Guide to Fair Practice for Working with Independent Audio Professionals
Originally created June 1999, revised March 2015, July 2019, September 2020. Last revised by AIR staff in October 2021.
AIR, Association of Independents in Radio, offers this Guide to Fair Practice to define ethical standards and contract guidelines for our members and the wider audio community, including independent producers, journalists, podcasters, audio and story editors, sound designers, composers, and mix engineers, as well as the companies, shows, and stations that engage their services, labor and professional expertise.
This guide exists to ensure that working professionals across the industry, whether emerging or established in their audio careers, have a clear understanding of current best practices, a shared vocabulary, and clear expectations to support communication and sustainable collaboration over time.
AIR periodically revises the guide (most recently in 2019 and 2020) to reflect changes in the fast-evolving audio landscape, particularly as podcasting continues to grow as a vibrant, in-demand medium for audio work.
These days, many freelance audio professionals move more fluidly between independently-produced podcasts and broadcast radio work that spans a wide spectrum of genres. Discussing and aligning on each party’s expectations is key to building mutually respectful relationships; reducing misunderstandings and minimizing professional burnout; saving valuable time and energy for all parties involved; and ensuring the production of high-quality work.
For additional resources specific to fair rates, we recommend AIR’s Contract Negotiation 101, sample contracts, and our 2021 Salary Guide. Note: You must be a current AIR member to utilize these additional resources. Learn more about AIR membership here.
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“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, which is unacceptable. Independent producers who create a work “on spec” own 100% of the work until they license or transfer rights for the work to the company. Audio professionals who create work “on spec” are always able to re-sell or otherwise exploit that work until it is licensed or purchased by the company for broadcast or distribution. Situations sometimes arise where a company is unwilling to commit to distributing or paying for work without hearing it first, but those cases are (and should remain) exceptionally rare.
EXPENSES: Unless otherwise agreed, companies engaging audio professionals are responsible for all reasonable costs (e.g. 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 prepare to pay the freelancer directly for expenses incurred during the production process, ideally ahead of time or via direct reimbursement within a reasonable window.
ANNUAL RATE REVIEW:
Standard 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 changes to cost of living.
Individual contributor rate review: Additionally, established rates of individual contributors should be adjusted regularly (annually, at minimum) to account for increases in skill and experience. Annual review ensures that contributors whose work has improved with experience are compensated accordingly. Annual rate increases should be incorporated into the company’s annual budget process and in long-term services agreements.
TRANSPARENCY: Companies that routinely work with independent contributors should publish guidelines covering internally established 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.
COMPENSATION: Audio professionals should be compensated at rates that reflect their skills and experience, the effort and time commitment required for the project, and the expected future use of the work by the company.
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. This renegotiation should happen as soon as the need for additional work is apparent.
KILL FEES: Audio professionals should be paid in full for work that is delivered on time, unless there are significant technical or editorial problems with the work delivered. In situations where the work is ultimately not used, this payment is known as a kill fee. When a story is killed, all rights in and to the work belong to the independent audio professional, who is able to market the work to another outlet.
INTERNSHIPS: The Fair Labor Standards Act requires companies to treat most internships as employment and pay at least minimum wage. Interns and companies that engage interns should clearly communicate in advance the scope of the internship and expectations for compensation. Interns who take on work above and beyond the scope of their internship should be compensated at professional rates. Interns and companies should communicate clearly and in advance about the scope and compensation expectations for such work.
PAYMENT PERIOD: Independent audio professionals should submit invoices promptly when work is delivered, and companies should pay those invoices promptly. Unless other terms have been agreed to in advance, companies should pay invoices within a maximum of 15 days, and should commit to pay late fees when invoices are not paid promptly. AIR strongly encourages parties to adopt the payment standards established in New York City’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act.
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.
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 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 additional work that may arise from the project.
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.
Written contracts should spell out the work to be performed; the pay for the work; and the agreed-upon payment date. Each party should keep a copy of any written contracts.
CONFLICTS OF INTEREST: 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.
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.
CONSISTENCY WITHIN PROJECTS: Switching editors or producers in the middle of a project or engagement often creates additional work for an audio professional. Establishing trust and clarity with an editor or producer takes time, and unexpected interruptions to this working relationship should be avoided whenever possible. If an outlet requires an independent contributor to establish a new working relationship with a new editor/producer, they should expect to revisit the project schedule and budget and build in necessary time for relationship building and resetting.
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.
HARASSMENT & ABUSE (ONLINE & OFF): Public-facing journalists and storytellers increasingly have to navigate digital harassment, abuse from (often anonymous) listeners, and hateful comments on social media, including threats to their physical safety and mental well-being. Outlets should make every effort to support both staff and freelancers who face off- and online harassment for their work or reporting, in all its forms. See AIR’s resource on this topic here: https://airmedia.org/tools/navigating-online-harassment
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.
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. Periods of exclusivity that extend beyond that 90-day window should be compensated; producers should expect to get paid significantly more if they’re not able to collect any royalties from resale of their work. For additional resources on this topic, AIR recommends: https://yourmusicyourfuture.com/faq/
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.)
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.
Copyright & Credit
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.
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 and supports the freelancer in securing future professional opportunities as they progress in their career.
RIGHTS AND INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY: 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. More expansive rights clauses in contracts (e.g. securing right to work “in all media now known or hereafter devised v. standard right to include a contributor’s work in the show for which it was originally produced) are exceptional, and should be compensated exceptionally. Additionally, contributors should be able to share a copy of the completed work in their portfolio.
Compelling audio storytelling lends itself to any number of valuable spin-off opportunities in film, television, or book form. Independent producers should not be asked to sign away their right to guide and benefit from those opportunities.
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 resumé, portfolio, and promotional purposes.
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.
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 for any reason, 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 with their editor or contact about how the originating company should be acknowledged for their role in envisioning and editing the piece.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES: This guide 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:
- Writers Guild of America’s Minimum Basic Contract
- Editorial Freelancers Association Code of Fair Practice
- Freelance Solidarity Project’s (FSP) Rate Sharing Database
- Freelance Isn’t Free (Freelancers Union)
- NYC Administrative Code Title 20 (Consumer Affairs) Chapter 10 (Freelance Workers)
- Documentary Producers Alliance Guide To Best Practices In Documentary Crediting
- 6 Things You Need to Know About IP in Podcasting (Bello Collective)
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We are grateful to the countless AIR members and station representatives who consulted on early drafts and helped shape final iterations of Guide revisions, including, but by no means limited to: Quinn Heraty, Ibby Caputo, Mable Chan, Matt Frassica, Ruxandra Guidi, Sally Herships, Jeff Lunden, Candice Ludlow, Karen Michel, Talib Jasir, Ann Marie Awad, Susie Armitage
- Representatives from the following networks advised on drafts of the Guide, including: APM, Audible, Gimlet, KCRW, Marketplace Productions, Midroll, NPR, Pineapple Street Media, PRNDI, PRX, This American Life, WNYC, Afros & Audio, Freelance Solidarity Project