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The State of Collective Bargaining in Podcasting

Way back in the pre-pre-COVID days of March 2019, a consortium of creative workers at Gimlet Media announced that they were moving to unionize with the Writers Guild of America East. The development turned many heads in the podcast community at the time, even coming off as genuinely confusing to some. (An email I received at the time read: “Can they do that?”) While union pushes at digital media companies were a known phenomenon by then, podcast-specific companies felt like a separate story, like they were an entirely different of organization. That such a company, particularly one that was venture-backed, was unionizing felt radically unexpected. There was some element of drama as well, as the news came shortly after it was widely announced that Gimlet Media was going to be sold to Spotify. In the heat of a sale, the message that staffers were sending seemed clear: getting bought is great and everything, but we’d like to have some input into how this new arrangement is going to work, given that our labor helped build this place.

Gimlet wouldn’t be the only podcast concern whose staffers would unionize that season. Not long after, the workers at The Ringer, Bill Simmons’ podcast-centric digital media venture (which would also later be sold to Spotify), similarly voted to form a union, flipping what was a curious development at Gimlet into the possible start of a trend. Both unions were eventually recognized, and both are now in the bargaining phase.

It’s worth noting that many of the digital media companies that moved to unionize by the end of 2019 — BuzzFeed News, Slate, HuffPost, Vox Media, and so on — are active podcast publishers themselves, but what happened at Gimlet Media and The Ringer introduced a key idea to the digital media labor narrative: that audio is also a crucial component in digital media work, and they should be recognized and protected as such especially as the media universe in totality remains in flux both from a structural perspective (streaming, disruption, and so on) and, at this moment, due to the pandemic.

Unions are a fact of life in digital media these days, and from where I sit, one of the more intriguing aspects of this is the fact that a good deal of this organizing work involves building a union culture in a space that previously didn’t have a lot of it. Which isn’t to say that audio and podcasting was devoid of collective action up to this point — notably, NPR’s labor force has long been represented by SAG-AFTRA. Still, unions in podcasting is a very new concept. At least, they’re a very new concept to me, speaking as a millennial who has known nothing but a brutal, broken professional world. So thought I’d try to get a better grasp of what’s been happening with the union push, and what it all means for audio workers.

To that end, I reached out to the Writers Guild of America East (WGAE), and I was given the opportunity to speak with Lowell Peterson, the executive director of the organization. Here’s that chat:

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Hot Pod: How many podcast shops are working with WGAE now, and where do those organizing efforts stand?

Lowell Peterson: We’re working with at least a dozen unionizing podcast shops. That includes companies that really concentrate on podcasts, like Gimlet and The Ringer, as well as digital media companies with significant podcast operations. We’re also talking to a lot of other companies in the podcast space.

I should note that there are a few different forms of podcast shops, and the ones I’m talking about mostly deal in “nonfiction.” They don’t typically work in dramas or comedies, though we are working to organize in that space too. For the most part, they all involve written work, so the process is not unusual for us, because we have a lot of experience organizing with writers in the film and television space.

Of course, the podcast space is growing, as I’m sure you’re very aware of. People are listening to more and more podcasts, and because of that, companies are committing more money to the medium. They’re trying to figure out how to develop more shows and maximize the number of listeners so they can monetize them. We’re paying attention to all that, and we’re seeing a real eagerness among the podcast community to get engaged in collective bargaining. As the work gets more intense, I think people recognize they want the benefits of unionization.

HP: It’s interesting that you talk about roles in podcasting as being familiar and somewhat analogous to television and film. In my mind, the podcast labor force remains fluid in a lot of ways — there’s still some amount of non-specificity in terms of what being a “producer” means and what that job role tends to involve. Does that newness come across when you’re organizing podcast shops, or have film and television been sufficiently useful metaphors for the most part?

Peterson: Honestly, it’s a bit of both. Keep in mind: because of streaming, film and television are also going through a transformation in how they’re being produced these days. It’s not like the old days when everything was CBS or ABC or NBC, when all shows had long prime time seasons. Today, everything — employment, career models, and so on — is in flux throughout the film and television industry. That experience has been useful to us in the podcast world, because we’re accustomed to working with people who are trying to make the road by walking on it.

