In 1982, I was a presenter at Red Rose Radio in Preston, a station that played ‘The Hits’ and I loved it. The show fee of £25 was a flat rate inclusive of production, travel expenses and the time required to fill in all those dreaded PRS forms. Fast-forward to today and I can’t think of any other industry where rates of pay have not kept up as much with inflation. It is one of the reasons why people have left the medium. They just can’t afford to be in it anymore.
Last week on twitter I mentioned that presenters had been in touch who had not being paid at all. A lot of this was directed at one company in particular but not exclusively. I’ve also received emails from presenters bitterly complaining about low levels of pay, although to be fair, this has always been the case from all but the biggest stars. The general feeling however, is that things are getting worse. There are complaints of bullying where people are told ‘the fee is the fee’ so take it or leave it, the inference being that there is always someone who will. It doesn’t matter that you might be more creative, creativity is out, stations just want you to crunch and roll without complaint. Many are so desperate to work in this industry that they dare not speak out for fear of not being invited back. Those who do work without a show payment do so in the faint hope of some paid fill in work at a later date. Some times, these fresh faces are left alone in a station. Yes, the poor unsuspecting souls are in charge! Let’s hope they are across the many complex broadcasting rules.
I wanted to check the legal position so I called Paul March who is one of the best media lawyers in the business. Clearly he would need to have more details but he believes these practices are highly questionable indeed. The law states that a minimum legal wage must be paid to everyone, no matter what. In this country that is currently at £6.31 for adults over 21 year olds, (rising to £6.50 in October) so if a presenter or a tech-op is overseeing a live four-hour show, they must be paid £25.24 at least. For the record, I am not saying this is a fair figure; rather it is what the law dictates to be the minimum amount. If someone is called in for a voice tracking session and it takes two hours to record a weeks worth of output then again they must be paid for the time it took them to produce that work. You see this a lot now with TV continuity. Many digital stations bring in voice over artists and pay them accordingly, they certainly don’t offer up a daily fee for when their voice is on the air. That is legally permissible and commercially understandable.
The problem arises when inexplicably, it appears people are not paid at all. The law has changed a lot in this area.
We have allegations as to practice of non-payment and they should be investigated. If such practice is found to exist and the evidence to date suggests that within at least one group, it may well do, the legal consequences are serious. Earlier this year the government announced plans to legislate so that employers will be given penalties of up to £20,000 for each individual worker they have underpaid, rather than the maximum fine applying to each employer. In the most serious cases, employers can also face criminal prosecution.
Let me state immediately that I accept the principle that in order to gain work, some people may offer to undertake work experience or volunteer to make the tea. They are not Chris Evans, they are perhaps just out of university or student radio, it is the getting the foot in the door kind of thing and we have all been there and done that. I would have walked on hot coals to get into radio so I volunteered on a Saturday sports programme for example. People need a little time to work out if this is really something for them and they want to dedicate whatever time and effort it might take to get noticed. That is to be applauded but it is the moral duty of a manager to protect these people from themselves. Therefore, such time of unpaid work experience or to borrow the ever more popular American phrase for this, internship, is not and should never be open ended. Any sensible employer should state right at the start and in writing how long the free period is going to last. Expenses should always be a given!
One company in particular kept dropping into my timeline who have an alleged practice of not paying some of their presenters and that is Bauer. I contacted them for a response and a Bauer media spokesperson admitted to the policy by way of this statement:
“We have a small handful of volunteers on The Hits, Kerrang! and heat radio seeking experience or exposure. In some instances they come to us direct from student radio for a kick-start to their radio careers. This is a situation seen across many creative industries and other radio companies.”
I was really quite stunned by this. A volunteer in my view is often found in community or hospital radio stations. A volunteer may come in and help out for a few days. Volunteers may participate in occasional station promotions or at a charity event etc but surely anyone would be surprised to learn they are working regularly on a national digital radio show – without payment – while the company sells advertising into those programmes and earns around £25MILLION or more a year in profits. They may call it volunteering, I call it something else! Surely, they can do better than this?
Of course there is a counter argument that putting presenters onto a national platform is a wonderful opportunity for those involved and I agree, some will always do it for nothing, but there comes a point – and I would argue it is very early on – when free must become paid. Companies like Bauer, who encourage new talent and provide people with training and support are to be given credit but people and especially young persons starting out in their careers have multiple drivers in seeking a position. Yes they will work for free but usually the ability to eat does factor as a consideration too! They are also the ones who very often need a few quid the most.
I find Bauer’s policy uncomfortable, especially for a company of their size and profitability, and bearing in mind their public promotion of people and values. But perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps this is why they do deliver so much profit. Perhaps this is the modern world. Perhaps, it is unfair of me to single them out. That said, Bauer must know what they are doing, they are a respected and admired company but while presumably this practice has got through their HR and Legal and Business Affairs department, it begs the question how? Aside from the legal questions and the serious consequences as may flow, how does Bauer (or any company for that matter) reconcile such action with the more general questions of basic corporate responsibility? Surely there is a moral issue here?
What is more depressing is that just this week Bauer have waxed lyrically about the success of their digital stations while neatly forgetting to mention it partly comes from the labours of desperate individuals who will do anything for a gig. The practice of not paying people for longer than a month or so by way of a reasonable trial or training period has to be questionable. I endorse The Academy idea but once you start to take advertising money from the efforts of free labour, you must surely offer up a payment as a basic morale obligation. Quite how this can be reconciled against employer obligations under the National Minimum Wage Act is beyond me.
I wonder if we are looking at a scandal within our industry the equivalent of the frequent and depressing mis-selling scandals in banking? Is there a class action just waiting to happen? It’s a tough industry of course but I hope not.
Rates of pay for producers, presenters and more continue to be a thorny issue within radio. Perhaps consolidation is to blame, who knows! I’m told show rates are at an all time low, just above the legal hourly minimum, yet others tell me differently. Some stations would like to pay more but can’t, they have borderline profits. Some companies might not survive without volunteers. Whatever the reasons, I think it is time for someone to undertake an independent review of pay within the sector (not me), as many complain they can earn more driving a bus than from a radio show lovingly created after years of experience. I wonder if anyone can make a living as a jobbing presenter these days? Radio is not alone in this by the way; I see similar instances of sharp practice going on within many so-called digital industries where companies look for unpaid internship to boast their ranks.
I have no idea how big a problem all this is, it may turn out not to be one at all, but it is a subject worth highlighting. Who would have thought that the fee rate I moaned about back in 1982 is now something to aspire towards three decades later. Allowing for inflation, that rate today would be around £80 per show. I am not saying this is the figure to pay, (size of station is relative) but I am saying that no pay at all for longer than a month as a maximum, under any trial or volunteering system, should be banned.
It is worth remembering that thousands of people got their break in radio by offering up their services for free. That very act continues to have value and everyone loves people who are keen and are keen to show it. We need to discover the new stars of tomorrow, to lead by example and inspire them to take a career in radio seriously. Training is one thing, paying embarrassingly low show rates or not paying anything at all is quite another and hardly the best of starts no matter how much ‘experience’ we think they are getting. The law has changed and so must we. Make no mistake, no organisation can claim to have a people culture, if that culture only applies to a selective few.
Note: As of 17th August, I understand from some of the staff at Bauer that the company is reviewing this policy.