The Editors’ Response to Rusty Quill’s Statement
A Research, Opinion, and Advocacy Piece by Wil Williams and Tal Minear
On December 11th, 2022, podcaster and journalist Newton “Newt” Schottelkotte published “Who’s Afraid of Alex J. Newall?: The Layoffs, Lapses, and Lessons of Rusty Quill” on their Medium blog. The piece was edited by Tal Minear and Wil Williams, the two authors of this follow-up piece — more on us shortly. The piece discussed alleged mismanagement at podcast network Rusty Quill, ranging from intense non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), to missed payments, to a culture of neglect towards employees, freelancers, and volunteers.
Newt’s research involved interviews with several individuals affiliated with Rusty Quill. The draft was reviewed by attorneys before publication. Copies of documents were procured from multiple sources for analysis and fact-checking. The draft was also reviewed by labor organizers and others familiar with contracts in podcasting and similar industries. And, of course, it was reviewed by us, Tal Minear and Wil Williams, known veterans of audio reporting, both of whom are also involved in labor organizing in the independent fiction audio industry.
Our goal in publishing this piece was simple: we wanted to give those affected by the alleged culture of Rusty Quill a voice they did not previously have due to restraints like the aforementioned NDAs and fear of retribution or industry blacklisting. Our audience was fellow audio industry professionals, given the piece was focused on labor rights. It was not focused on individuals, and Rusty Quill was consistently given an assumption of good faith, with the blame put on unexpectedly rapid growth instead of malice. However, after the publication of the piece, all three contributors to the piece faced harassment from fans — especially Newt, who was consistently misgendered. On December 13, 2022, Rusty Quill issued a response, which began by calling the piece “what appears to be a case of carefully timed, deliberate defamation from people seeking to exploit recent hardships for our staff possibly to sabotage our fundraising and reputation.”
What follows is our response to that statement and the events following the initial piece. This update is written by Tal Minear and Wil Williams only. Responses may be directed to us, via the email addresses we have supplied in the initial piece. We will not tolerate harassment on any platform. We owe no platforming to attacks. We owe none of our time on our personal social media platforms to anyone with whom we do not wish to interact.
Who we are
Let me introduce myself. I’m Tal Minear, a fiction podcast producer. I’ve been a creator in this space for over 5 years now, and I do a lot of things across audio fiction. Recently, I designed the cover art for Afflicted (distributed by Rusty Quill). I’m not going to name everything I’ve made here, because it’d take a while, but you can find most of what I do with a simple search. Most relevantly, I edited the article by Newt. I was part of interviews with 10 people and heard story after story of alleged mistreatment by Rusty Quill. If you read the piece, you know a few of them — but it’s different getting the first-hand story. I didn’t have to take Newt’s word for it.
As with the initial piece, we’ll only be sharing what we’ve been told in the hopes that readers can form their own conclusions. While most quotes are anonymous, they are not fabricated. My motive is, and always has been, to give a voice to those who have been silenced and to call out what I feel are poor labor practices in the field I work in. I don’t own a company; my podcasts are produced independently and distributed by a third party. I have nothing to gain from Rusty Quill’s demise, nor do I wish for it. I simply want creators to have the information they need to not be taken advantage of.
I’m Wil Williams, a professional podcaster and writer. Like Tal, I’ve been in the podcasting industry for some time, formally entering the space in 2016 — and like Tal, I wear many hats. I have written on podcasts for publications like Vulture and Polygon. I’ve discussed podcasts on NPR programs several times. I was the managing editor for Discover Pods, a blog dedicated to podcasts, before being laid off during a buyout. I’m the CEO of Hug House Productions, a podcast collective, and the showrunner for a fiction podcast. I do not see my work in any competition with Rusty Quill — more on this later — but it certainly has informed my concept of what a healthy workplace can look like in audio.
For my entire career, I have championed fiction podcasts in a journalistic landscape that continually writes them off. Each time I am given an opportunity to speak on podcasting, I try to put the focus on fiction podcasts, especially those created and produced independently of major production houses. This includes the several times I have written glowingly on Rusty Quill original The Magnus Archives, as well as recently discussing Afflicted on KQED’s Forum. I have continually uplifted and supported Rusty Quill. I am even quoted on Rusty Quill’s own “Reviews and Press” page:
However, I have also continually advocated for better labor conditions in audio as a matter of ethics, philosophy, and principle. My support of Rusty Quill does not mean I can turn a blind eye to reports from multiple sources. I will make it no mystery that I am greatly disappointed by what is alleged in these reports. I will not soften my stance in the face of Rusty Quill’s response, let alone the response of the company’s fans, who were never the intended audience of the initial piece (and are not the intended audience of this piece). This project has nothing to do with what is and is not a good podcast. This project is about trying to understand and illuminate the working conditions for real people in an industry I have worked in for just about as long as Rusty Quill itself.
Journalistic standards and ethics
A few quick notes on what “makes” a journalist: there is no such thing as journalistic “accreditation.” Journalism is an industry, a field of work, that can be entered through various methods. Journalism is facilitated, but not preceded necessarily, by a journalism degree; the two are not synonymous. Journalism is, ultimately, a job, and a journalist is a person who does the act of journalism. Every person who worked on this piece does journalism and is a journalist, and we are all known within the podcasting industry — again, our specific demographic — for our work.
There also seems to be some confusion about Medium as a platform. Medium is a blogging platform akin to WordPress: anyone can start and host a blog on Medium, and Medium will host whatever is posted within the lines of their terms and services. There seems to be some confusion about whether the piece was shopped to other publications, so to clarify: it was not. This article was never intended for publication at a mainstream media network, primarily because it became quickly apparent that its length would be well over a standard article length. Newt chose, instead, to simply publish on their Medium account, and we have also done so with this response.
And, now, on the discussion of journalistic objectivity versus accuracy. Journalists are people, and every person has a specific lens, perspective, and set of biases that inform their reporting. You can read more on this philosophy in a 2021 piece edited by Wil Williams for Discover Pods, “Over 200 Audio Professionals Sign Anti-Racist Open Letter to Public Media”:
The letter ends with sections on the transformation of coverage and accountability, particularly “ending the pursuit of objectivity,” a journalistic standard that upholds white supremacist and oppressive structures in the newsroom and in the media. It is why the coverage on the insurrection at the Capitol looks so different from coverage of the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020. Journalistic objectivity is a standard that actively prevents people from telling the truth, as happened to Lewis Wallace with this article that led to his firing from Marketplace in 2017.
We agree with this philosophy. You can also read more about it at the following sources:
- “Why objective journalism is a misleading and dangerous illusion,” Rob Wijnberg, The Correspondent, 2017
- The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity, Lewis Raven Wallace, The University of Chicago Press, 2019
- “Journalistic Objectivity Is Overrated. What Really Matters Is Transparency, Accuracy, and Fairness,” Isaac J. Bailey, Neiman Reports, 2022
- “Seeking objectivity in journalism is getting in the way of speaking truth,” Celeste Headlee, Current, 2021
- “Objectivity in Journalism: New Norms Under Debate,” Kathleen McElroy, National Press Foundation, 2022
In regards to criticism of our unnamed sources, the fear that most sources expressed in their unwillingness to be named was one of our main points in the article. Regardless, it is a very common practice to release a piece with preliminary findings of an investigation to find additional sources. This was one of our goals with the initial piece. Because our investigation led us to allegations of a workplace with rigorous NDAs (with the expectation that they would be enforced), publishing a piece with such initial findings was an obvious and common method to garner trust and empower additional sources to reach out to us. This is what happened. Our sources were unnamed to protect them from the legal and workplace ramifications of discussing alleged workplace practices prohibited by the NDA agreements. Our goal is to advocate for workers, and naming them would implicate them, which has legal ramifications due to the NDA agreements we addressed in the piece.
