Issue 282,  published November 10, 2020

A New Union for the UK Audio Industry

As the US podcast industry continues to see more labor organizing, the podcast labor movement in the UK begins to take shape.

The first union aimed specifically at UK podcast workers — both freelance and those already working in organizations — was established recently, situated within the Bectu union, formerly known as the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communications and Theatre Union, which currently represents about 40,000 people primarily working in the UK’s film and television industries. The entity has been in the works for quite some time now, dating back to early 2020, when two London-based audio producers, Lily Ames and Sarah Myles, contacted Paddy Emond, a Bectu organising official in the London Production Division, about setting up a podcasting union.

Myles told me that while there were a few different motivations for wanting to organise now, a lot of it boiled down to giving podcasting the same kind of “official” status as TV, film and radio. In addition, she hoped that it would create a sense of community and help those who work mostly alone feel more connected to their peers. A union gives workers power, she said.

“Just to have something that says this is an official job, let’s see it in the same light as doing camera work for film. Let’s take it seriously,” Myles continued. “It just makes it more official, and gives people a lot more power if someone’s trying to charge a rate and you’re not happy with it, then you’ve got something to stand by that says this is actually the official rate.”

The case for unionisation can be broadly broken down into two components, Emond argues. “There’s sort of having an official community. I think that’s number one,” he said. “The UK Audio Network and organisations like that are completely invaluable, but having that sort of organised community, I think it’s really very useful. The second is, from a legal point of view, I think being an officially recognised trade union means that you can negotiate with the employer and trade bodies take notice of you in a way they’re just not going to take notice unfortunately of pressure groups and campaigning groups and things like that.”

In addition, Bectu members also receive discounts on things like insurance and financial advice, and in the event of a member experiencing unfair dismissal or other workplace discrimination, the union will pay the legal fees.

Having the podcasters’ union established with Bectu brings additional benefits, Emond said, as it allows the union’s organisers to apply the lessons learned from operating in the film and TV industries to audio. Given that workers in those sectors also tend to be mostly freelance, he expects the branch to operate in a similar way.

“What we’ve managed to do with those sectors is build up a high level of membership and get it to a point where it’s actually in the trade bodies’ interest to negotiate directly with the union,” he explained. “We’ve been able to set the minimum terms when it comes to working hours, how much you should get paid if you’re working for the sixth or seventh consecutive day, things like that. And so we’ve been able to make a demonstrable difference, despite them all being freelancers.”

Another transferable aspect from film and TV, he hopes, is the idea that just because working in media is perceived still as “glamorous” or a dream career in some quarters, that those workers don’t deserve proper pay and conditions. “You know, this is still a living. You’re not here for your health. You have to make a good, happy life for yourself. Just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you should be exploited for it,” he said.

This echoes something that Myles told me about the changing nature of the UK audio scene. “I think initially podcasting was a lot of people from radio moving over, but that’s kind of changed now,” she explained. “You can even see that in the day rate. I mean, I can only speak from my own experience, but when I worked in radio, my day rate was a lot lower than what I would have got in podcasting if podcasting was a thing then.” In other words, now that there are people actively entering podcasting as a career path, rather than entering the labor force from the side, this feels like the right time to formalise podcast production as a “real job” via unionisation. Emond also pointed to the recent establishment of The Creator Union, a trade union for influencers, as a parallel example of this happening simultaneously in another sector.

Initially, Myles, Ames and Emond organised a survey of people working in UK podcasting to find out what they might want from a union. A few things quickly emerged, Emond said, which chimed with the topics that had already come up as motivators for wanting to organise in the first place. These included mental health issues, long hours, and pay that isn’t representative of the work being done.

The Black Lives Matter movement has also been a big influence on the process, Myles explained, in galvanising the union formation as a tool to address racism and discrimination in the industry. “I’m just hearing so many stories from my friends about the racism that they experienced in the workplace,” she said. “I’ve never experienced racism because I’m white, but just hearing all those stories and all this horrible stuff about bullying and racism, I felt like a lot of people just decided enough is enough, I can’t take this anymore. I felt like we need to organise something and we need to gather together and stop these things from happening.”

Once the survey had established the priorities for the union and that there was an appetite for it among those in the industry, Emond and Bectu went ahead and set up the podcasters’ branch. The next step is to recruit members, an effort that begins via a webinar tonight at 6.30pm GMT, at which Emond, Myles and Ames will speak about their aims and take questions from attendees. “If we can get a couple of hundred members in the next couple of weeks, which I think is reasonable, then we can get up and running very, very quickly,” Emond said.

Members will then elect a committee to start taking action on their priorities — Emond and his organiser colleagues will facilitate, but all decisions will be taken by the elected body and the members. An early move is likely to be the publication of a rates guidance, a rate card format common across lots of Bectu branches in different industries, which sets out the union-approved rates for work. There have been efforts to establish something like this in the past via the UK Audio Network listserv, but Emond hopes that a document with Bectu’s influence behind it will have greater weight.

The ongoing restrictions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic — the UK just entered a new national lockdown last Thursday — have slowed progress a bit. But Emond was upbeat about the possibilities offered by digital organising for fledgling union branches like this one, because the barriers to initial participation are much lower. “With a Zoom meeting, people can decide to come literally last minute. They don’t have to plan who’s going to look after their two year old. They don’t have to think about what they’re going to eat for that tea because they can just sit there and have their dinner while they’re learning about trade unionism. I think it’s great. It’s made my life a lot easier.”

The real tests of Bectu’s podcast union branch will, of course, be whether people choose to join it and whether it can improve working conditions for those in the UK’s audio industry. The trade body situation for podcasters is perhaps slightly less clear cut than it is for those working in film and TV, although the audio producers’ association Audio UK seems a likely focus of attention. Big employers of audio freelancers, such as the BBC and larger production companies, will also feature heavily in the union’s activity, I suspect. But regardless of what short or long term changes it brings about, the fact that there is appetite for it to exist at all is a major signal of how rooted podcasting has become in the UK’s media landscape.

Caroline Crampton is a UK based journalist who has been writing about podcasts since 2014. Her journalism has appeared in publications including the Guardian, Lenny, the New Statesman and the Millions. She is a regular speaker and media commentator on the state of the podcast industry.