The Great Intern Debate – Are Unpaid Internships Illegal?

I recently came across a discussion on the Connecticut Board of Radio-Info calling internships into question.  Why should radio stations not pay interns?  This is, of course, relevant to other industries.  But I’m going to stick with radio here for the most part.

A little of my history… I got into radio at the age of 24, which is actually kind of late to get started in the industry.  I was a student at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.  I was a part of the college radio station, WOWL, and absolutely fell in love with radio.  Part of my curriculum as a Communications major was that I had to do an internship.  There were 2 major radio stations in the area… WPLR (99 Rock), which was a rock station, and WKCI (KC 101) which was a CHR.  I always preferred rock, so the natural inclination would have been to go to WPLR.  However, I knew a number of people who interned at both stations, and the folks that went to WKCI seemed to always get hired out of their internship, while WPLR gave them a handshake and sent them on their way (for the most part).  So I gritted my teeth and went to ‘KCI.  And 3 months after I started interning, I got hired part-time to run the board for the “Rick Dees Weekly Top 40”.  After that, they started giving me weekend airshifts, and I eventually got hired as the Full-Time Assistant Promotions Director.  And it happened because I worked hard in the internship.  When I wasn’t at school, I spent my time at the radio station.  Doing anything I could to learn what was going on.  Since then, I have worked as the Marketing & Promotions Director at stations such as WTIC-AM, WTIC-FM (96.5 TIC), WRKO-AM, WRKI-FM (I-95), and WDBY-FM (Y105).  I have also had the good fortune to be an air personality at WKCI-FM, WQGN (Q105), WDAQ-FM (98Q), WTIC-FM, WRKI-FM, and WDAQ-FM.

In order to write this post, I wanted to see what others thought.  I conducted a very intense, focused, and expensive survey.  OK, I posed the question on my Facebook account and let my friends comment.

To begin with, interns receive college credit for their internship.  Essentially, it’s a class.  You don’t sit through a history class in college and collect a paycheck at the end of the hour.  Interns are going to their radio station to learn about the business and whether or not they even want to get into radio as a career.  Anne said, “I loved my internship at WPLR.. was there for 4 years,
learned all kinds of good things… like I didn’t want to work in commercial radio! Very valuable information when your still in college trying to figure things out!”

And Gina points out that, “My college internship at Z100 in NYC was a fabulous experience, both professionally and personally. I lived with a cousin and his family for the summer. This type of experience forces you to be resourceful, responsible and teaches the value of hard work. Too many young people today expect everything to be handed to them…entitled to be compensated for merely existing! There’s no need for a person who’s not even left college with a degree yet to be paid…they have no experience to hang thier hat on and they are there to LEARN, not to be paid. Payment comes when you’ve earned a hired position there. Internships are a great way to get there.”

The problem becomes that people view interns as unpaid labor.  I suppose, in a sense, that it is. I know that when I was running internship programs, I completely depended on them.  But, again… college credit.  They have to be there AS IF IT WERE A CLASS.  And when the time came that I needed to hire a new staff person, guess who I hired!  Think about it… wouldn’t you rather hire someone that you already know than someone from the outside?  When I was at Cumulus in Danbury, I probably hired 50% of my promotions interns into part-time promotion coordinator positions.  My Program Director would also hire them as part-time board operators and personalities.  Not bad for your first real radio job!  Greg mentioned, “Unpaid internships are like getting a clunker for your first car – you need to be humbled before moving on to better things.” It’s true!  I’ve seen too many people walk into my radio stations thinking that they could do (and deserved to do) whatever they wanted!

The first rule of radio is that you’re not nearly as good as you think you are.  The second rule is that commercial radio is NOT anything like college radio.  Do you think you’re going to come in, start off in Afternoon Drive, and get to play whatever you want?  Think again… You’re most likely going to start off in the promotions department, helping us to set up remote broadcasts, hanging banners, giving out prizes, and LEARNING TO TALK TO THE PUBLIC!  You see… it’s more than just hanging banners.  You need to get out and learn who the listeners are.  The station is more about them than it is about you.  Why are they fans? What do THEY want to hear?  What do THEY want the radio station to be?  After that process, you may get the chance to run the board for a syndicated show or get a weekend overnight shift (some stations still put people on at 3am), and for that… you will be paid.  Probably minimum wage, but paid, nonetheless.

