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Code of Fair Practices for Working with Independent Audio Professionals

Originally created June 1999, revised March 2015 and July 2019. Last revised September 2020

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 independent audio producers, journalists, podcasters, audio editors, story editors, sound designers, composers, and mix engineers as well as the companies, shows and stations that engage their services.

This code is a guide to creating fair and equitable agreements.

This code was revised in 2019 and again in 2020 to reflect changes in the audio landscape as podcasting has emerged as a vibrant medium for audio work.

As independent audio professionals move between independently-produced podcasts and broadcast radio, and between news and storytelling work, discussing each party’s expectations is important for independent audio professionals and the companies that engage them.

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AGREEMENTS: Audio professionals and the companies that engage them should agree, in advance and in writing, on rates, rights, terms of payment, expectations for deliverables, schedules, and editorial control over the work. Both parties should execute a written agreement (or, at a minimum, a detailed email) before the audio professional’s work on the project starts.  Depending on the scope of a  project, the parties may want to include a statement of the work’s unifying vision, including details about what roles each party will play in the project and any work that may arise from the project. We recommend adopting the standards in New York City’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act, which requires that all contracts worth $800 or more be in writing. This requirement includes all agreements with an audio professional that total $800 in any 120-day period. Written contracts must spell out the work to be performed; the pay for the work; and the payment date. Each party must keep a copy of any written contracts.

ANNUAL RATE REVIEW: Companies engaging independent audio professionals should expect to reassess their standard rates at least once per year. Standard rates should be adjusted to accommodate increases in the cost of living, and to account for increases in the skill and experience of frequently-engaged audio professionals over the previous year. Annual review ensures that contributors whose work has improved with experience are compensated accordingly. Standard rate increases should be incorporated into the company’s annual budget process and in long-term services agreements (See also “Transparency,” below.).

COMMUNICATION: Independent audio professionals and the companies that engage them should communicate and agree to schedules, project deliverables, credits for the audio professional, payments, and projected broadcast or distribution date(s) for each project. These items should be reflected in a written agreement between the audio professional and the company, which may be modified upon mutual agreement. Where a project includes companion digital features, sound design, music composition, photographs, video, or other work beyond an audio piece, the details of and fees for those deliverables should be agreed on in advance. 

COMPENSATION: Audio professionals should be compensated at rates that reflect their skills and experience, the effort and commitment required for the project, and the expected future use of the work by the company. 

CONFLICTS OF INTEREST (JOURNALISM): Independent audio professionals  should always disclose any actual or potential conflicts of interest in advance of accepting an engagement, or as soon as they become aware of the potential for conflict. This includes, but is not limited to, material financial interest in the subject matter of the work, or personal relationships with the subject of a story or episode.

CONSISTENCY WITHIN PROJECTS: Switching editors or producers in the middle of a project or engagement often creates additional work for an audio professional who has established trust and clarity with their editor or producer, and should be avoided wherever possible.

CREDITS: For independent audio professionals, credit on a distributed work is currency and will lead to future engagements. While best practices in crediting contributors are part of an ongoing conversation, everyone who made a material contribution to the production should be credited for their work in the audio end credits, on the project’s website, and in the show notes for the project. A credit does not cost anything, and including credits for all relevant contributors creates goodwill.

EXCLUSIVITY (DISTRIBUTION): Companies and independent producers  should communicate clearly about expectations of exclusivity for the distribution of a project. A company who pays for the production of a project generally has the exclusive right to be the first to distribute the work. Sometimes that exclusivity is for a period of time (30-90 days, depending on the nature of the piece) and non-exclusive after that time. Independent producers who plan to post a story to their own portfolio or produce a different version of the work should clearly communicate their expectations. 

EXCLUSIVITY (SERVICES): Companies should not expect an audio professional to render their services exclusively to the company, unless the company is paying a substantial premium for the audio professional to forgo other professional opportunities. Any independent audio professional considering signing a contract for exclusive services should retain an attorney to review that contract.  

EXPENSES: Unless otherwise agreed, the company engaging the audio professional  is responsible for all reasonable costs (meals, travel, phone, shipping, transcription, tape syncs, etc.) incurred during production. Mileage should be reimbursed at the current IRS rate unless the company has another policy in place. Independent audio professionals should familiarize themselves with and abide by the travel and expense policies of the company, and both parties should review anticipated expenses in advance of an engagement.  Companies should expect to pay for anticipated expenses directly. Independent audio professionals should not be expected to subsidize a production with an interest-free loan for production expenses.

INDEMNITY: For journalism projects, it is a journalist’s responsibility to fact check their work and follow established journalistic practices of the company engaging them. Once work is accepted, vetted by an organization or editor, paid for, and distributed, the company engaging the audio professional should stand by the journalist if the work results in legal action, except in cases where a journalist has acted in bad faith or misrepresented their work to the company. No independent audio professional should be asked to broadly indemnify a company against claims or legal actions unless that indemnity is mutual. 

In general, a contributor should expect to warrant and represent to the company that the work created by the contributor does not, to the best of contributor’s knowledge, infringe upon the rights of a third party; and that contributor will indemnify the company for third-party claims in connection with a breach of that warranty and representation. Similarly, a company should indemnify a contributor against third-party claims related to the company’s use of the contributor’s work.