Everything might be in flux, but one of the things that collective bargaining can do is increase transparency in terms of how much you should get paid, what work you can do, and how you can advance up the ladder of experience. We also represent a lot of people in digital and broadcast news, and those fields are really in flux. It used to be that you could work for the same company your entire adult life. That’s not true anymore. A lot of people are hired on a project by project basis or per diem basis. That experience of developing new models as core industries are transforming is useful, because when it comes to podcasting, we’re organizing in an industry that has never had much unionizing before.

We’re also finding that there’s some variation from company to company. Some podcast companies have a regular bullpen of producers, writers, and associate producers who stay on payroll and transition from series to series. Other companies are more production-specific. You get hired to work on one series, and when that’s done, maybe they’ll hire you for another series, maybe they won’t. So we’re trying to grasp the best way to represent writer-producers in both models.

HP: Could you walk me through specifically what WGAE does in the organizing process?

Peterson: So, the process is very member-driven. We have a lot of contacts through the space, and when we organize a place, it tends to be a situation where the people who we represent are already talking to people working in non-union places. They’ll come to us and say: “Hey, I noticed that I know this person over at shop X and they’re having an issue with such and such, why don’t you talk to them?”

Then we talk to them, and if there’s interest in unionizing, we set up meetings and help the folks doing the work to reach out to their colleagues, put together an organizing committee, and talk through the issues. We rely on the employees of a company to talk to their colleagues, assess the level of interest, and figure out what the issues are. We also have a very talented organizing staff who knows how to help them, if they need it.

We encourage the actual employees at the company to take ownership of the organizing campaign. That’s really essential. But we also help them understand that they’re not just organizing by themselves — they’re joining a 7,000-person union that knows how to organize and negotiate. We bring the solidarity of the people at a large union. We let them know that they’ll be joining a real professional community of creative professionals.

So those employees organize, and if we have a substantial majority, we’ll go to the company and say, “A substantial majority of your writers and producers want to negotiate a contract with the Writers’ Guild. Will you please do this voluntarily?” Almost always, the company says okay. They’re not ringing church bells or singing “huzzah!” or anything, but more often than not, they recognize the union.

HP: Has there been any hostility, though? My impression is that unionizing efforts in the podcast and digital media industry has been somewhat smooth for the most part, and whenever there was friction, it seemed to mostly come out of a sense of unfamiliarity.

Peterson: I would say that’s right. There have been some important exceptions, but I think “unfamiliarity” is the right word.

A lot of the digital media and podcast companies, they don’t know what it means to have a union. They have a generalized sense of what the labor movement means, but they don’t really know. Many of these companies are really new, and their own HR experience is pretty limited. Often, though not always, the management are folks who were involved from the beginning of the company, and they started those companies with a business vision but haven’t necessarily thought much about things like pay scales and job classifications and employee benefits.

They might be anxious about the process, so it’s useful that one of the things we bring is a meaningful voice from their employees. We help them say: “These are what our concerns really are, this is how the job could actually improve.” In most cases, it’s been a pretty productive experience for managers, I think. Now, there has been some hostility. Hearst, for example, fought us tooth and nail. That was an actively hostile company, but we prevailed and we’re going to start negotiations soon. But most of the companies have not taken a strong anti-union stance, even if they do get a little freaked.

This has to do with the organizing model we use. Once we have gotten to the point where we go to the company and tell them their employees want to unionize, we’re really sure of it. So if a manager tries to take a temperature read, they’ll know this is serious, and that their employees have really decided they wanted to engage in unionization and collective bargaining.

I don’t want to be corny and say resistance is futile… but it is. By that point, people have already spent months thinking about the issues, talking to their colleagues about the issues, and making a commitment to unionization. So even if you get an employer saying, “No way, you don’t want that, you don’t know what you’re talking about, you don’t want a union here”… they never prevail. By the time we start talking to the employer, the unionization effort is already real and has deep support. We do the patient work of organizing in advance.

