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An Agreement of One’s Own

Last month, the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists — the labor union better known by its acronym SAG-AFTRA, though it’s my understanding most people just call it SAG — approved an “influencer agreement,” setting up a pathway for the now-ubiquitous creative class to gain membership and access protections typically afforded to more traditional forms of creative work.

I learned this, of course, the same way I learn about most other economic developments in the influencer space, which is by reading Taylor Lorenz, who wrote an informative piece on the matter for The New York Times. What happens in influencer-land is increasingly pertinent to what happens here in podcast-land, in part because influencers as a talent ecosystem have flowed quite a bit into the podcast business in recent years, as they have just almost everywhere else as part of their search for greater revenue diversification.

It’s also just interesting to see SAG-AFTRA, a staple component of the broader mainstream entertainment ecosystem which formed out of a 2012 merger between two unions that originated in the thirties, open its doors to this thoroughly modern creative class. It’s a move that theoretically creates value going both ways: As much as this story amounts to some mainstream recognition of this new influencer economy, it’s also about SAG-AFTRA working to keep up with the times.

“Making it easier to cover this type of work has been a top priority for our organization,” said SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris in the press release about the approval. “As new ways of storytelling emerge, it’s imperative that we embrace and lift up these artists.”

That’s all well and good, of course. The question, however, is the extent to which the union will adequately do that embracing and lifting for all other kinds of emergent artists and industries as well.

Around the time the influencer agreement was approved, I spotted a Twitter thread from Lauren Shippen, the founder of Atypical Artists and prominent fiction podcast creator behind indie hits like The Bright Sessions, Passenger List, and In Strange Woods. She had seen the news and was frustrated over the union’s lack of comparable (or even marginal) efforts around the fiction podcast space.

She wrote: “Trying to not completely flip my lid over the fact that sag seems to have rustled this up very quickly when podcasts have been around for 20+ yrs and just got lumped into an already v fallible new media agreement bc ultimately more unionizing is good but boy!!! i’m losing it!!!”

Curious, I reached out, and speaking over the phone last month, Shippen recounted her strenuous efforts building out fiction podcasts like The Bright Sessions, In Strange Woods, The AM Archives, and The College Tapes as SAG productions, which, in her telling, were experiences defined by a wildly cumbersome process, a lack of responsive communication by the organization, and an eventual outcome that ultimately saw the union handling podcast productions in ways generally unsuitable for their needs. She navigated all this, I should say, as someone who intentionally sought to build SAG podcast productions out of principle, and as an independent creator who typically had to shoulder the burdens of those processes herself.

Shippen’s experience doesn’t appear to be unique. She mentioned having heard stories over the years from other fiction podcast creators, many operating independently, who encountered similar difficulties setting up productions with the union.

One of those creators is Amanda McLoughlin, the CEO of Multitude, the Brooklyn-based podcast collective and independent studio. That’s the team behind Next Stop, the audio sitcom I briefly wrote about early last year that was distinct for, among other things, being one of the earliest patrons of Patreon Capital, then a new alternative financing program launched by the membership platform company. Next Stop, which debuted in April 2020, was also a SAG production, and as McLoughlin tells me, she faced experiences that were similar to Shippen’s.

“We think it’s really important for podcasting to speak to existing media systems, particularly unions, so we felt it was important to make sure we were paying SAG rates and giving actors who took part in the production credit,” said McLoughlin. “But the experience of reaching out to them, becoming a signatory, figuring out which set guidelines applies to our piece, and submitting all the paperwork to make sure the actors got paid was extremely byzantine.”

Like Shippen, McLoughlin often faced a lack of clarity and unresponsive communication from the organization, so much so that key production timelines were dragged out. “From my understanding, what SAG is trying to do is make sure people get paid fairly and on time, but we were not able to pay out actors as quickly as we wanted because we had to wait a long time for verification.”

She added: “I think I put as much time filing paperwork to correspond with SAG as our editor did editing Next Stop.”

To be fair, one could argue that some of the unresponsiveness might be attributable to coronavirus-related furloughs that hit the organization over the past year, but many of Shippen and McLoughlin’s experiences predate the pandemic. I reached out to SAG-AFTRA to talk about these criticisms and have heard back, but was not able to schedule an interview by the time of publication. Hoping to get a follow-up conversation, though, and I’ll publish that if it happens.