INTERNSHIPS: Interns and companies that engage them should communicate clearly in advance about the scope of the internship and expectations for compensating the intern. The Fair Labor Standards Act  requires companies to treat most internships as employment and pay at least minimum wage.  Interns who take on work above and beyond the scope of their internship should be compensated at the same rate as other independent audio professionals. Interns and companies 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 delivered to a company, the audio professional should be paid in full as long as the fully-produced work is submitted on time, even in situations where the work is ultimately not used. When a story is killed, all rights in and to the work should belong to the independent audio professional, who will then be free to market the work to another  outlet.

LISTENER CORRESPONDENCE: Companies should make a good faith effort to provide independent contributors with listener correspondence about distributed work, consistent with the organization’s privacy policy. Company staff should be prepared to respond to requests for such correspondence. Independent audio professionals should not make listener correspondence public without explicit permission.

NON-COMPETITION, NON-SOLICITATION: Non-compete clauses are void in some states. Independent contractors are not employees and should not be subject to non-compete clauses in their agreements with a company. Additionally, independent contractors should not be included in a company’s non-solicitation clause. For example, a company should not try to prevent an independent contractor who works with the company from working with other independent contractors who work with the company. Similarly, a company should not try to prevent a former employee of the company from working with independent contractors who work (or have worked) with the company. (See also “Exclusivity,” above.) 

ONGOING ENGAGEMENTS: Independent audio professionals and companies that work together frequently should establish a standard contract that specifies the payment schedule, expense and kill fee policies, payment for rewrites, and the allocation of intellectual property rights. In addition to that standard contract, independent audio professionals and companies should craft a written confirmation letter or email for each engagement to include (but not limited to) the nature of the 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 engagement.

“ON SPEC” or “SPEC” ASSIGNMENTS: When work is requested “on spec”, the company does not commit to pay for the work until it is accepted for broadcast or distribution. Requesting work "on spec" is equivalent to asking an independent producer to work for free. This practice is strongly discouraged. Situations arise where a company is unwilling to commit to paying for work without hearing it first, but those are (and should remain) exceptionally rare. Independent producers who create a work “on spec” own 100% of the work until they license or transfer rights in the work to the company. Audio professionals who create a work “on spec” are always free to re-sell or otherwise exploit that work until it is licensed or purchased by the company for broadcast for distribution.

ON THE SHELF: Companies should make every effort to ensure that the independent audio professional knows the anticipated release date of their work. If a company decides that it will not distribute a work, then the audio professional should be informed as soon as possible, to ensure they have an opportunity to resell the work. Independent Audio professionals who wish to resell completed work should communicate clearly about how the originating company should be acknowledged for their role in envisioning and editing the piece.

PAYMENT PERIOD: Companies should pay independent audio professionals promptly. Likewise, independent audio professionals should submit invoices promptly when work is delivered. For more substantial engagements, especially those that will take months to produce, it is best practice to pay a portion upfront. A typical payment schedule for a multi month project might include 30% at the start of the engagement; 30% after three months, 30% after six months, and the remaining 10% when work is delivered and accepted. Unless other terms have been agreed to in advance, companies should pay invoices within a maximum of 30 days. We recommend adopting the payment standards established in New York City’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act

PITCHES: Companies should consider original pitches from independent producers confidential and should respond to them promptly. A good faith discussion is important to set expectations. Companies may receive independent pitches with similar ideas from multiple sources or may already be independently developing similar ideas. In the event that a company chooses not to engage an independent producer, but would like to pursue a pitch, a finders fee should be negotiated and the independent producer should be free to pursue the pitch elsewhere.

RIGHT OF PRIOR REVIEW: Productions should re-engage an independent audio professional whenever 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 independent producer before making changes.

RIGHTS: Unless otherwise agreed to in writing, the audio professional retains copyright for the work they create and retains all rights to unused material gathered or created for the  work. Companies and independent producers should clearly agree what broadcast and distribution rights the company will hold and what, if any, the period of exclusivity will be.  (See also “Work for Hire,” below.)

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

TRANSPARENCY: Companies that routinely work with independent contributors should publish guidelines covering rates and policies, and distribute them to independent 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 independent professionals are kept apprised of changes in policies and practices that may impact them. (See also “Annual Rate Review” above.)

UNANTICIPATED ADDITIONAL WORK: If, during the course of creating original or new work, the editor and contributor agree that more work is needed to research, mix, create, or gather material beyond the original expectations, the initial agreement  should be renegotiated.

WORK-FOR-HIRE:  Section 101 of the US Copyright Act of 1976 describes explicit criteria for establishing work as work-for-hire. In most circumstances, freelancers retain copyright over their work, unless both parties have previously agreed to a written work-for-hire agreement or the audio professional was working as an employee when the work was created. In a work-for-hire arrangement with an independent audio professional, which must be in writing, the company that engaged the audio professional holds the copyright. More information on “work-for-hire” can be found in Circular 9: Works Made for Hire (pdf)  Independent producers should always have  the right to use the work for resume, portfolio, and promotional purposes.

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

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Thank you! We are grateful to Quinn Heraty for her counsel, and to  the countless AIR members and station representatives who consulted on early drafts of this code or helped shape the final iteration of the 2019 and 2020 revisions, 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: