It All Together
I started this blog series with the question, “What do I do for a living?”

Well, it would be easy to say that I show up at 5 a.m., sit at an audio mixer, turn on mics and ride faders up-and-down. But as I have described, there is a lot more strategic and creative juice that goes into bringing a quality live radio program to life. Despite the hours, it is a job that I have grown to enjoy significantly.