We need to pay our artists, and for the most part we do, but there is a blind spot when it comes to radio. I was contacted by an ABC radio books show to see if I would review a new novel on air. After inquiry it was clear that this work would be unpaid. When I expressed that this was problematic, one of the show’s hosts explained that she agreed it was not ideal but that there was nothing she could do: ABC funding has been cut, and the ABC has a policy of not paying anyone who comes on air anyway.
The middle-class expectation that arts work can go unpaid disadvantages those who are already disadvantaged. Put bluntly: people who need to put food on the table can’t afford to do work for free, because they need to spend that time making a living.
When you are asked to work for free it can leave you out of pocket. Not only are you not paid but you have to pay for expenses like taxis and childcare, which disadvantages those who are not close to capital cities and those caring for small children. Women are more likely to be caring for small children and aged parents. The gender pay gap is higher in the arts than in any other industry.
Those who are more likely to be able to say yes to working for free are those who will be able to do it within their full-time jobs: tenured academics, editors or arts administrators who can step out for a few hours. Men are more likely than women to have full-time work, and already have the advantage of a 14% wage gap.
The show’s host said that in the eighteen months they’ve been asking people to do this on their show I was the first person to bring this up. That is because what people usually say, when they don’t want to work for free, is sorry, I’d love to but I’m too busy. People find it hard to talk about, so they say no rather than explaining why. We never say we can’t afford to do two free days’ work—we are shamed into lying.
It is demeaning to be asked to do work for free. So is having to point this out and explain what seems, on closer inspection, fairly obvious: you shouldn’t ask people to do work for free. Working for free, unless it’s charity work, has a negative effect on the psyche. Mental health in the arts is a significant problem. When you work for no payment it can pretty quickly start to make you feel as though your work isn’t paid because it’s not valued, it’s worthless.
There is an outmoded idea that experts are people with full-time work who can afford to donate their time to national institutions like the ABC, whereas the reality is that the experts these days are more likely to be freelancers.
I understand why artists are not paid to appear on air when they are promoting a book. When I was asked to do the review I was not promoting a book. I studied literature, critical theory, creative writing and editing across seven years and racked up a significant HECS debt. This is my area of expertise. It’s not like a job: it is a job. To read a book sufficiently to discuss it in depth would take me a day’s work at absolute minimum. I was reassured by the show’s host that I wouldn’t be expected to write a review, but I would never go on air without being fully prepared and would need, at the very least, notes. There is the pretence that this isn’t actually work, but it is, and it takes time.
The host said she tries to ask people from a broad range of backgrounds so as not to advantage anyone over anyone else. This is laudable but it’s a systemic problem, and even though she is trying her damnedest to ensure all kinds of voices are on air, there are voices she doesn’t know about, critics and artists who haven’t been allowed to develop, simply because of this endemic problem. There are kids unable to take these careers in the arts because they can’t afford to do work that is unpaid to get a leg up, and in contributing to that we are aiding and abetting a circle of disadvantage. Those kids don’t end up working in the arts at all. Which means that the arts is a space for only the advantaged few, and apart from this being unfair on a human rights level it also means, from a readers’ perspective, that there are many voices we never get to hear. There are books not being written. I want to read those books.
Adam Liaw, in response to a radio ratings survey (27/8/19, 3.10pm), tweeted: ‘Anyone know why there is such an EXTREME lack of racial diversity in radio in Australia? Both commercial and public. I mean, it’s so much less diverse than television.’ There is a correlation between not paying people and shutting diverse voices out.
This is not a middle-management issue. The host of the show wants to be able to pay the guests. They are not to blame. But they have been told they have to ask artists to do their work for free. What if they said no? What if they said they wouldn’t ask this of anyone? The host said that the problem would then fall to her to fill the show without guests. Or, she said, it would become like TV—they could afford to pay guests, but only for a limited number of weeks a year. In effect she was saying: if we don’t exploit you, we have no show. The only way we can afford to have the radio show that focuses on books, she said, is if we use this free work. She has her job to consider.
But what if we all say we’re not having this anymore? What then? Would that be the end of books shows on radio? Would that be the last of them? I don’t think it would. I think there would be a way. But first we would all have to agree that the arts aren’t just for the middle classes, they aren’t just for those too polite to complain when asked to work for free, they aren’t just for those who have a parent or husband footing the bills. The arts are for everybody, and we need to be paying people for their work. The VIDA and Stella Counts show us the way in which actions can make change. We don’t need to accept this—it’s our culture. We need to find solutions. Let’s put this on the agenda. If we all stop doing this what will happen? We need to do something because the current situation disadvantages not just our writers but our culture.