In their response, Rusty Quill wrote, “We cannot however, accept this level of unprofessional misinformation made at the expense of our colleagues and clients, regardless of whether it was well-intentioned or not. Such actions are wildly irresponsible and damaging, not just to Rusty Quill but our whole industry, as it discredits legitimate journalism in the space.” We disagree. To claim that Rusty Quill is bettering the industry, the company needs to agree to be the subject of criticism in public. We will address Rusty Quill’s claims of misinformation in a later section. We believe that Rusty Quill and all others are entitled to their opinion regarding what makes journalism “legitimate”; however, we hope this section has elucidated the very common journalistic practices and ethics applied to the initial piece.
Labor and competition in audio drama
Let’s discuss what we mean by the terms “labor” and, in a moment, “competition.” In regards to labor, we can use this simple definition from Kimberly Amadeo via The Balance: “Labor is the amount of physical, mental, and social effort used to produce goods and services in an economy.”
Every person who contributes any amount of physical, mental, and/or social effort toward a podcast is providing labor for that podcast. The authors of this piece believe that every person who contributes labor — whether an employee or a contractor, more below — is entitled to a fair, healthy, and equitable workplace; communication and transparency from their coworkers and colleagues, including their superiors; and compensation for that labor commensurate to the scope of their labor and experience, as well as the scope and budget of the podcast and any organization producing that podcast.
This does not mean we demand every actor get paid SAG wages, or that volunteer projects should not be allowed in the podcasting space. This means, instead, that if anyone is being paid, everyone doing that same role should be paid, and that pay should make logical sense for the amount of labor expected, the quality of labor delivered, and the amount of funds within the project’s budget. If a project’s budget, therefore, is $0, it would make sense that everyone is being paid $0.
Everyone involved in this piece and the original piece are members of the WGAE Audio Alliance and are demonstrably pro-union and pro-laborer. This piece is not affiliated with the WGAE Audio Alliance; however, for clarity and transparency, Tal and Wil are both members of the group’s Organizing Committee. We have signed the Equality in Audio Pact, which has also been signed by Rusty Quill Ltd. While the contributors to this piece and the original piece are all residents of the United States, we have also researched labor rights in the UK, where Rusty Quill is based — both for this piece and for our labor advocacy work overall.
Employees vs. Contractors
Another important clarification when discussing labor rights is the difference between an “employee” and a “contractor.” A thorough breakdown of the distinctions between these two types of laborers can be found here, but there are two sections especially pertinent for labor in the podcasting space:
- In regards to employment laws, employees are “covered by a number of federal and state employment and labor laws,” whereas, in many cases, contractors are “not covered by employment and labor laws.”
- In regards to compensation, employees “[earn] either an hourly rate or a salary,” whereas contractors have “[contracts which] may be for a total amount. It could be for an hourly, daily, or weekly amount that ends on a specific date or a total amount to be paid when the job is completed.”
Most laborers in the audio space are contractors. There’s nothing wrong with this; for most podcasts, contract work makes sense. Contract work allows businesses to offer a set, flat rate of compensation for a specific project to be completed, and that project is typically temporary.
However, the lack of protections under employment and labor laws mean that contractors (sometimes called 1099 employees) are typically more susceptible to labor exploitation. This has been reported on largely in terms of the “gig economy” across the world, including in BBC’s Worklife. Stateside, there have even been monumental court cases, legislation, and initiatives regarding the gig economy, such as California’s Prop 22, which regarded how delivery and rideshare services classify their laborers.
We believe that all laborers are equally entitled to fair and equitable workplaces and wages, as stated above. We believe that all laborers are “real” laborers, even though contract workers often do not receive the same legal protections as employees.
“Competition” is an interesting concept in the audio space. In regards to physical products sold, competition is usually clear: Pepsi is a competitor to Coke, as both are similar products with slight variations that lead to a preference for one over the other in most consumers. Typically, those consumers will choose one option over the other regularly, making competition an important factor in the business plans of both Pepsi and Coke. You can read more about it here.
This is not true for audio fiction. Audio dramas are not in direct competition with each other. While listeners do have limited time to devote to podcasts, it is understood that audio drama fans are often fans of the medium as a whole versus fans of single specific podcasts. Wil and Tal have discussed this — see this advice column by Wil Williams, for example, in which they write:
“Remember that people are still being brought into the world of podcasts to begin with. Your friends’ success means that they’re bringing more people to the medium, which means more potential listeners for you! Your friends’ success will help your medium’s success overall, which will, by proxy, help you succeed.”
None of the podcasts by the original piece’s contributors view themselves in competition with any Rusty Quill property. We feel that we are in community with them. We are colleagues with them. The reason our disclosure, now at the top of the initial article, wasn’t immediately given is that none of us considered ourselves in competition with Rusty Quill. Once we noted that the missing disclosure was a potential issue, we added it promptly.
Thanks, Corrections, and Clarifications
There were statements in Rusty Quill’s response that we feel were inaccurate. But before we touch on those, a few things we’re happy about. Quotes from Rusty Quill’s response will be bolded and put in quotes for clarity.
“We use a basic Microsoft Teams package for coordination, which is a standard professional package, and monitor shifts and timekeeping using a basic Sling package. Both of these are considered the most cost-effective options at our scale given their functionality.”
This makes sense, and we agree that these packages seem to make sense for Rusty Quill. We appreciate the clarification.
“It is worth noting at this point that to our understanding, the duplicated Spotify feed alluded to in the article was believed to pre-date anyone joining the RQ Network, and the claims of lost listenership seem to be conflated with a transition from a non-IAB certified host to Acast’s IAB 2.1 certification. This transition would result in large numbers of historic false downloads being discounted from metrics as unreliable.”
We are thrilled to hear that this seeming lapse in listenership was due to switching to an IAB-certified host. This is a terrific change, and we’re glad to hear Rusty Quill was proactive in making sure their host was in compliance. Considering the former data unreliable makes sense and is prudent.
“It is standard procedure for producers to factor in pickups for recordings and for producers to be provided with our Standard Operating Procedures so they can help with equipment setup if needed. Having heard that these procedures may not have been observed, we have begun a complete check of our production processes to ensure no such issues occur with future productions.”
We are glad to hear Rusty Quill is taking measures to ensure this protocol moving forward.
“It is true that our website was out of date following these consultations as we have been required to hold making alterations until our redundancy process was complete in accordance with UK HR best practice. It is since updated.”
We are glad to hear the website has been updated accordingly.
“We at Rusty Quill are committed to working for the betterment of everyone we associate with and have worked tirelessly towards this goal.”
We thank Rusty Quill for this commitment.
“Since we began business operations in 2015, there have been a couple of instances where Rusty Quill has been unable to fulfil an advertisement due to reasonable business complications. In every instance the advertiser was offered (and accepted) a replacement or refund of equivalent or better monetary value.”
We are glad to hear this.
“Producers were informed that they should not contact show staff as a company representative once they had been served their notice as this is considered HR best practice and ensures GDPR requirements are met.”
We are glad that Rusty Quill is complying with GDPR requirements. We wrote, “Producers were no longer allowed to contact show staff, leading to actors emailing them asking for updates and receiving no response” to question why someone still employed with Rusty Quill had not messaged these actors to provide updated contact information. This would have prevented producers who had been served their notice and actors left out of the loop from being in this position. We apologize for unintentionally implying that these producers should have been allowed to email their actors; we feel that a current company representative should have promptly emailed show staff.
A correction we would also like to make involves this quote from one producer, which said: “An observation has been made to me that there’s a very good chance that the list on Kickstarter of stretch goal guest writers may be the totality of the people in the audio fiction indie world that have still not had an experience with Rusty Quill.” It should have read: “An observation has been made to me that there’s a very good chance that the list on Kickstarter of stretch goal guest writers may be the totality of the people in the audio fiction indie world that have still not had [a negative] experience with Rusty Quill.” The context of this conversion was about bad experiences, not experiences in general. This was on us as editors for not catching that, for which we apologize. It is public information that writers on Kickstarter have worked with the company before, and the quoted producer was aware of this.
