August 7, 2019
Discipline: Membership

Jay Clayton

When we surveyed stations last year about their on-air fundraising practices only 30% said they used air checks from on-air drives. Programmers use air checks to review and improve everything else on your station. Since fundraising is programming, we should use air checks to make drives better too. 

Air checks are the best way to experience your membership drive the way a listener does, which is exactly what you need to do to create a listener-focused pledge drive. Air checks are the best tool we have to make our drives sound better (keeping listeners with us) and perform better (turning listening into more givers and revenue).

When you do listen to air checks, here are some good ideas about when and how to listen, and how to use what you hear to improve the sound – and fundraising effectiveness – of your drive.

1. Listen to air checks after every drive.

And don’t wait too long to do it! It’s best to listen soon after the drive so the experience is still fresh in everyone’s minds.

Don’t look for your best or the worst pitch-breaks. Instead, find a handful of typical examples of how your drive sounded. This is what your typical listener heard.

And, of course, listen to the same air checks again right before your next drive to reinforce what you’re aiming to improve.

2. Be clear about what makes effective on-air fundraising.

Each pitch break is an opportunity for you to educate and remind your listeners about the value public radio delivers each day why it needs their support. To do this in a listener-focused way, pitchers must:

  • Tell listeners that you’re raising money to pay for their favorite programs so they understand why you’re interrupting them and what you want them to do.
  • Help listeners understand why the station needs their support, and why it’s needed now.

  • Talk to listeners who don’t know why they should give you money. Some listeners know why they should give but many don’t. If you assume everyone knows that they should give, you exclude everyone who doesn’t know and you make it harder for your station to get more givers.
  • Talk to the listener, not about the listener.
  • Organize the elements of your pitch break into a narrative sequence.  We’re telling a story: What’s needed and why, why you should get involved, and why right now.

Ask yourself: Is this drawing me in? Is it something I want to pay attention to? Are the people on the radio including me in the conversation, or is it just for other listeners? Assuming I don’t know why the station needs my help, are they helping me understand in a way that makes me think, ‘Gee, I should give’?

3. Coach pitchers constructively.

Every pitcher likely wants to do their job well. If a pitcher doesn’t sound engaging or effective on-air, they probably haven’t received enough training or guidance, or they may need to be re-energized around what draws listeners in and gets them to give.

Some seasoned pitchers have been delivering the message for so long that they start to assume everyone in the audience knows it as well as they do. The reality is that most listeners have not been on this journey alongside them. A fresh-sounding break, every break, is key to helping listeners choose to give. A pitcher’s job is to tell people why they should give and remind them when they already know because they’re not thinking about it until we make them think about it.

When you’re listening to an air check with a pitcher, give that person the first chance to critique  what they hear. Invite them to identify pitching what doesn’t sound good and start a conversation about it. This makes pitchers less offensive about their own work and more open to constructive criticism and your ideas about how they can improve. 

If you need to resolve a sensitive problem, or if a pitcher has a particular need for improvement, have those conversations one-to-one. Again, most pitchers really want to be effective. It can be difficult to be critiqued at all, much less in front of a group. Keep your criticism constructive and have clear, helpful suggestions to support the pitcher in their growth.

4. Recapture the energy if you’re feeling fatigued.

This is very relevant when you’ve just completed a drive (let’s face it, you’re tired!) Think of each break like this: Imagine a seasoned rock band that’s been touring for years. The Rolling Stones, for example, have performed the song Jumpin’ Jack Flash in concert more than 1,100 times, according to But if you go to a Rolling Stones concert, you haven’t seen that song performed that many times. You expect the performance to be fresh, energetic, and memorable.

Think about how to make your case using energetic, inspiring narratives.

Here’s a familiar on-air case about paying for programming:

“You might not know it but we buy the national programs you hear. We’ve got to pay $400,000 to NPR this year…”

My response to this is: I’m not very excited about paying my own bills. I certainly don’t want to pay anyone else’s.

But recast this case as a shared investment:

“We as a station invest in national reporting from NPR. We, along with other stations, cover the cost on your behalf because it provides essential information. You also feel national reporting from NPR is essential and invest in it too.”

During on-air drives, we are the professionals who have to deliver a passionate, convincing, focused pitch break every time like it was the first time. If we don’t sound excited about what we’re saying, why should anyone else be?

Jay Clayton