Wrath of Interns Reaches Clear Channel

The nation’s largest radio conglomerate is the newest target in a growing crusade against internship exploitation. Plaintiff Liane Arias alleges her internship at Clear Channel consisted of menial administrative tasks and staffing promotional events—things other employees would have done had her free labor not been available, and a far cry from the educational experience her internship promised. More importantly, she’s asking for class-action status for her case.
Arias is represented by an NYC-based law firm that specializes in labor and employment law and is making a name for itself in unpaid internship litigation, spearheading a similar complaint against SiriusXM satellite radio. This is just the latest in a series of lawsuits filed by former interns against media companies in the last few years: the floodgates opened in 2012 when unpaid interns for PBS’ Charlie Rose Show settled a class-action lawsuit. Then, in June of 2013, a judge ruled that the Fox Searchlight movie studio violated labor law in its use of unpaid interns.
Since then, suits have been filed against Condé Nast (which promptly closed its internship program), Gawker Media (still in court) NBC Universal (still in court), and Viacom (still in court), among many others. Clear Channel is the first terrestrial radio broadcaster to be hit with an unpaid internship lawsuit.
It’s no secret that corporate America has slashed jobs and attempted to make up the difference with automation, outsourcing, and in many cases, the labor of unpaid interns. These practices are especially prevalent in the media industries, where the "glamour" and "access" they ostensibly offer means much more labor supply than demand.
Thus many unpaid internships are nothing more than glorified gopher-jobs with a potentially valuable brand name. Such practices are found even in the "liberal" or "progressive" media, who fall far short of the values they espouse in their own workplaces.
Colleges and universities have fed into these schemes by uncritically embracing unpaid internships as some vaguely-defined rite of passage. In many instances, that doubly screws students: they don’t get paid at their intern-job and have to pay for the college credit they receive for working. If it’s a "prestigious" internship in a big city, students are also expected to front the travel and housing costs for the duration.
Only recently has there been any move in higher education to critically evaluate internship opportunities, spurred in part by an ongoing ProPublica investigation into the nature and scope of unpaid internships. This ambitious inquiry seeks data on internships across economic sectors, including self-reporting from interns directly. The reports from arts and entertainment interns catalog such exciting and educational work as lunch-delivery and dog-walking.
Of course, not all internship experience is exploitative and valueless, and not all schools are mindlessly feeding students into the internship mill. In broadcasting and journalism, there’s a long history of pre- or paraprofessional experience as part of the educational process. But it’s incumbent upon educators to make sure that theses experiences are meaningful.
When we revised the Broadcast Journalism degree program at Brooklyn College last year, we instituted a requirement that all students must complete an internship or an independent study. This allows students to avoid internships altogether, though they still must spend at least a semester engaged in some intensive, specialized study. Our department also evaluates internship opportunities to weed out the meaningless and we encourage our students to look beyond the traditional corporate media for internships.
Sometimes the value of an internship is that it teaches you what you don’t want to do with your career. For example, I’ve had students intern at several local television channels and the unvarnished look they got at the vapid pack mentality taught them more about that business than me and my colleagues ever could.
Of course, my experiences are colored by being based in the #1 U.S. media market, where decent internship opportunities abound, and at an institution where internship stipends are available. Similarly, the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism provides stipends for students on summer internships—still not enough to live meaningfully on in Manhattan, but tons better than nothing.
In a perfect world, everyone would get paid what they (and the work they do) are actually worth. Labor is money, and inculcating students with the notion that their labor is worthless sets a depressing career precedent. If the change won’t come from the educator or "employer," then keep those lawsuits coming.