Anyway, if things worked the way they’re supposed to work, there is clear utility building fiction as SAG productions for all parties involved. SAG actors get protections associated with membership, including structural support for better and timely pay, while emerging actors — like the ones Shippen typically tries to work with and elevate — are able to get credit for their performances on those podcasts that can be counted towards their membership in the union. Meanwhile, by registering with SAG-AFTRA, podcast creators get the opportunity to work with SAG actors, access to various informational resources about production, and in the case of Shippen (a SAG member herself), the knowledge that she’s contributing to a culture within podcasting in which union productions are the norm. But as Shippen’s experiences emphasize, the pathway for podcasters, particularly independent ones, to work with SAG-AFTRA is cluttered with unnecessary friction.

“If you’re a fiction podcast creator starting out who’s wanting to hire SAG actors, go through the union, and participate in this ecosystem in a way that’s beneficial for everybody, there’s absolutely no easy way to do that,” she said.

Much of the problem seems to stem from the fact that SAG-AFTRA doesn’t have a category carved out specific to podcasts, and such projects typically end up being shoe-horned under an awkward hybrid of the union’s New Media and Radio agreements. (This lack of a dedicated category also means that much of the union’s value as an informational resource doesn’t apply to podcast productions.) This arrangement often results in podcast creators being made to spend a considerable amount of time filling out paperwork that’s largely irrelevant to them, answering questions like whether their audio production contains nudity, and having to pay for insurance designed for physical spaces like film and television sets.

The bigger problem according to Shippen, though, is that SAG-AFTRA just seems to have “a lack of curiosity about the space.” I suppose this is understandable, to an extent. Compared to film and television (not to mention the now-recognized influencer economy), the podcast industry still isn’t that much of a moneymaker and therefore somewhat less likely to draw the organization’s immediate attention.

But the podcast business seems to be heading towards a direction where this will be less true, at least somewhat, and in any case, there are the parallel trends of podcasting becoming more intertwined with the influencer economy and the broader Hollywood ecosystem that should at the very least push podcasting deeper into SAG-AFTRA territory in the years to come. And as independent podcast creators like Shippen and McLoughlin argue, it’s important for a body like SAG-AFTRA to get in there and set the right tone as soon as possible, but as it is, the current state of affairs could shape the space in unproductive ways.

Shippen asserts that the friction of building a SAG podcast production today “puts everybody involved in fiction podcasting at a disadvantage,” but it disproportionately burdens independents. This, in turn, opens up a potential pathway for greater structural inequalities within the fiction podcast space in particular. These days, the genre is seeing increasing participation from bigger and more moneyed operations with closer ties to existing Hollywood systems. Those companies are more likely to have had prior experience working with SAG-AFTRA in other capacities and have the resources more broadly to navigate its byzantine processes without compromising production timelines. (By the way: I’m told that Audible, QCODE, and Spotify’s fiction podcasts are typically SAG productions, though not always.) As such, this could very well culminate in a situation where bigger companies, by virtue of their structural ability to build out SAG productions with greater ease and frequency, end up having their needs prioritized over the independent class if and when SAG-AFTRA finally decides the carve out the category.

I’d like to emphasize (just in case) that Shippen and McLoughlin’s critiques of SAG-AFTRA shouldn’t be read as anti-union stances. Both want to make union productions, not just to derive value from its benefits but also to provide opportunities to emerging actors and union members. But as independent creators, the process of building SAG productions just comes at too high a cost — not financially, they note, but on the simple basis that time and bureaucratic manpower are extremely valuable commodities for independents — to a point that they question whether the burden is worth bearing. McLoughlin tells me that she’s still going to keep trying to build SAG productions, though with reservations. Shippen, meanwhile, is going non-union for now.

The asks aren’t huge: They’re simply asking for podcast-specific guidelines, a process that’s actually responsive, and more interest from the union at a time where the business is still really formative.

“Right now, we’re deciding the norms for what podcasting will be like going forward, and it’s really important we do that conscientiously,” said McLoughlin. “Either podcasting will get shoehorned into a category we’re not really a good fit for and it won’t be a good experience for everybody, or you can plan for it, acknowledge it exists, and give people a way to participate in systems that benefit actors and employees.”

Two related notes… 

  • Meanwhile, the Writers Guild of America’s Audio Alliance recently published a resource to help fiction podcast creators argue for better contracts.
  • Speaking of resources, Multitude created a free guide on building fiction podcasts based off their experiences producing Next Stop, which you can find here.