And finally, we’d like to apologize to those network members who expressed that they felt spoken for, as the intent of the piece was to highlight and share the reality of those who had bad experiences. We celebrate each story from a network member about their positive experiences with Rusty Quill. We did not intend to speak for or over these positive experiences, and we love to hear about all positive workplace experiences in the audio industry.
Responses and rebuttals
Our “fundraising projects”
In its response, Rusty Quill said, “Two out of the three of the contributors appear to be involved in fundraising projects running at the point of publication, and the article actively encourages people to pull support from The Magnus Protocol in favour of other creators.” This is incorrect. Only Tal was remotely involved in a fundraising project (they are a voice actor in the second season of Transmission Folklore). While they were involved with the podcast, they were not involved in fundraising for it. The Transmission Folklore campaign ended 2 days after the article’s publication and did not hit its full goal. Tal would have been paid $146 at the end of the campaign. We do not feel the article increased that rate by any amount, but in a show of good faith, Tal has requested that the showrunners keep their pay.
Other shows funding at this time that we knew about were The Sheridan Tapes, Apollyon, Shadows at the Door, and Before the Tone. None of us are currently involved with these podcasts. Furthermore, the article does not request that people pull their pledges from the Kickstarter to support other shows’ crowdfunding. Tal has run a Twitter that amplifies audio drama crowdfunding campaigns since July 2021. They are consistently promoting audio drama crowdfunding, never implying that one should be supported over another. This instance is no different.
Lastly, the implication that crowdfunding is a zero-sum game between Rusty Quill and the contributors to the original piece, or that there could be a reasonable expectation that a pledge withdrawn from The Magnus Protocol would end up being given to any particular project is speculative fiction unworthy of any of the relevant parties.
Financial and reputational “sabotage”
Rusty Quill alleged, “we are being forced to defend ourselves from what appears to be a case of carefully timed, deliberate defamation from people seeking to exploit recent hardships for our staff possibly to sabotage our fundraising and reputation,” a claim we would like to address in this section.
In this Tumblr post, podcaster Lee Davis-Thalbourne writes:
Releasing [the article] in the last week is probably the point where it was gonna do the least damage — If someone wanted to really hurt Rusty Quill’s chances of success, you’d release something like this in the first week, when people are already looking up Rusty Quill, when the buzz about the project is at it’s [sp] height.
We agree with his observation. To our knowledge, this Kickstarter had more money pledged to it than the combined total of every other audio fiction crowdfunding campaign in the last five years. This is not merely a guess; we have been keeping track of over 100 campaigns since 2018, and the total is approximately $528,000. The Kickstarter had raised over this amount well before the article’s publication, and we did not anticipate that to change — we’ve both crowdfunded before, and we’re familiar with the buzz of a campaign’s initial launch. Accusations of an intent to financially sabotage Rusty Quill are false, and regardless, any money lost by the Kickstarter was rapidly regained.
During the month of the article’s publication, Rusty Quill gained followers on Twitter and subscribers on Youtube. 11,215 fans gave money to The Magnus Protocol before the Kickstarter closed. To our knowledge, nobody has stopped working with the company because of the article. Accusations of an intent to reputationally sabotage Rusty Quill are false, and regardless, no sabotage was done. We have friends and collaborators that work with Rusty Quill, and we want the best for them and their work.
Rusty Quill said, “Our company wide flat pro-rata rate is £13.25 per hour for all staff including leadership, but this excludes creators who are paid separate rates as industry standard. It is true that freelance editors would expect a higher rate, but this pay is competitive in the UK for people holding permanent positions that also offer additional support.” We’d like to elaborate on industry standard payments for sound designers to clarify why we (and others) believe that industry standard sound work should, in almost all cases, be paid more than £13.25.
The post-production branch of the UK Union BECTU published this rate card for 2022–2023. These rate cards are updated annually, and the union encourages workers to stick to these minimums whether they are union members or not. The day rate for a sound designer on a microbudget (below £850K) episodic production is £340, which comes out to a £37.78 minimum hourly rate. BECTU is the UK’s media and entertainment trade union. Sectors they cover include “broadcasting, film, independent production, theatre and the arts, IT and telecoms, live events, leisure and digital media,” which include audio drama. It should be noted that these figures are recommended minimum rates “which you should get the first time you work at that particular grade.”
AIR’s 2021 rate guide said “Our sample size for sound design wasn’t sufficient to estimate separate rates for sound designers. Some of the sound designers we interviewed do both sound design and engineering, and their rates are described in the engineering section above.” This engineering section concluded “Independent engineers who are early in their career or still building a portfolio cited hourly rates in the $75–125 range [£60-£100 as of Jan 2023], while experienced engineers reported rates of $150–200 [£120-£160] per hour or day rates commensurate with that range.” AIR also provides a sample budget for audio fiction based on a 45-minute drama for the BBC by an independent production company. £20,000 is a typical budget for a BBC fiction production, so this sample budget works with that constraint. £500 per day is allotted for a “post production engineer” (assumed to be doing both sound design and the audio mix). This gives an hourly rate of approximately £55.
Trace Callahan, sound designer for This Planet Needs a Name, said:
£13.25 (currently $15.79 [at the time of this interview]) for skilled, delicate work that requires insight, practice, precision, artistry, and a high degree of care makes absolutely no sense to me. Whether you look at it as an art, or a skilled profession it’s still so far below what the level of work you’re expecting merits that it’s insulting. In creative media with picture (games, film, etc) junior and entry level positions out there pay more than twice this amount, and in Audio Fiction the sound designer is asked to provide more, to replace what picture would provide and make it feel, not like a lack, but like a bonus that you’re experiencing things through audio alone.
Rusty Quill wrote, “In terms of network partners, the allegations seem to be made by a single former creator on the network who left some time ago and another who is not, nor ever has been, a network partner.” This is inaccurate; we spoke with several sources. However, we will not be revealing with whom we spoke, as everyone has requested anonymity.
Rusty Quill also wrote, “We do not forbid network shows from promo swaps, crossovers with other podcasts, or live shows as the article claims, though we do request consultation regarding such so that we can ensure no accidental competition and similar concerns.” We can confirm that in one case, in the instance of a promo swap, this is reportedly inaccurate based on screenshotted emails from a source. It was the basis for the following statement in the initial piece: “At one point, a creator wanted to run a promotion for a podcast which contained language that some might read as explicit, but was told Acast wouldn’t allow it: ‘I called Acast, and they said they would allow the ad. Then Callum said I couldn’t air it anyway.” It is worth reiterating that the article only ever claimed one instance of this occurring (quoted above), and does not say that Rusty Quill forbids promo swaps, crossovers, or live shows in general. We are happy to hear they do not.
It is also worth noting that “cherry-picked” sections of the distribution contract were shared out of a desire to not publish an entire confidential document. However, we provided the contract to a lawyer who read it in full and confirmed that our readings of the individual sections were a fair interpretation of the wording within the context of the full document. It would be inaccurate to say that commentary on the contract sections was made based solely on the clauses included in the article. If Rusty Quill feels that the contract has been taken out of context, we invite them to share the full clauses they feel were misrepresented or the document in full. Our analysis would not change.
Rusty Quill wrote, “The claim that a show would require 125,000 downloads on the network in order to make $1000 is completely false.” While our reporting was accurate as far as what our source reported, we have been able to gather additional information that paints a more nuanced picture since the article’s publication.
We were able to obtain monthly statements from multiple creators on the Rusty Quill network. These statements do not account for all creators on the Rusty Quill network, and no reader should assume they are to be. They covered 14 separate shows and were taken from the fall of 2022. The average GBP per ad impression across these shows was .00315, after Rusty Quill’s 50% cut. This means that one would make £315 per 100,000 ad impressions (or the more common industry standard term, a £3.15 CPM). As this was calculated from the average rate, it is possible that creators would need slightly more or slightly fewer ad impressions to make this amount. It is also worth noting that ad impressions do not correlate one-to-one with downloads.
