2021 Rate Guide
This document is part of AIR’s research on radio and podcasting rates. See all of AIR's work on rates for a complete guide.
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Experienced professionals who bring skills honed on other productions can provide an unbiased editorial ear, and are often able to improve a project long before production gets underway. In our 2019 expansion of our rate guides, which had traditionally focused almost exclusively on rates paid by public radio outlets to independent producers, we added new guides to cover roles like editing, sound design, and engineering. Experienced audio engineers, recordists, sound designers, and composers all bring vital skills that can make a big difference in the sound and quality of any show, whether the final audio is broadcast or a podcast.
In many cases the roles described here overlap in practice. Any one show’s needs will vary. Many independent producers do their own recording and they often expect to do their own initial dialog edits. Some shows expect producers to do their own sound design. Some sound designers compose original scores or do all the mixing and scoring for a show. Some mix engineers are asked to make editorial decisions about how to cut tape.
Many people we interviewed noted that newcomers to the field often wait until the last minute to bring a mix engineer onto the team. Though many roles described here are technically “post-production,” we’ve avoided that term intentionally. A good mixer, engineer or sound designer can make a big difference in the final quality of a show. Bringing a “post production” team in early can head off problems with recording quality, file organization, and workflow that will be labor intensive to fix later.
No glossary or guide can replace a clear and direct conversation about expectations, however this is what we mean by each term:
audio editing, or dialog editing describe the process of cutting and cleaning dialogue. In broadcast work and reported podcasts a reporter or producer often expects to make their own edits under the direction of a story editor. Note that a digital audio workstation is sometimes also described as an “audio editor”.
audio engineer is a broad term that can be applied to someone in any one of a variety of engineering-related roles including mixing and audio editing.
a composer is a musician who creates original music. A show might collaborate with a composer to create one new score or a library of original music, or they might license existing music from a composer.
an editorial consultant can help establish the show’s voice, identify opportunities to reach a larger audience, assemble a staff and realistic budget, and connect with financing. While some senior editors can also provide this kind of support, this is often where consultants come in on a small production. Some editorial consultants describe themselves as show runners or simply experts.
editor, story editor in this context refers to the person who works with a producer, reporter or host to refine and finalize the tone, content and structure of a story, episode or segment. Sometimes we use “story editing” to distinguish from “audio editing” (or actually cutting the tape). Most editors are involved from the pre-reporting stage to help frame the goals of the story, they’re checking in along the way to help troubleshoot and prioritize, and they’re helping shape the final piece, including the script itself. In most cases an editor expects to check in along the way to help assess the projects' evolution by asking questions like: what do we have? What do we need? What is turning out to be hard? Almost every editor will want to work directly with the script. Some will also want to listen to a lot of raw tape, while others look to the reporter or producer for that. Every editor will want to listen to a live read with tape. Editors tend to bring experience with reporting, ensuring that a piece is complete and accurate, and that the narrative tells a compelling story.
mastering describes the final step in creating a music album. Mastering follows the mixing stage. The term is not technically applicable to narrative broadcast and podcast work.
a mix engineer ensures that sound is clear and consistent across a show or segment. Mixing is typically the final step of producing an audio story and results in an audio file that is ready for broadcast or publication. Mixing typically includes cleaning up the audio, smoothing transitions, placing the score, and cleaning up levels. A good mix engineer can make a world of difference in a show.
an operations consultant can be indispensable if running an organization is outside your expertise. They can help you get the contract templates you need, connect with attorneys when you need legal support, and make sure that your budget includes the logistical details of keeping a production running smoothly—details that are often left out of editorial budgets. An operations consultant can help a show scale or just start up in a way that makes sustainability possible.
a producer in radio and podcast work typically conceives, researches, records, scripts, voices and cuts whole features or episodes. Depending on the scope of any one project, a producer might coordinate a team that gets all that work done or might do it all themselves. An independent producer might come on board to see a whole season through, or to produce a single feature story.
reporter is curiously one of the hardest roles to define in a guide like this. More often than not, when a radio or podcast hires a reporter, they know exactly what they need, both in terms of domain expertise, experience and deliverables. The specifics (and cost) will vary widely.
scoring describes the work of creating or identifying, selecting and licensing existing music from a music library or other source to suit the needs of a segment or story. In our research we found composers who were firm that scoring a segment always means composing original music, and other folks who were just as firm that in radio and podcasting work, scoring always means finding music from an existing source. As ever, no glossary is a substitute for a clear conversation about expectations.
sound design establishes the sound and feel of a show or episode. Sound design is an editorial role and most sound designers told us that they do their best work when they’re involved in a production from the start. On some shows individual producers handle their own sound design, others have a sound designer at the table very early in the process. In audio storytelling a sound designer might provide music and pacing direction, or customize a palette of music and sonic materials that form the defining sound of a show. A sound designer might compose original scores themselves, find composers to create original sounds and music, or use sound libraries to identify and license existing music and effects. Often a sound designer's role is to build a cohesive scene out of field recordings.
sound recordist, field recordist, production sound recordist are all general terms that describe an audio engineer who records "in the field" outside of a studio, and is able to set up equipment that will optimize recording quality given the constraints of the particular scene. Most reporters or audio producers bring their own recording equipment and record their own sound. However, circumstances do arise where a project needs a hands-on assist with field recording and only field recording.
a studio engineer operates a recording studio or a live broadcast studio.
