Lawmakers challenge `non-compete' clause

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Provision delays newscasters' hire by rival stations

TV/Radio Column

January 29, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

A click around the Web pages for new arrivals at Baltimore's television stations yields some cheerful tributes to their adoptive town:

"I still can't believe I'm able to do a job I love in a city so close to home," burbles a Bethesda native who is now a reporter here. "Brian may have traveled 2,335 miles to get here, but he says Baltimore feels like home," the page for an anchor announces. "She is thrilled to call Baltimore her new home," explains the Web page for a new sports reporter.

A few words of unsolicited advice: Don't get too comfortable.

The television industry is built on a structure of personal flattery and financial insecurity unmatched in many fields. Involuntary turnover is a way of life, even at more stable stations such as WJZ-TV and WBAL-TV.

Anchors make salaries that reach well into the six figures, and are the subject of fawning promotions on the air and on billboards and buses. (The pay for top anchors in Baltimore often significantly exceeds $300,000.) Reasonably, they are prevented from moving across town to a competitor during the course of their contracts.

But, under provisions called "non-compete clauses," stations can also stop a newscaster from joining a rival news station for months - sometimes a full year - after a contract has expired. These clauses can even stay in place if someone has been fired before a contract expires. The choice is often stark: Don't work in your profession for a long spell, or sell the house, uproot the family and move.

Yesterday, Del. Brian K. McHale of Baltimore submitted legislation that would ban such "non-compete" clauses. State Sen. Delores G. Kelley of Baltimore County has drafted a similar bill for the Senate. "It's a basic issue of freedom," McHale says. "They should be able to pursue the trade they've chosen. If they have a marketability, they should be able to ply their trade, support their families and get on with their lives."

John Buren, fired by WJZ last April as sports director, can't work in Baltimore until December - a 20-month stretch. Sally Thorner could not appear on the air for a full year after leaving WMAR-TV for WJZ in 1992. WJZ commentator Michael Olesker and WMAR anchor Stan Stovall faced the same restrictions when their contracts expired. (Olesker was not re-signed, while Stovall left after being asked to accept a significant drop in pay.) Most of the clauses for Baltimore news stations prohibit working in Washington as well.

The television stations, represented in Annapolis by the Maryland/D.C./Delaware Broadcasters Association, defend the contracts, typical for the industry. Under the stewardship of their employers, broadcasters say, television reporters and anchors develop into "personalities." And those "personalities" become the intellectual property of their stations. Should a person who happens to be that "personality" wish to work at a competing station, he or she should wait to ensure the first station isn't bludgeoned by an asset it has built.

"It doesn't mean we're talking about indentured servitude," says Morris "Chip" Weinman, president of the broadcasters association. "It means we're striking a balance."

Weinman points out that some television professionals are handsomely compensated for their troubles. Thorner was reportedly paid $250,000 by WJZ to not work for a full year while waiting for her "non-compete" clause to lapse. Buren received good money to work on his tennis game, too, though he won't talk about the terms of his severance.

Weinman also says that people who are let go are often those who may no longer appeal to other stations. "Is that the station's fault?" Weinman asks. "It's a glamour industry. When people get older, changes have to be made."

James Astrachan, a Baltimore lawyer who works on behalf of the association, points out that some other professions include contractual bans on working for a competitor. He says the Maryland courts have acted sensibly to ensure contracts are not unfair, and warns that firms may prefer to locate in Pennsylvania or Virginia if the General Assembly were to pass the legislation pushed by Kelley and McHale.

"They send a bad message to business," Astrachan says.

But Jack Bowden, the former WMAR anchor who left that station in 1988 after being asked to take a steep pay cut, says the clauses apply to many reporters far down the economic ladder, such as former WJZ reporter Kathy Fowler, now at WJLA in Washington. Bowden has led the effort to overturn such policies here. Similar legislation has found support in Washington, Illinois and several other states.

Bowden describes the policy this way: "We don't want you, and we don't want them to want you, either." He adds: "You're put in the position of having to wait it out without any resource or uproot yourself, often leaving family behind."

He says he was stopped from accepting a part-time job with Maryland Public Television because the executives then running WMAR decreed that the PBS station was a competitor.

"The reason every station has the `non-competes' in place is so their mistakes don't turn around and bite them in the butt," says Buren.

"It's a kind of slavery," says Senator Kelley.

Says Bowden: "I don't think it's quite that bad - but it's pretty bad."

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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