Using the above CPM averaged from 14 shows on the Rusty Quill Network, it appears that with 125,000 ad impressions the shows we got data from would make £393.75 (or $485.58 using January’s conversion rate). If a show had multiple ad impressions per download, this revenue could increase. Three ads per show, at those rates, would indeed cross that threshold. However, for shows with only one ad per download, our reporting and our source would be correct. It’s also possible that other shows have higher ad revenue, and that there are additional revenue opportunities beyond these ads. In those cases, Rusty Quill could be correct.
A data point from Tal: my average USD per ad impression, taken from one month in fall 2022, was .0114 after my distributor’s cut. I would have made $1,140 on 100,000 ad impressions (or £924 using January’s conversion rate, giving a £9.24 CPM ). This was averaged from three shows and also varies slightly from month to month. I hesitate to include data from what has been accused of being a rival network, but I feel that including my own experience here is important. A creator making a third of what I make from ads with the same impressions is alarming to me. Fluctuations from network to network are to be expected, but the magnitude of difference is why I have included my own data here. There could very well be good reasons for this discrepancy, but without that context, I find it to be a red flag. The showrunners I spoke to did not know any reason why these numbers should be so different, and I hope Rusty Quill may be able to provide more information.
In response to the statement, “Rusty Quill’s [transcripts] are riddled with errors, inconsistent, incomplete, and generally a poor representation of the show’s audio,” Rusty Quill wrote “In terms of our transcripts, these are historic allegations that are now factually untrue. All our official, original transcripts have been generated by paid professionals.” We have never disputed that paid professionals generated the transcripts, only that they are not fully accurate.
Franzi, a professional in the language service industry, alleged in a public Tumblr post in December 2022 that several transcripts still included typos and errors. In February 2022, she and another person contacted the company about transcript issues. Their email, which includes screenshots of transcript errors, can be read here. Such errors included “Many spelling and grammar errors… Misspelling of player and character names and misattribution of lines…. [and] Listing of content warnings is inconsistent, if present at all.” According to Franzi, the bulk of issues were present in Rusty Quill Gaming transcripts, but not limited to the one show. And if she emailed Rusty Quill about these issues in February of last year, Rusty Quill has known about them for almost a year and has not corrected them in this time.
One example of inaccurate transcripts can be found in the screenshot below, taken from page 14 of Rusty Quill Gaming’s episode 187 transcript in January 2023. Dialogue was not included due to it being unclear, which hinders readability. It should also be noted that there is no Rusty Quill Gaming cast member named “Adam,” and no characters named “Summit and Neil”. These should read “ALEX” and “Sumutnyerl” respectively instead.
The blue highlights in these screenshots were not added by us; they are present in the published, official documents. This may indicate that these transcripts were works in progress from the supplier, who completed as much as possible but needed clarification from Rusty Quill on a few details. Whatever the situation was, it should be clear to Rusty Quill that the published transcripts are, in some cases, incomplete.
One example of missing content warnings can be found in the screenshot below, taken from page 1 of Rusty Quill Gaming’s episode 217 transcript in January 2023. The content warnings are listed in the show notes (and youtube episode description), though do still seem to be missing from the RQG Wiki. However, according to Franzi, the Wiki is fanmade and not affiliated with the company. The fans behind the RQG Wiki do not have a responsibility to update the content warnings on the site. This raises the question: why are the official transcripts referring to this fanmade wiki? Had they referenced the official show notes, the content warnings would be available.
Given that the examples pointed out by Franzi are still present, we agree with the statement that the transcripts are “generally a poor representation of the show’s audio.” Franzi also brings up that Rusty Quill’s feedback form is not easily accessible “as it isn’t linked anywhere near the transcripts, but only in the 26 January 2022 “news” update.” As of January 2023, Trice Forgotten is also not listed as an option to provide transcript feedback on.
Rusty Quill said, “Our most recent formal Employee Satisfaction Survey, which was conducted by an independent third party, found our scores to be ‘exceptional’ and these were shared internally. Furthermore, we have already internally released a 2023 Operations Update which included factual information on related topics including recent redundancies and our plans for the future. This update is due for public release in the new year.”
