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Code of Fair Practices for Working with Freelance Audio Contributors

Originally created June 1999, revised March 2015, last revised July 2019

AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, offers this Code of Fair Practices to define ethical standards and contract guidelines for our members, which include freelance audio producers, journalists, podcasters, editors, sound designers, composers, and mix engineers as well as the broadcast shows who hire them to produce high quality work. This code is not a substitute for a contract but should help freelancers and shows that commission work to negotiate fair agreements.

This code was revised in 2019 to reflect changes in the freelance audio landscape as podcasting has emerged and evolved as a vibrant medium for audio work. As freelance audio producers increasingly move between podcast work and radio, and between news and storytelling work that adheres less strictly to fact, it is important for freelancers and the shows and stations who commission work to have forthright conversations about expectations.

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AGREEMENTS: Commissioning entities and freelancers should agree in advance on rates, rights, terms of payment, expectations for deliverables, timetables, and editorial control. Both parties should execute a written agreement or email before work commences. AIR’s contract templates provide a good example. Depending on the scope of an assignment or project, parties may also include a statement that explains the work’s unifying vision, including details about what roles each participating entity or person will play.

ANNUAL RATE REVIEW: Commissioning entities and frequent freelance contributors should expect to reassess their standard rate at least once per year to ensure that changes in industry practices and the cost of living are reflected in the standard rate and to ensure that freelance contributors whose work has improved with experience are compensated accordingly. Rate increases should be incorporated into the annual budget process.

COMPENSATION: Whether paid by story or episode or an hourly or day rate, contributors should be compensated at rates that reflect the effort, skill and experience of the freelancer, and the expected future use of the work by the commissioning entity. Additional fees are recommended for companion digital features, music (either from a library or original composition), photographs, video, and other deliverables beyond the initial audio commission.

CONFLICTS OF INTEREST: Freelancers should always disclose any actual or potential conflicts of interest to their editor in advance of accepting an assignment or as soon as they become aware of the potential for conflict. This includes, but is not limited to, financial interest in the subject matter of the work, grants from a third-party entity, or personal relationships with subjects involved in a story or episode.

CONSISTENCY WITHIN ACQUIRING ORGANIZATIONS: Switching editors in the middle of a commission often creates additional work for a freelancer who has established trust and clarity with their editor and should be avoided wherever possible.

CORRESPONDENCE: Organizations should make a good faith effort to provide freelancers with listener correspondence related to produced work, consistent with the organization’s privacy policy. Listener service staff should be prepared to respond to requests from freelancers. Freelancers, in turn, recognize the proprietary nature of such correspondence and should not make listener correspondence public without explicit permission.

CREDITS: Credit is currency. While best practices in crediting contributors are part of an ongoing conversation, everyone who made a reasonable contribution to the production should be credited for their work.

EXCLUSIVITY: Freelancers and commissioning entities should communicate clearly about expectations of exclusivity. Most shows ask for right of first airing when they commission an audio piece. Some shows ask freelance contributors not to repost a piece for a defined period of time after release. Freelancers who are planning to post a story to their own online portfolio, repurpose material in another medium, or produce a different version of the story should communicate clearly with the commissioning entity about expectations.

EXPENSES: Unless otherwise agreed, a commissioning entity is responsible for all reasonable costs (meals, travel, phone, shipping, transcription, tape syncs, etc.) incurred in the production of a commission. Mileage should be reimbursed at the current IRS rate unless the commissioning entity has another policy in place. Freelancers should familiarize themselves with and abide by the travel and expense policies of the commissioning organization and review anticipated expenses in advance of a commission.

GOING CONCERNS: Freelancers and commissioning entities that work together frequently should establish a standard contract that specifies the payment schedule, expense and kill fee policies, payment for substantive rewrites, and rights. In addition to that standard contract, freelancers and commissioning entities should craft a written confirmation letter or email for each assignment to include (but not limited to) the nature of the commissioned work, the rate to be paid, additional expenses covered, due date, length of story when applicable, and any additional special circumstances that apply to the commission.

INDEMNITY: It is a reporter’s responsibility to fact check work and follow established journalistic practices of the commissioning entity. Once work is accepted, vetted by an organization or editor, paid for, and distributed, the commissioning entity should stand by the freelancer should the work result in legal action, except in cases where a freelancer has acted in bad faith or misrepresented their work to the acquiring organization. No freelancer should be asked to broadly indemnify a commissioning entity against claims or legal actions resulting from their work unless that indemnity is mutual.

INTERNSHIPS: Interns who take on work above and beyond the scope of their internship should be entitled to be compensated at the same rate as other freelance contributors. Interns and commissioning entities should communicate clearly and in advance about the scope and compensation expectations for such work.

