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!

The Radio Promotions Director – An (abbreviated) Job Description

NOTE: I have started writing blogs about radio for a new site called Radio Twit. This article was written for that site, but I am posting it here on my personal blog, as well.  As I will do for any post I write.  please check it out.  We are just starting up and it is going to be a great resource for anyone either in radio or interested in radio.

I’ve spent the better part of my career in radio promotions. I’ve worked in small markets (Danbury, CT), large markets (Hartford, CT), and major markets (Boston, MA).  The one question that seems to be a constant throughout my career has been, “What exactly do you do?”

That’s actually not an easy question to answer. The thing that most people expect is that I’m the guy that just goes out and hangs banners and balloons. And yes, while that is a very small part of the job, there is so much more.
I guess the best way to start this discussion is that the Promotions Director is the person in the radio station that directly interacts with every single other department. From programming to sales, production, traffic, business, engineering, even reception. I also like to describe it as the person that the receptionist sends all the phone calls to when he/she has no idea where they are supposed to go.
Even though the jocks are the “faces” of the station, the promotion director is generally the mouth. When the jocks don’t want to answer an awkward question, it usually comes to the Promotions Director.
The Promotions Director generally works very closely with the General Manager and the Program Director to plot the marketing course for the station. Everything from how to brand the station, logo design, web presence, and so forth. You also have to work closely with the sales department to develop promotional programs for station clients. This is actually tricky because you have to make these programs fit in with the aforementioned branding and presence of the radio station. Here’s a simplistic example… You are a classic rock station, but your client wants you to give away tickets to, say, Britney Spears. How do you do this? Well, you don’t. This annoys not only the client, but the sales rep who already promised the client that we would do it. NOTE TO SALES… Please do NOT promise anything to a client until it has either passed through promotions or programming.
Most of the time, though, I’ve enjoyed putting together sales promotions. We usually have really cool prizes to give away, make much needed revenue for the station, and can look larger than life. While I was the Promotion Director in Danbury, I worked closely with a local travel agency who got us lots of trips to give away… cruises, Rio, a private concert with Jimmy Buffet in Anguilla. Plus we’ve given away backyard makeovers including new patios, grills, hot tubs, landscaping. Cars are always fun prizes to give away.
Sales promotions could also be very turn-key programs. The client places a buy and wants to give away tickets to their event. Simple enough. Divide the tickets up throughout the day. Usually with an emphasis on AM Drive and PM Drive. Have the jock take caller 9, include the :10 second tag and you’re done.
The problem with sales promotions is that in a lot of cases, the sales rep is focused on getting the sale and will promise the client things that are impossible to pull off, or are, quite frankly, not worth putting together based on the amount of the buy. Not true in all cases… I’ve certainly had my fair share of salespeople who “got it”. Who would sit down with me and discuss possibilities and what would work best for not only the client, but also the station. But it seems that at every station I’ve worked at, there was the one sales rep that made my life a living nightmare. Ironically, the one from my last station is someone I still keep in touch with and she will still come to me for ideas. Which I like. It helps keep my unemployed brain active.
Events: This is where a promotion director can really shine. I would say that about 80% of the events are pretty turn-key. Usually remote broadcasts where the station will show up at the client with the van, a tent, some prizes, and a jock who will do a series of 1:00 minute live spots imploring you to “Come down to XXXX Honda for Midnight Madness. The best deals of the year are here now!” But there are other events… festivals, consumer shows, seminars. I’ve loved working on each and every one of them.
Public Relations: Somebody has to get the word out to people outside of your listenership. My job consisted of writing press releases, being the station spokesperson, being interviewed, etc.
Community Relations: This warrants an entirely different blog post which will hopefully be coming soon.
Staff management: Weirdly enough, when I worked in a major market, I had an assistant. That’s it. And he split time between my station and the other AM station in the cluster. In the tiny market of Danbury, I had a full-time assistant, 8 per-diem part-timers, and at any given time 5 to 25 interns. Go figure. My job was to hire, in some cases fire, train, schedule (though I usually delegated that to the assistant), and try to keep everybody happy.
Vendor relations: I was responsible for seeking out and growing relationships with all kinds of vendors. People who made our t-shirts and premium items for giveaways, graphic designers, auto body shops (station vans get dinged), etc… Most of the time with little or no budget to work with. Advertising trade was my savior!
There is so much more to this job that I can ever put into one post. I’ll add more in the future. In the meantime, I’d love to hear what you have to say. Please feel free to leave a comment.

A.I.G. Executive Resigns… in the New York Times!

Jack DeSantis, Executive VP of A.I.G. Financial Products (based in the Wilton, CT office), has resigned from the company, and has shared his resignation letter with the world in “The New York Times.”  The man has some really good points.  I have been fairly vocal about my thoughts on huge bonuses being paid out.  My feeling in the past has been that I never had a problem with it.  If these behemoth companies could afford to pay bonuses, that was their perogative.  However, if a company that has been part of the bail-out program was still paying out these obscene amounts, and using my tax dollars to do it… then I have a problem.

Mr. DeSantis, however, raises some interesting points.  Many of these executives were working on the premise that they would only take $1 a year in salary, while the remaining portion of their compensation would be in the form of stocks and bonuses.  It ws with good faith that they signed their contracts.  And, as is the case with Mr. DeSantis, a lot of these executives that had nothing to do with the company failing, are now being asked to give the money back.

My dilemma is that I believe in principle that a contract should be honored.  But the fact that it is that it is now my tax dollars instead of the company’s profits being paid out.  I’m struggling to pay my rent, let alone my back rent, and put food on my table. I need to keep my car on the road so that I can get back and forth to my $200 a week part-time job.  Mr. DeSantis clearly states in his letter that his family will not suffer at all financially.

On the positive side, and I commend Jack DeSantis for this, he will be donating his entire bonus of over $700,000 to charity.  Jack… drop me a note and I’ll tell you my address so that you can send just a tiny portion of that bonus to me.

Read the resignation letter here .

The Rules of Unemployment

I have a friend from way back in high school, Jackie, who has a friend named Fred Kluth.  Fred and his roommate, Stepahnaie, came up with this list of rules for being unemployed a few years ago.  Being unemployed myself (some of friends call it under-employed, since I work part-time), I thought this list was terrific.  I want to thank Fred for allowing me to re-post this.

My favorite is #2:

#1 – Spend at least 1-2 hour a day looking for a job, making calls, etc. But really try to treat each day like you are working, get up, get dressed, take a shower. create and keep a ritual/schedule

#2 – Have Peanut Butter and Jelly Tuesdays. Do you know anyone else who isn’t working? See if you can get together for lunch on Tuesdays for PB&J. PB&J because its cheap and you don’t have a lot of money to spend on Brie or impressive food.

#3 –  No Drinking until 5pm

#4 –  You can allow only yourself one hour of television a day. Under no circumstances watch tv all day. TV eats your soul.

#5 – Go outside at least once a day. Go for a walk, go to the park… don’t stay couped up… lack of personal contact depresses people. Exercise is good and now you have time to do it.

#6 – Goof off Friday! Soon you will be working again and you will look back on those days of unemployment and say, “oh, I should have done that when I wasn’t working”. Take advantage of being off and have some fun. Make all your friends with jobs jealous! Go to a museum, go to the movies, see some friends. Do whatever you want this day is for you.

#7 –  If you find yourself on the internet reading about Lindsey Lohan – go to step 5.

#8 –  Practice acceptance, enjoyment and enthusiasm – you can’t force change, somethings need to take there own time, you can do all the leg work but you have to leave the rest to forces out of your control

#9 – Schedule informational meetings.