Non-compete clauses raise big issues for broadcast journalists

By Joan Cartan-Hansen

What if moving to a new job meant you couldn”™t work for six months ““ or five years? That”™s the reality for many broadcast journalists.
Beth Saboe starts work well before most of us are out of bed, as a morning anchor and a producer/ reporter in Bozeman, Mont. Her day starts at about 3 a.m. and she generally finishes in the late afternoon- long hours, but Saboe loves what she does. She”™s a Montana native and wants to work in her home state.

When she started her first job, she made less than $18,000 a year. After a year, a competing station offered her a job and a bump in pay. She took the offer but it meant she had to sit on the sidelines for six months, because Saboe had signed a contract with a non-compete clause. The contract with her first station would not allow her be on the air for six months after she left their employment. “I was fortunate enough that they (the new station) were willing to hire me even though I wasn”™t able to be on air,” she says. Many others are not so lucky.

Many broadcast professionals simply leave the business or move out of state if they want to find a different job. Some are even forced out of the business for six months to five years, even if the very station that holds their contract has simply laid them off. This past summer, New York became one of seven states and the District of Columbia to pass the “Broadcast Employees Freedom  to Work Act” or similar legislation.

A handful of other states already have bans or partial bans on non-compete clauses. Idaho is not one of them. AFTRA, the American
Federation of Television and Radio Artists, a union for broadcast professionals, plans to propose similar legislation in other states next year.
“Non-compete clauses have been banned in California for decades,” says AFTRA general counsel and director of legislative affairs Tom Carpenter, “and they have a vibrant market for talent.” He says, “The value of banning non-compete clauses is that employees can then make a commitment to stay in a community without forcing them to settle for an offer that pays them less.” He maintains non-compete clauses are unfair because they “force individuals to choose between taking less than they are worth or being unemployed or having to move.”

But the unfairness of a noncompete clause depends upon your point of view. KTRV News Director Kelly Cross says the noncompete
clause is the single most important protection the employer has. “It usually takes a substantial commitment of time and money to attract, recruit, and relocate good candidates,” Cross says. “As an on-air personality’s presence in the market matures, so does that person’s competitive value. In general, you want to keep good employees, in whom you’ve invested so much. The last thing a news director wants is to do the recruiting, foot the bill, nurture and mature a personality in the market – only to watch as his/her unbound employee
moves to a competitor across the street. I’ve seen that happen.

Unfortunately, a handshake doesn’t always cut it.” Carpenter disagrees. “Media companies have other ways to keep employees: longer contracts, first refusal clauses,” he says. “When employers say they are protecting an investment, it is not an expenditure they make at the
benefit of the talent. It is advertising.”

Stations can and do spend large amounts of money to promote their on-air talent. The same may not be true for behindthe-scenes producers, editors and videographers. Many of these professionals are also required to sign non-compete clauses, even those in starting level entry jobs.

According to Carpenter, major network stars don”™t have non-compete clauses in their contracts, “and yet radio reporters who may be making less than $20,000 a year are routinely signed.” Cross says he does not ask behind-the-scene employees to sign non-compete clauses, but that other stations in Idaho do.

“I’ve been in the business 20 years,” says KTVB General Manger Doug Armstrong, “and I’m not aware of any competitive television market in America that doesn’t use non-compete clauses. As far as I know all news operations in Idaho use them and KTVB is no different. Our company respects and honors non-compete clauses from other companies, and likewise other companies honor ours.”

So what advice does Carpenter have for journalists like Saboe and others starting out in the business? “There are many things that are negotiable in a contract but probably not your non-compete clause,” he says. “If you want to live and work in Idaho, you will be bound to that station for the length of the time of that contract. You might be able to get more vacation time or days off, but non-compete clauses are a fact of life. That’s why we started the legislative campaigns.”

Joan Cartan-Hansen is producer, reporter and writer for Idaho Public Television, and serves as the treasurer of the
Idaho Press Club board.