KILL FEES: Unless there are significant technical or editorial problems with the work, a story or commission should be paid in full as long as the work agreed to is submitted on time, even in situations where the work is ultimately not used. When a story is killed, the freelancer should be freed to market the edited work to another outlet.

ON THE SHELF: Commissioning entities should make every effort to ensure that the freelancer knows the anticipated broadcast or release date of their work. When work will not be used, freelancers should be given an opportunity to resell the story. Freelancers who wish to resell completed stories should communicate clearly with the commissioning entity about how they should be credited for their role in envisioning and editing the piece.

PAYMENT PERIOD: Freelancers should invoice commissioning entities promptly when work is accepted. For more substantial commissions, especially those that will take months to produce, it is best practice to pay a portion upfront. Unless other terms have been agreed to in advance, commissioning entities should pay invoices within 30 days.

PITCHES: Commissioning entities should consider original pitches from freelancers confidential and should respond to them promptly. A good faith discussion is important to set expectations--acquiring organizations may receive independent pitches with similar ideas from multiple sources or may already be independently developing similar ideas. In the event that a commissioning entity chooses not to work with a freelancer, but would like to pursue a pitch, a finders fee should be negotiated.

RIGHT OF PRIOR REVIEW: Shows and productions should re-engage a freelancer when substantial changes are made to a work after the final edit. When last minute changes are necessary, an editor should make every effort to contact and consult the freelancer before making changes.

RIGHTS: Unless otherwise agreed to in a work-for-hire agreement, the freelancer retains copyright for work created and retains all rights to unused material gathered or created while creating a commissioned work. Commissioning entities and freelancers should clearly agree what broadcast and distribution rights the commissioning entity holds and what, if any, the period of exclusivity will be. If a freelancer cannot grant exclusive worldwide rights to a piece that should be clearly communicated and included in contract language.

SPEC ASSIGNMENTS: When work is commissioned “on spec”, the acquiring entity does not commit to pay for the work until it is accepted for broadcast or distribution. Assigning work "on spec" is tantamount to asking a freelancer to work for free. This practice is strongly discouraged. Situations arise where a commissioning entity is unwilling to commit to paying for work without hearing it first, but those are and should be exceptionally rare. Freelancers are always free to re-sell work that was created on spec but not accepted for distribution.

STANDARDS OF REPORTING: Where appropriate, commissioning editors should ensure that freelancers have access to organizational policies that cover ethical practices and journalistic standards, including policies with regard to anonymous sources, conflicts of interest, and paying (or otherwise remunerating) sources. Freelancers who are new to journalism should familiarize themselves with the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Freelancers should be prepared to provide evidence to support any facts asserted in a work. It is the responsibility of the freelancer to ask for guidance when they’re unsure whether standards apply to a specific situation.

TRANSPARENCY: Commissioning entities who routinely work with freelance contributors should publish guidelines covering rates and policies, and distribute them to freelance contributors at least once a year. In cases where compensation is organized in tiers, guidelines should describe the progression to higher compensation tiers. Organizations are responsible for ensuring freelancers are kept apprised of changes in policies and practices that may impact them.

UNANTICIPATED ADDITIONAL WORK: If, during the course of creating original or new work, the editor and freelancer agree more work is needed to research, mix, create, or gather material beyond the original expectation, the initial agreement on rates should be renegotiated, unless the additional work is necessary to correct for weakness in the original reporting.

WORK-FOR-HIRE: The US Copyright Act of 1976 describes explicit criteria for establishing freelance work as work-for-hire. In most circumstances, freelancers retain copyright over works created on commission, unless both parties have agreed to a work-for-hire agreement or the freelancer was working as a temporary employee when the work was created. In a work-for-hire arrangement, the show or station that commissioned the work holds the copyright. Freelancers in a work-for-hire relationship often negotiate retaining some rights, such as the right to use the work for specific promotional purposes.

WORKPLACE HARASSMENT: Commissioning organizations are encouraged to review workplace policies on respectful treatment and freedom from harassment policies to ensure these policies extend to freelancers. Commissioning organizations should ensure these policies are available to freelancers and that freelancers know how to reach an HR contact who will investigate harassment that is reported to them.

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Thank you! We are grateful to the countless AIR members and station representatives who consulted on early drafts of this code or helped shape the final iteration, including, but by no means limited to:

  • Ibby Caputo
  • Mable Chan
  • Matt Frassica
  • Ruxandra Guidi
  • Sally Herships
  • Jeff Lunden
  • Candice Ludlow
  • Karen Michel

Representatives from the following networks advised on early drafts of this code:

APM, Audible, Gimlet, KCRW, Marketplace Productions, Midroll, NPR, Pineapple Street Media, PRNDI, PRX, This American Life, WNYC

Additional Resources:

This code was designed to reflect the concerns and needs of freelancers working in audio. Additional resources that may be valuable to freelancers in audio and other mediums include: