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 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.

Job Hunting… Cancer… Economy… It’s All in Here in… My Story

First off, let me state that this post isn’t about trying to get people to feel sorry for me.  I’m not that type of person.  But there are a few things I would like to get off my chest.  Let’s just call it “venting.”

I’m in a lot of financial trouble.  Serious trouble.  I know… everybody else is, as well.  The economy is circling the drain and nobody knows when it will bounce back.  Although , I have faith that it will.  Corporations are laying off employees by the thousands and those thousands just become more people that I have to compete with in order to find a job.

I was let go from my position as the Marketing & Promotions Director for a cluster of of radio stations in Connecticut back in May of 2007.  It was a job that I absolutely loved, and was very good at.  I was never given a reason as to why, but that’s not important.  It’s a part of being in the radio industry.  After a week or two of wallowing in self-pity, I began to view it as an opportunity.  Perhaps a time to re-invent myself.  I re-did my resume, and laptop computer in hand, started to re-discover the old career web sites that I had not needed to look at for a number of years.  I began reaching out to contacts that I had built up over the course of time… friends, colleagues, clients.  I was getting some interviews.  Some went well, some didn’t,  In July, I decided to take a part-time job at Starbucks, not so much for the paycheck, but to have a place to go and be around people.  Plus, they offer a very good benefits package to part-timers.  Medical Insurance that I needed because…

In March of 2008, I was diagnosed with cancer for the 3rd time over the course of 10 years.  This was one month after the loss of my father, so yes… between the job loss, losing my dad, and the cancer (we’re not even going to touch on the romantic issues that I had to deal with in that time frame)… I had a pretty miserable year.

An aggressive approach to dealing with the cancer was called for.  For the first time, I didn’t have surgery.  We have been treating with chemotherapy and then a month of radiation treatments at the end of 2008.  So now, I was not only searching for a job, I was dealing with this hideous disease.  It affected my job search.  I was still getting some interviews, but I believe that my “condition” may have hurt my chances with some potential employers.  I didn’t “look like” a cancer patient, or what one might expect a cancer patient to look like.  I hadn’t lost my hair.  But I felt awful.  It not only affected the way that I approached job hunting, it affected how I handled myself in interviews.  I am a very open and honest person, and felt an obligation to tell my potential employers about my condition.  Stupid, yes.  But at the time, I felt that people deserved to know what they were getting involved in with me.  In truth, I wasn’t applying for jobs that I couldn’t handle.  I wasn’t sending resumes for jobs that had the title “VP of Anything”.  I had chemo treatment once every two weeks.  The side affects I would be able to work through.  They weren’t all that bad.

It is illegal to not hire somebody based on their medical conditions.  But let’s face it… employers can find a million other reasons to not hire you.

So, I realized that I needed to really concentrate on getting myself better.  Not that I stopped the job search, but sort of re-prioritized it.  Of course, once I started to see the light at the end of the tunnel as far as my health, the economy fell apart. Thousands were out of work.  As of now, the unemployment rate is at a 25 year high.  Believe me, I sympathize with each and every one.  The problem is… my creditors don’t want to hear that I have no money.   Which brings me to…

My take on the economy.  I don’t pretend to know anything about the economy.  I’m not very good at politics.  But what I do know is that I never had a problem with huge mega-bonuses that CEOs get, or millions in severance packages.  Hell, I was even all for pro-athletes getting completely ridiculous contracts.  My feeling was that if somebody had the money and was willing to shell it out so that a football player could play in 16 games a year, then great!  Now, however, when I see that the former boss at Merrill Lynch took a 50 or 60 million dollar bonus and left the company after only 3 months of work… and after his company was bailed out by the federal government… well, I have serious issues with that.  There was, one story a few weeks ago, and I wish I had paid more attention to it, where a CEO took his $60,000,000 bonus and split it up between his employees.  He even gave former employees a cut.  WE NEED MORE PEOPLE IN THIS SOCIETY LIKE THIS!!!!

And now, the bailout plan that’s in the works is primarily for home-owners that can’t pay their mortgage.  That’s fine.  But what about those of us that don’t own homes.  I rent.  And I’m about a month and a half away from being evicted.  What’s the stimulus plan to help me and the others like me?  Sure… there are agencies that offer things like rental assistance.  Yes, I applied.  Their question to me was “Do you have enough money to pay your rent?”  When I told them no, they responded that they couldn’t help me because I couldn’t pay my rent.  WHAT??? If I had enough money to pay my rent, then I wouldn’t need rental assistance.  This is a true story.  So, when I eventually do find a job, I will go back to them and see of they can help me pay my back rent.  That is if I’m not living in my car by then (at least that’s paid for).

So what about social services like welfare and food stamps?  Oh, I tried that, too.  Apparently I’m not eligible for welfare because I don’t have a child and I am not disabled.  You may ask, “But what about the cancer, Eric?”  What I am going through is not disabling in any way, shape, or form.  I am able to work at 100% capacity.  So, no, I don’t qualify under that.

As for food stamps… Apparently I make too much money at my part-time job to qualify.  I guess they really expect people to be able to live on the $150 a week I might take home after taxes are taken out.  Never mind that there’s rent, bills, utilities, and gas for the car to pay for.  Believe me, I understand that there are people who abuse the system, and they should summarily be destined to spend a number of years as guests of our friendly department of corrections.  It’s those people that make it more difficult for honest people to get the help they need.

I have had the very good fortune to have many friends and family to lean on.  I’ve even had  family members (who shall remain anonymous) send me checks of fairly large sums (large to me) to help me thorough on a couple of  occasions.  I am normally not normally the type of person to take this kind of help.  But I had to, and I know that they would have been insulted if I didn’t.  I’m normally the person on the other end… the person that tries to help others in need.  It’s actually one of the reasons I’ve liked my career path so much.  Being in radio gave me the opportunity to help countless non-profits and charities to promote awareness and fundraisers.  I even spent 2 years working for the Muscular Dystrophy Association as a fundraiser.  There are not a lot of jobs where you can make a living helping kids.  And I would go back to Non-Profit in a heartbeat.  I would go back to MDA, and I would LOVE to work for the American Cancer Society.  I have applied 7 or 8 times, and interviewed on two different occasions, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why I’m having such a hard time breaking in there.  I have 2 years of very successful find-raising experience, through my radio jobs did a great job of helping them to promote their events, I’m the publicity chairperson for one of our local Relay For Life events, and I have the personal experience… 3 times!

And I miss my job at the aforementioned cluster of radio stations in Connecticut.  I didn’t for a while.  I admit that I was very bitter about how the whole thing played out.  But I’m beyond that, and if the opportunity would ever arise, I would also go back there in a second, although many of the people that I worked with are gone.  Many of my colleagues, whom I consider friends, are still there and the listeners and fans of the stations were out of this world!

But I also look forward to whatever challenges lay ahead.  I have renewed vigor in the job search arena, and even though I am still in treatment, my cancer is in the past.  I would love to find a job that allows me to use my skills that I have, but challenge me in new and exiting ways.  It certainly doesn’t have to be in radio or non-profit, but something that allows me to use my creative side along with some decent business sense.

I know that I am not unique in that many people have health, career, and financial issues.  I just thought  I would share my thoughts and hope that others will share theirs.  Believe it or not… it’s GREAT therapy!

I know that I touched on many topics in this post… Normally, I would probably have split them into different blog entries.  But I feel that they are all connected.

Thank you for taking the time to read.