Wherever I worked, internships were primarily in the promotions department.  Simply, it’s the place that needs the most help. Unfortunately, in this day and age with automation, there is not really anything for an intern to do in the studio.  I would encourage them to go into the studio (with the DJs permission) and just sit there and absorb.  Todd made an intersting comment, “I believe a good internship allows for the intern to embrace the roles that peak their interests and shape their long term credibility. They should also be allowed to avoid what disinterests them. For instance an aspiring radio news reporter intern should NOT be assigned to assist the sales department. Chances are this model of freedom could only exist if the intern is NOT on the payroll. Once you are compensated by someone else, you are under an obligation to meet their requirements and expectations” I actually don’t agree with this.  A good internship is going to give the intern a well-rounded vision of what goes on. Maybe they thought they were interested in news, but after getting exposed to the sales department, maybe they would decide that perhaps that is the direction that they want to go.  The cool thing about interning in promotions, is that it is one of the only dpeartment that interacts with every other department in the station.

Most radio companies require that that the internship exchange for school credit.  Therefore it’s NOT illegal because the student is actually receiving something.  As Samantha points out, “If interns are getting college credit or trade school credit, they don’t need to be paid and that should be legal. But if you are hiring an “intern” and not requiring that they are getting credit, the company should pay at least minimum wage or else it is free labor. Too many companies are trying to save money by eliminating paying positions in favor of having interns do the work.” I actually see both sides of this argument.  When I was running the internship program at Cumulus in Danbury, I was allowed to hire interns who were NOT doing it for credit.  And the simple fact is that they were, for the most part, better interns.  These were the people that wanted to do it because they loved radio and wanted to get their foot in.  Interns doing it for credit were sometimes there only because it was a “blow-off” class.

Kirk feels that interns should be paid based on what they do, “It depends on the quality of the program too. Most of what I did was marketing, not broadcasting. No one asked to hear a sample hour of me on cassette or explained a format clock to me. That all happened at WXCI in college. My coop was at WTXX (a television station) in Prospect and that was much more hands-on. The GM and I had to meet every week to see what I was doing. That never happened at RKI. So, I should have been compensated at the “I” but not at TXX.” This raises a good point… my question for Kirk would be did he ask anyone to listen to an aircheck or ask to have clocks explained?  He may have… I didn’t know him at the time.  But to get the most out of an internship, the person has to ask.  You will only get out of it what you put in.  If you show the Program Director that you are interested in these things, I’m sure he/she will go out of the way to help.  Corey, who is a chef and not in radio (but certainly knows about it second hand because he is my brother) mentioned “For my industry, I think a short unpaid stage is OK…but not a full internship….with this said…once hired, it is the Chef’s responsibility to train you for your station…the other stuff you want to learn….that’s up to you to make yourself available and pay attention too.”

Kirk takes a different point of view than me… “It really depends on the internship. College students should be paid a stipend. Back in the 80’s, I Interned for I-95 (WRKI). I mostly drove all over Fairfield County delivering I-95 Gazettes to advertisers without being compensated for gas and mileage. I accepted this because I knew that it was an opportunity. Bruce Goldsen and I did a Remote at the New Milford Burger King once and I did the Oyster Fest. What I got out of it was some concert tickets and T-shirts, Bart Gannon would let me fool around in the Prod Room while he was on the air. What I learned is that there was no way that I’d be on the air without experience; which is why I enrolled at WestConn for WXCI.” I don’t believe they should be paid a stipend.  I DO believe that hey should be reimbursed for expenses such as gas.  Or better… they should be allowed to drive the station vehicles.  Get the logo out on the streets!  But some insurance companies don’t allow it because technically, an intern is not an employee.  When I was with I-95, interns WERE allowed to drive the station vehicles.

And then there is the question of the fact that owners are laying off people by the thousands.  If they are not paying the experienced, why would they pay the people trying to learn? As Andrea says, “If radio stations have to pay for interns there won’t be any. Radio stations are too cheap to even keep seasoned part-timers on staff, do you really think they would shell out any cash for someone with NO experience?”

I think what it comes down to is whether or not you really want to break into the business.  If the person is trying to learn the industry, there is no better way to do it then through an internship… whether it’s paid or unpaid.  Like I said before, if you are doing it for credit, it’s a college class.  I also believe that if you are doing it as a “volunteer” (not for credit), it’s your choice.  I volunteer for the American Cancer Society handling publicity for a local Relay For Life.  Should I start insisting that the Cancer Society pay me?  Of course not!  I do it for personal reasons, and truthfully, for professional reasons, as well.  I have been very open in that the Cancer Society is an organization that I would someday like to work for.  My hope is that they would take my work as a volunteer into consideration when deciding whether to hire me.  If a radio station hires an intern for credit, it’s not illegal.  And if they hire a volunteer, I don’t think it should be considered illegal.  That person is doing it for a chance to gain experience in an industry that they might have no hope of breaking into otherwise.  And besides, they are getting all kinds of perks like concert tickets and t-shirts!

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