The Rise of Unions in Media

The SAG/AFTRA strike coupled with the screenwriters work stoppage embraces the upswing of unionization in the private equity economy and has real ramifications for the radio industry that has been flirting with a workers uprising for decades.

Why it is important:  While everyone is prematurely looking in the direction of artificial intelligence as the cost-effective savior, radio and other media still run on people and personalities.

  • Bad blood exists between workers and private equity backed consolidators who have a great disparity between compensation for failed CEOs while programming, sales, engineering and operations professionals go without raises.
  • Many iHeart (formerly Clear Channel) employees have gone without raises including cost of living escalators for between ten and 20 years. 
  • Audacy workers many of whom have also gone without pay raises have watched their CEO beg to stay out of bankruptcy while giving himself a pay raise just months ahead of having to file a pre-packaged reorganization or downright bankruptcy.
  • Bob Pittman and his exec team were rewarded with new agreements as they went through bankruptcy, an affront to workers where the company has ended the radio careers of well over 10,000 people.
  • BUT, radio is no different from TV where the one percent make the big money while the rank and file face issues that concern their future.

The issues

  • Fear of artificial intelligence and how that could further adversely affect people still working in media – relevant to both TV and radio.
  • Lack of pay.
  • Job security – again, issues that affect radio.

The rest of the story

  • Radio can’t embrace AI fast enough as Futuri has become a bad guy to some for marketing ways to eliminate jobs through voice cloning, robotic task help and now more recently providing radio spots to advertisers without a human being involved – this adds tinder to the firestorm.
  • Studios may benefit from the strikes because according to DealBook: “In some ways, the strike could actually benefit studios and streaming platforms. The lack of new shows and movies may allow them to back out of expensive production deals they signed during the content boom”.
  • Mistreatment of radio employees by actively attempting to keep them from working as competitors when radio groups don’t want them may come back to roost.
  • iHeart, Audacy and Cumulus are the most probable unionization targets – in that order.

What it all means 

  • AI is in everyone’s future but not as another private equity “good idea” replacement for people that cuts costs, damages the product but lets the top execs take more profit.
  • Keep an eye on the Starbucks and Apple Store situations where employees on a local basis organize to form a union instead of trying to win a big vote nationwide.
  • Private equity owners and their minions are already looking to the exit but they cannot get out fast enough because they are stuck with the companies they damaged – at least for now.
  • There are rumors aplenty that local radio clusters are looking to pull a Starbucks and in major markets – a trend that could force even odious owners to change their practices.
  • The SAG/AFTRA and screenwriters strike if it lingers on could have effects on media that were not intended and may wake up long suffering radio clusters to organize one by one on the local level to right the wrongs of radio consolidation. 

Jerry Del Colliano is a professor at NYU Steinhardt Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions Music Business Program.  His background includes Clinical Professor of Music Industry at the University of Southern California, TV, radio, program management, publishing and digital media.


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