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The Wild World of Audio Internships

Illustration by Aude White, who was the tiniest bit underwhelmed by the Mare of Easttown finale — are we enemies now?

After Melissa Lent graduated from CUNY Hunter College with a double major in media studies and English, she was eager to land a job in journalism — ideally, audio journalism. There was reason to feel optimistic about her chances: During Lent’s time as an undergrad, she’d managed to pack in over five internships (including one with WNYC’s podcast Nancy), land two fellowships, and create her own four-part podcast about Gen-Z anxiety.

But despite these accomplishments, looking for an entry-level position proved challenging. “It was pretty daunting, to be honest,” said Lent. “You’re thinking about an entry-level job and a lot of [the hiring companies] want you to already have a year or two of experience. I don’t have that, but I know that I’m able to do the work.” She eventually landed a part-time position as a lecturer in the media studies department at Hunter College, but she still had her eye on actually working in audio.

It was during this period that Lent came across a post on an audio listserv from Laura Joyce Davis, the host of independent podcast Shelter in Place. Davis and her husband Nate were offering a ten-hour-per-week “apprenticeship program… designed to mentor women who are interested in becoming podcasters, audio editors, and creative entrepreneurs.”

It sounded great. There was only one catch: Apprentices would not be financially compensated for their work.

“I was hesitant to do it when I learned that it was unpaid,” Lent told me last month. “Especially as a young woman of color who is navigating this industry, I want to make sure that I’m signing up for opportunities that are the best for me and getting paid for my work.”

But the reality was that she didn’t have any paid options, aside from a few freelance gigs and her part-time lecturer position. She decided to apply and, along with a few others, was accepted. Together, they made up the first apprentice cohort at Shelter in Place.

Earlier this year, Lent completed the program and says positive things about the experience. “I created a [project-management] role for myself, which is now being offered as an option for future apprentices.” As part of that new role, she “onboarded the team to a new project-management tool” and created a series of guides for future interns to use, which covered everything from assistant production work to social media.

“It was exciting for me to create those systems,” she recalls. “First of all, because I love being organized. But second, because then other apprentices would already have a frame of reference going in, which would make the process easier for them.”

She was also given the chance to pitch a story idea to the team (which she eventually helped produce as its own episode of the show) and said that Davis and her husband made speaking with the group about their goals and ambitions a regular part of the curriculum.

As great as this sounds though, unpaid work in any capacity — even a ten-hour-per-week apprenticeship with a well-intentioned boss — raises a host of thorny issues.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employers should consider a seven-point test, when determining whether or not an internship should be paid. This guidance — which has been used in court cases involving unpaid interns — essentially boils down to whether the position mostly benefits the employer or the intern. If it mostly benefits the employer, the intern should be paid, and conversely, if it benefits the intern, the intern doesn’t need to be paid.

However helpful this guidance may be in court, in real life, it’s a bit squishy. In the case of Shelter in Place, how does one approach assessing whether the show benefits more than its apprentices, or the other way around? 

Regardless of governmental guidance, one of the more troublesome issues connected to unpaid internships in the U.S. is that it excludes applicants who can’t afford to work for free. In the view of many, this inequity perpetuates the socioeconomic — and ultimately, classist and racist — hierarchies we see at the top of countless companies in this country. Further, when underprivileged groups are denied upward mobility within the media industry, they not only lose the work, but also the chance to bring narratives specific to their experience into public view.

I reached out to Davis and asked what she would say to an applicant who really wanted the position but simply couldn’t afford to work without pay. She took a moment to gather her thoughts, but she eventually posited that “if [an applicant] is coming at it from a situation of, like, ‘I’ve only got ten hours, and I really have to make money to make ends meet,’ then I just don’t know that they will get very much out of it, if they’re already feeling so stretched thin in life.”

In researching this story, I didn’t come across any evidence that would suggest that if a person lacks funds, they’ll get less out of an opportunity. In fact, I would argue that the opposite outcome might be more likely — that the hungrier you are, the harder you might work in order to improve your circumstances.

In any event, I’ve seen enough to suggest those able to afford unpaid internships are often viewed by hiring managers and influential decision makers as the hungriest. During a 2019 Third Coast panel discussion titled All Workplaces Are Workplaces About Power, Carla Murphy, a journalism educator (and one of the session’s panelists), said she believes this point of view is pervasive within the media industry. “A ‘good journalist’ has been used to define someone who’s able to ‘stick it through,’” said Murphy. “The person who’s able to work those unpaid jobs — they’re valorized. [Imitating a hiring manager:] ‘Oh I know that you really want it because you had four unpaid internships.’ Exploitation is baked into the system.”

Unpaid audio internships are nothing new. Up until 2011, NPR only paid their summer interns, rather than their fall and spring cohorts. (Today, all NPR interns are paid $15 per hour across the board.) Over the course of my reporting, I spoke with a number of people who couldn’t afford an unpaid internship back then and applied to NPR’s paid summer program instead. One of those people was John Asante, now a senior managing producer at Pineapple Street Studios. He was offered and accepted the summer internship but recalls that “it was still tough. I literally had just enough money between getting paid [by NPR] and money I had received from my family for graduation to actually move to [Washington D.C.] to do the internship. I don’t think I would’ve been able to do it, had I not had a little bit of support.”