HP: What have been the more consistent issues that have popped up in the organizing efforts? Or are there major differences from shop to shop?

Peterson: There are definitely themes, though there are certainly specific issues at specific shops. I would say transparency is a major theme, and that has several iterations: transparency in the job titles, job duties, pay rates. Sometimes job roles were improvised when they shouldn’t be. Another major theme is having a voice in big decisions, and that’s related to transparency. Folks don’t want to open their email or Slack channel in the morning to find out that their benefit plans or the ways they do the work have completely changed. They want to have some ability to participate in the decision making on basic workplace issues.

I would say equity and inclusion issues pop up at every shop. There’s a real commitment to workplace culture and more diverse hiring at all organizations we work with, both from a social justice perspective and quality perspective. Podcasts are just better when you have more voices and more experiences engaged in writing and producing them.

So those are the main ones. Obviously, pay rates and benefits are important to everybody as well. There’s no question that when we go in, we know we have to lock in the best possible benefits and get pay straightened out, make it more equitable and make it better.

HP: Has intellectual property been a big part of those conversations?

Peterson: Yes, absolutely. In the digital news space, we’ve negotiated some pretty innovative protections, mostly for when somebody’s article or short video gets turned into something longer.

In the podcast space, you’re already in a place where the underlying intellectual property is being exploited in a longer form. Having some sort of ability to continue with a series, having some ability to create your own work from what you’ve learned in working on the podcast… those have been priority issues as well.

This is important in the nonfiction space, but it’s especially important in the fiction space, because so many companies are using podcasts to test drama and comedy ideas for Netflix or network TV. It’s a cheap way to develop intellectual property, and we want to make sure the writers and producers can share in that.

I will say it’s been tough. It’s an uphill battle. Intellectual property issues have featured heavily in all of our negotiations. Now, we’ve made gains, but I don’t want to pretend that every producer or EP owns the copyright of their show, because that’s not true. But having some ability to share in the fruits of the creative labor and maybe even exploit it on your own or stay with it either financially or creatively if it becomes something bigger… yes, that’s definitely been an issue.

HP: How has the pandemic affected membership and the organizing process?

Peterson: In many ways, the pandemic has made it more difficult and more simple to do this work. The logistics of getting committees together is actually pretty straightforward now, because everybody’s accustomed to doing Zoom calls in the middle of the night, you know?

Our membership continues to grow. Employees opportunities haven’t been hit quite as hard as they could have been, but there have been some difficult spots. For one thing, advertising revenue has been drying up, and we’ve seen layoffs and furloughs among digital news shops. Another point of difficulty is the questions of employees being to do the work safely, particularly if they have to go out in the field to report or if they have to go into a newsroom setting. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to negotiate protocols that keep people safe.

We’re seeing increased interest in organizing. I think people feel anxious about the economy as a whole, and what it might mean for their employer. They want to have a voice in keeping their jobs or preserving benefits or getting severance pay if, God forbid, they get laid off. And as I was saying, because people can meet over Zoom or BlueJeans or whatever, the process of organizing hasn’t really been affected. We’ve been able to have lots of meetings with lots of people who do this work.

But again, I think that anxiety is only part of why we’re seeing an increased eagerness. It’s also because organizing is a way to have a voice.  As both the pandemic and the podcast industry’s growing pains affect careers, it can be pretty daunting for an individual worker to face all this totally by yourself. If you’re facing it from a unionized perspective, you at least have protections and a voice, and some power behind you.

I’m pleased that people are eager. We’re actively organizing now in some podcast companies, and it’s been inspiring as a labor movement person to see people committing to collective bargaining because I do think it makes a difference in one’s life, one’s satisfaction on the job, and one’s ability to have some say both creatively and in terms of workplace decisions. It’s also nice to welcome folks into the broader Writers Guild community. Our members are really excited about welcoming new voices, new members, and new perspectives.

We’re very excited and enthusiastic about the podcast world. Of course, everything is very much in flux and that’s kind of scary, but that’s when you need to have a collective voice.

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Lowell Peterson is the executive director of the Writer’s Guild of America East. You can visit the WGAE’s website here.