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07 August 2014

Experience or Exploitation?

Pay rates in commercial radio are under intense scrutiny at the moment.

Scourge of BBC management John Myers has turned his fire on the Bauer Media group, who have allegedly been putting wannabe jocks to air on national digital radio stations without paying them anything.

John's not mentioned news as yet - but as someone who's done his damnest to get journalism postgraduates into radio jobs with a measure of success over the past 20 years I thought it could be useful to add a few thoughts about what is, and what isn't, acceptable practice.

First of all, face the facts. I know of no-one at all working in radio news who hasn't spent at least some time on unpaid attachment.

Those who campaign for fully paid news internships are living in cloud cuckoo land.

We need to find better ways of supporting candidates from poorer backgrounds if (and it's a big if) employers really care about diversity, but such schemes will always be the exception to the norm.

For the employers it's a no-brainer. They get sackloads of applications (or whatever the equivalent e-measure is) from people desperate to get in. News teams are overstretched and, in commercial radio,  grossly under-appreciated.

In some stations it can be seen as letting the side down to go on holiday, because of the strain it puts on their colleagues - or to be more accurate in many places, colleague.

There are few decent freelancers out there to plug gaps because the long-established postgrad Journalism courses are turning out fewer graduates. Many of those who made a lifestyle choice to embrace the relative freedom of freelancing dived for the safety of a staff job when recession hit - and their number are not being replaced.

I'm running at less than half accredited capacity. That's partly because would-be trainees can't get loans, or don't want more loans on top of £40K+ undergrad debt, and partly because they're scared off by non-stop stories of gloom and doom, usually from hacks past their sell-by date, claiming that journalism is finished and that the only future is 'My Top Ten Cat Selfies' on Buzzfeed. It isn't.

The challenge comes in defining what is 'reasonable' in terms of unpaid work experience.

I have clear criteria. The placement must offer meaningful experience in a newsroom environment. Making tea is part, but only part, of that definition. Getting the editor's dry cleaning fails any rational test.

Trainees should be doing work which adds value to the output of the newsroom, not work which is essential to the running of the newsroom. It's reasonable to use them to get an extra MP, or a vox pop, to comment on Boris running for Parliament, but unreasonable to expect a student to doorstep the tousle-haired tory in person. A placement trainee should never be on desk alone.

The placement must be mentored, with real-time feedback from editors which adds to the trainee's understanding. I'm frightened by the number of places where the workie is let loose with the website or the Twitter password without anyone checking what they write before they press send. Experience without firm guidance reinforces bad habits.

Which brings us to the tricky issue of placement duration.

A week is no good to anyone but schoolkids. It's cultural tourism. By the time a trainee has learned where the loos are and how to log on to the computer it's over. No opportunity to contribute, and a big drain on staff time doing basic training (if any is offered).

A fortnight is not untypical, but again offers a trainee little chance to show much flair.

It's week three when my experience suggests a good placement student will rise above the mechanical functions expected of them and begin to offer original ideas. A month fits the production schedules of some network programmes and is normally the maximum I would expect a student to offer unpaid. I am of course delighted if 3 or 4 weeks of experience morphs seamlessly into paid work. The most I've ever sanctioned is 6 weeks in any one newsroom.

I have been asked to provide students for 3 or 6 month (unpaid) 'internships', or open-ended day release. Such arrangements, to me, go beyond anything that can be considered reasonable - unless the student is on a sandwich course with a period in industry a formal part of their degree.

It should go without saying (but doesn't) that placement students receive out of pocket expenses when they're sent out on a story. If they use their own cars, now increasingly a hiring requirement for freelancers, that must include mileage.

And what about the transition into work? For those going into a station where they've not been on placement before, but where they are being considered for a job, I've always believed it's absolutely fair to ask the trainee to work an 'evaluation shift' (c) Richard Horsman 1993. 

They do a day, or at most two, unpaid. Then the editor decides. More than that, for a qualified trainee at the end of their course, is exploitation.

My first salary in Pennine Radio's newsroom was a smidgen over eight grand a year - in 1985. An hourly rate of about £4.50. I know of a a main-market station right now offering newly-qualified freelancers £30 for a 6-hour shift. You do the maths.

No-one goes into radio news to get rich.

Radio stations will always get by on low salaries and a lot of goodwill because creative, lively people really want to work with others like themselves in a vibrant and stimulating atmosphere. There's always been a tradeoff between enthusiasm and exploitation, but the balance has shifted too far in the employers' favour.

1 comment:

  1. Another excellent blog Richard. I think there's a wider issue in terms of newsroom staff - especially in commercial radio - being exploited. Many of those fresh out of college won't usually even ask what the salary is. I have been guilty of this myself in my early career. "This is the salary we pay, take it or leave it."

    The pay negotiation, especially for your first job, is usually swung completely in favour of the employer. Saying the salary offered isn't acceptable isn't really going to do you any favours in terms of first impression is it? It applies to freelancers of course too. Your quoted £30 a shift is way below the NUJ suggested rates (not that unions have any sway in commercial radio these days). But what freelancer hoping for either their first shifts after graduating, or their first shifts at a new station/group is going to argue and say they're not prepared to work for that amount? When work is sparse you take what you're offered, especially if there's a prospect of more freelance work with that station in the future. But it's better to negotiate before you do any shifts for the company than once you've already done some. "You've been happy to accept that rate for the last 3 months so I'm sorry we can't increase it now."

    Although most of my freelance work is at the BBC these days, last year did a couple of shifts for one of the commercial groups as a favour as they were stuck at short notice. I negotiated a fee which I know was higher than 'what they normally pay'. So I'm not really surprised that I've not been asked again recently by that company, when there are other freelancers that they can get away with paying a lot less to.

    I do hope that blogs like yours and John Myers' will help stations and commercial radio groups (generally speaking the BBC behaves fairly well in this respect) to do the morally right thing and not continue to exploit people.

    What can we freelancers and employees do? One solution is to be more open with colleagues about what we're paid. I know many people can be uncomfortable with this but it's an excellent way of highlighting where employers are behaving immorally or even illegally. I know of one case (not in radio, but in a recognised profession) where two employees with the same level of experience were being paid vastly different salaries in the same business but had no idea. One was male, one female. They started dating and quickly found out the situation. The female successfully sued for gender discrimination.

    In another situation, when leaving a newsroom to take up a job in PR for a few years I started a conversation about why I was leaving. The main reason was that the £26.5k salary I was going to get in the PR job was rather more than the £16.5k I was on at the radio station. It quickly became apparent that there were others who had similar levels of experience to me on less than £16,500. A couple of grand less. And there were some on several grand more too. All because the meek ones took what they were offered and didn't keep pestering for a pay rise; while the confident ones either lied about their current salary when accepting a job to get more than that or regularly went out of their way to demonstrate how valuable they were to the newsroom then make regular requests for a pay rise. There was also then a culture of the management saying "Well I'll give you a £500 pay rise but please keep it quiet and don't tell anyone as we can't afford to give everyone else one too."

    So let's be more open with colleagues about pay and expose the exploitation. And be brave enough to say that the money offered isn't acceptable because you value yourself and the quality of the work you're going to do for the company more highly. It's worth a try at least?