Today, Asante is part of a team at Pineapple that — in addition to its regular work making podcasts — actively mentors the firm’s apprentices and interns. (Pineapple pays $20 per hour to the former, who are expected to have some experience, and the same amount to the latter, who arrive with little to no experience.) Pineapple began paying their interns and apprentices right out of the gate; in fact, I was told that founders Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky paid those employees before they started paying themselves.

Erin Kelly, Pineapple’s production operations manager, said that interns and apprentices work closely with lead producers, who include them in all elements of audio production, from story development and cutting tape to archival licensing and legal review. Interns and apprentices also get multiple opportunities to learn about each role within the organization by talking directly to the people who hold those positions. By the end of the experience, the participants complete an audio sizzle reel for one of Pineapple’s podcasts that they can add to their CV. “We see this as a way for them to have something tangible to share and add to their resume for future jobs. We want them to leave feeling prepared,” said Asante.

Another podcast studio, Dustlight Productions, offers an apprenticeship program that carries a similar philosophy. “The main responsibility [of our apprentices] is to learn as much as possible,” Rachael Garcia, Dustlight’s development and operations coordinator, told me. “We are firmly against giving them busy work.”

Garcia also clarified that despite the title “apprentice,” Dustlight’s entire program is designed for people relatively new to the medium. (The terms “intern” and “apprentice” are sometimes interchangeable, but not always. At Pineapple, a comparable candidate to Dustlight’s would be called an intern, and someone with more experience would be referred to as an apprentice.) “We want people who maybe haven’t had the opportunities that other people have had,” she said. “Pretty much all of our past apprentices were people who had a passion for audio and a passion for the medium and maybe had made their own projects, but had never had professional experience before.”

According to Garcia, apprentices are encouraged to informationally interview as many people at the company as they can, sit in on as many recordings and production meetings as possible, dive into everything from editing to sound design, and even pitch their own ideas to senior staff. Whenever possible, the Dustlight team introduces their apprentices to useful contacts within the industry and provides feedback on cover letters and resumes.

Dustlight also pays their apprentices: Each participant receives a flat fee of $8,000 for four months of part-time work. Participants are expected to work between 20-25 hours per week, which Garcia tells me works out to somewhere between $20 and $25 per hour, depending on the number of hours worked. (For what it’s worth, I did the math, and it checks out). Interestingly, Dustlight founder Misha Euceph has been able to fund a portion of the program through a sponsorship deal with Simplecast; the rest of the money comes from Dustlight.

It’s reasonable to assume that Dustlight and Pineapple have access to more resources (and in the case of Dustlight, additional sponsorship funds) to support their internship and apprenticeship programs than does the team behind Shelter in Place. And I will admit to a certain amount of worry in making comparisons between podcast operations of different sizes and financial means. However, if the audio community is committed to rectifying inequalities within its ranks, I would argue that that commitment should come from everyone who is in a position to bring new people into the industry. Which is also to say: If a company can’t financially compensate an intern, maybe they shouldn’t have an internship program altogether.

Toward the end of my reporting for this story, I reached out to Doug Mitchell, the founder and project director of an NPR-affiliated training program called Next Generation Radio. Mitchell and his team run a five-day training for people interested in breaking into audio, which is sponsored by NPR member stations as well as by colleges and universities around the U.S. Each selected participant spends five days with a mentor who helps them report and produce a non-narrated audio piece, along with a few other related projects. The mission, said Mitchell, is to “find and develop a more diverse set of people who end up in public media.”

Mitchell and his team have always secured enough funding to keep the program free to participants. But over the past few years, Mitchell has fought to do something even better: pay the participants. (A quick clarification here: Audio training programs often charge participants a fee, as they are predicated on the idea of providing teaching, as opposed to internships, where participants are expected to support the work of the employer and receive mentorship in exchange.)

Mitchell said the idea to pay the trainees stemmed from a conversation he’d had with the dean of a university where he was recruiting for Next Gen. According to the dean, his student body included kids who were already juggling multiple jobs while attending school. The dean worried that some students wouldn’t be able to participate because they couldn’t afford to lose a week’s worth of pay.

That conversation spurred Mitchell to search for additional funding — both for that particular cohort as well as others around the country. The effort is still a work in progress, but Mitchell told me that this year most of the participants in the program have been paid a stipend of between $300 and $500 for a week’s worth of training. “We pay them to be with us, basically,” he said. “And it’s not just about the four or five days. It’s the long game of mentorship and coaching that we provide. We are always at the disposal of our alumni. Always, always, always.”

Toward the end of our conversation, Mitchell shared a bit more context around his efforts to fund the program. “To be honest, I never did an unpaid internship. Never,” he said. “So what do we, as people who have worked their way up, as leaders, do to make [this industry] better? There is a systemic exclusion if people can’t afford it. The idea is to not leave people out. Everybody needs a mentor, right?”