Rates and Best Practices
Our research tracks independent contractor rates in the industry based both on what our members tell us they charge, and what experienced productions tell us they expect to pay for good work. AIR members may also find our salary guide🔒 a helpful resource. In many cases independent audio professionals told us that their rates vary with how long they’ve been with a client: many find it hard to re-negotiate a long standing relationship, or see value in maintaining good relations with a client that has been a steady source of work and income. This often means that any one independent’s rates aren’t keeping up with either inflation or their own growing experience.
Most independent audio professionals also told us that they charge somewhat more for short engagements, or that they offer a preferential rate to clients who can guarantee steady work. These rates reflect the work that goes into establishing a new working relationship.
Editorial and Operational Consulting
Rates for expert consulting among our respondents ranged from $1000-$1500 per day in 2019. We did not re-survey expert consultants in 2021. Many consultants at this level told us that they only work by the day. Where consultants charge hourly rates, those tended to be $150-250 per hour but some consultants with notable expertise told AIR they charge up to $500/hour. The amount of time that any one show will need with an outside executive producer or content strategist will vary, but most consultants will be able to accurately estimate the level of engagement they foresee.
Rates for producers vary widely depending on the scope of the work and anticipated use. Most producers charge by the project, based on their assessment of the work involved in a project. We recommend using AIR’s Salary Guide🔒 as a starting point for establishing fair rates for producers.
Story Editing Rates
Rates for story editors vary with experience. Newer editors (often experienced journalists who are only new to editing) quoted rates between $75-125 per hour while more experienced editors typically charge $125-200 per hour. Editors who often work by the day, rather than by the hour (and at least one outlet that pays freelance editors by the hour) quoted us $900 per day for consistent work.
Engineering, Recording, and Mixing Rates
Tape Syncs are a special case: the work involved in preparation, set up, and follow up on a tape sync is relatively consistent and described in our tape sync rate guide.
In our research the rates for mixing, recording and engineering roles varied with experience and sometimes by the complexity of the job but rarely varied by the role. We focused our research on independent contractors, though it is not uncommon for a specialist to be on payroll for a short term appointment. In general, independent contractors should expect to charge at least 30% more than peers doing similar work on payroll. (Our day rate calculator has more detail on how to translate salaries into freelance rates fairly.)
Experienced engineers often include a fixed number of revisions in their contract, even for work that will ultimately be billed by the hour. Revisions, tweaks, corrections and adjustments are part of the work, but when those trickle in piecemeal, the freelancer is stuck managing a lot of inefficient communication. Charging a higher rate for revisions after the first two passes can help encourage efficiency and ensure that everyone is able to do their best work.
Independent engineers who are early in their career or still building a portfolio cited hourly rates in the $75-125 range, while experienced engineers reported rates of $150-200 per hour or day rates commensurate with that range.
Additional fees, consistent with time-and-a-half overtime standards, are typical for unusually long days or condensed schedules.
Sound Design Rates
Our sample size for sound design wasn’t sufficient to estimate separate rates for sound designers. Some of the sound designers we interviewed do both sound design and engineering, and their rates are described in the engineering section above.
One interesting consideration: some sound designers told us they prefer to work on a per-project rate, so that they aren’t penalized for working fast, and can put extra time into something without worrying that the client didn’t budget for that time. Per-project rates help address that pressure.
When we researched composition rates in 2019, our sample was both small and diverse. We’ve since heard from producers and sound designers that the rates we cited are much lower than they find they have to pay to license original music.
Establishing “standard” rates for original music composition is particularly challenging because some composers can command substantially more for their work than others and because most composers take expected usage of the work into account when setting their rates. To make things even more complicated, session musicians and a studio are a significant expense, but some music can be produced in-the-box using only software. Some projects will want to collaborate with a composer to develop original music, while other projects might be looking for non-exclusive use of an existing track.
Dustlight typically budgets about $10,000 for a composer to create a custom library for a new show (you can see more details in the sample budget they shared). Sound Designers and Engineers who joined our listening sessions in preparation for this rate guide told us that $5000 - $8000 for an original score is the ballpark they expect, and they cited $700-750 per cue as a market rate. Music library services will often charge substantially less.
A composer retains their copyright to the work and use beyond the original intended medium will need to be renegotiated. If you need to reserve the right to use work in unanticipated mediums, expect to pay significantly more for the license.
We interviewed experienced radio shows and podcast production houses about what they expect to pay. We interviewed experienced sound designers, composers, and engineers about what they charge. We also talked to professionals working in film or music to get a sense of where rates overlap and reviewed rates. We reviewed existing research including Blue Collar Post Collective’s survey of post-production rates in film and television.
For this guide, we relied heavily on interviews to establish the roles and categories. Rob Byers, Michael Raphael, and Jeremy Bloom helped refine, define and clarify the terms we’ve used here and were absolutely indispensable to the creation of this guide.
AIR's work on rates
AIR is actively developing a series of guides designed to help independent producers, editors, and engineers set fair and reasonable rates, and to help everyone create accurate and realistic budgets. We want to hear from you.
This guide was posted in January 2022 based on numbers collected in September 2021 and has not been updated. Our hope as an organization is that AIR can keep these rate guides up to date but if you're reading this and it is more than a year old, you should adjust the recommended rate to reflect changes in the cost of work and living.