DABbling unpaid: RTÉ’s digital labour problem

An edited version of this article appears in Village magazine, June 2015 edition

Trade unions within RTE are planning to challenge the broadcaster’s practice of using unpaid labour to keep its digital audio broadcasting (DAB) digital channels in operation, it has emerged.

Radio communications manager Maureen Catterson confirmed that 44 volunteers are currently rostered to produce content at a variety of locations for the station across five digital channels.

“They range from music enthusiasts producing and filing content from overseas to individuals who are in full time jobs who want to be part of the evolution of radio content,” Catterson said. “At the very beginning of any engagement it is made clear that it is voluntary and there is no remuneration.”

The digital channels, launched in 2007, include RTE Pulse, a dance music channel, 2XM, Radio 1 Extra, RTÉ Gold, and RTÉ Junior.

“The budgetary allocation for this section is very small, most of which is allocated to transmission related costs. Currently without a commercial revenue stream to underpin the section it is simply not possible to offer remuneration to the team of voluntary presenters and content makers on these services. If the presenters were paid it is a reality that we would have had to discontinue the services some years ago.”

“There have been many examples of volunteer Digital Radio presenters breaking through to the FM services, Emma Power, Carl Mullan, Louise Denver and Colm Flynn are to name a few. These presenters are of course paid for their services on any of the for FM stations.”

“With the majority of the Digital Radio budget being allocated to transmission costs, from the outset in 2007 it has not been possible to offer anything other than production support and mentoring to any volunteer to these service. RTÉ radio has been very clear and transparent about this.”

“Unfortunately the challenging financial environment in which RTÉ has operated for the last number of years has not facilitated any change to this position. This position is constantly under review. It is not unusual for broadcasters to engage voluntary presenters on their digital radio services.”

“From the very start of the Digital Radio project RTÉ Radio has engaged with and outlined to the group of Unions within RTÉ that the nature of the presenting work is voluntary.”

However, a union representative said that the use of unpaid presenters only came to light when Scott de Buitléir resigned from his position presenting LGBT programme “The Cosmo” on RTE Pulse during the marriage equality referendum, as he felt he was being silenced.

In a blog post explaining his decision, de Buitléir mentioned in passing that he had worked unpaid on the programme.

“I became aware of people volunteering when I read Scott’s blog post about resigning,” said Emma O’Kelly, chair of the NUJ’s broadcasting branch.

“The NUJ Broadcasting Branch has not been made aware of any NUJ members who have not been paid for work in RTE. If any member finds themselves in that situation, we would urge them to alert their union rep immediately.”

O’Kelly also confirmed that she has spoken to the Trade Union Group (TUG) in RTE, and that other trade unions in the national broadcaster said they were also unaware of the practice.

“We in the Broadcasting branch would be very concerned about this matter, and we are going to raise it with RTE via the Trade Union group. The TUG would share our concern as well. Neither of us would condone the use of unpaid workers in any part of the national broadcaster.”

“There has been no approach to the TUG from RTE about this matter, and RTE would come to the TUG with proposals about internships, we are currently in fact in long term discussions about internships for students, for graduates, but no approaches have been made about the use of unpaid staff or so-called “volunteers”.

“We will be raising it, it is on the agenda for the next meeting of the TUG in mid June. We are going to contact RTE.”

One unpaid contributor who did not wish to be named for fear of repercussions said he knew of two dozen unpaid contributors, who worked as presenters and also produced their own programmes.

And he said that paid and unpaid presenters and producers worked side by side, as some RTE staff from 2FM also worked on the digital channels.

“There’s not really producers on the shows, you have do everything yourself,” the contributor said. “There are probably three or four people a night doing their own shows, they’re all voluntary.”

“I spend half a day every week on my show, four or five hours. If I interview people and then edit the interview, it can be double that. There are weeks when RTE has gotten 10 or 12 free hours out of me. I wish it was two hours, at least then Ireland’s renowned national broadcaster would only be milking me for two free hours a week.”