While we look forward to the public release of the 2023 Operations Update, we have several questions about the Employee Satisfaction Survey. When, how, and by whom was this survey conducted? How many responses were received? A former contractor of Rusty Quill, hired during Fall 2021 as a producer for a new production and let go a year later, said:
I was never sent an RQ employment satisfaction survey during my time there and don’t personally know anyone who was, so it must have been before or after my time there. The only time they checked in on how I was doing overall with my satisfaction toward the company was verbally, during my probation meeting around the 3 month mark.
If the survey was allegedly not sent to a producer on a Rusty Quill original, someone on company payroll who was listed on the website, then to whom was it sent? If the survey was sent a year before the September layoffs or in the months after, how accurate are the responses? Did the survey also go to network members and/or freelance contractors? The lack of information about this survey prevents it from being a reliable source, in our opinion. We are truly happy to hear that the experiences of the individuals we spoke to are not shared across the company. However, it is possible that one person can have a difficult time at their job while someone else has a great time. 20 people could have negative experiences with Rusty Quill while 20 other people have a wonderful time working with the company. The existence of positive testimonies does not nullify alleged mistreatment of others (or vice versa).
Rusty Quill wrote, “We have donated more than one hundred thousand pounds to charitable causes, pushed for increased diversity in front and behind the microphone, and constantly work to support and upskill new people joining our industry.” This response is irrelevant to the claims we relay in our article. We have never questioned Rusty Quill’s charitable donations, nor their push for diversity and support in the industry — in fact, we commend it. However, this does not make any statements from sources who claim to have been mistreated untrue.
Rusty Quill also wrote, “The only employees who have ever not been paid for work in our history are leadership members who, unprompted, kindly volunteered to postpone a month’s wages in order to further delay redundancies for other staff.” We spoke to three contractors, anonymous per their requests, who reported not being paid for various work.
And finally, Rusty Quill also wrote, “the company has no history of ‘financial failings’ nor ‘worker exploitation’ as is alluded to in” the article. For the former, we were referencing the steady decline of Patreon earnings since April 2021, which is public data. Between April 26, 2021, and August 22, 2022 (this date was chosen as the last data point before Rusty Quill’s stats were set to private), Rusty Quill lost 3,119 patrons. Rusty Quill’s own admission that leadership members “volunteered to postpone a month’s wages in order to further delay redundancies for other staff” could be said to indicate a financial failure, as well. What constitutes a “financial failing” is an opinion. We have shared ours.
The history of worker exploitation can arguably be found in the story of the unpaid Discord mods. The Equality in Audio pact, signed by Rusty Quill as of at least December 4, 2020, says “Using unpaid labour to help run your business not only restricts who is able to work within audio but it also can be viewed as exploitative.” At its peak, this Rusty Quill Official Discord had about 15,000 members according to the mods, and reportedly was a central part of community engagement. Because there were channels exclusively for patrons, this Discord may have contributed to Rusty Quill’s income, and it could be said that those running the Discord were helping Rusty Quill with their business. Outside of Patreon emails, the moderators we spoke to said, from their own experiences, that the Discord acted like Rusty Quill’s primary method of getting information out to the community.
After the publication of Newt’s official piece, we were advised by previous members of the Rusty Quill Official Discord server (a hybrid between a large group chat and a forum) to investigate the goings-on in the server before it was closed. As such, we reached out to some of the server’s former moderators to discuss their experiences with Rusty Quill and the server. We were not members of the server, and our discussion in this section is informed by interviews with those moderators. Allegations of racism have been made towards the entire team of moderators — not just the sources we communicated with — and the server itself. Many of the rules that garnered complaint seem to have come not from the moderators themselves, but from Rusty Quill; however, we understand the gray lines between the different levels of power at play in regards to this situation. We wish to give these moderators space to share their experiences. We do not condone racism of any kind, and we are actively committed to anti-racist efforts in our work.
We spoke to three former moderators (mods); two requested anonymity, but the third, Brinn Anza, was willing to go on the record. These mods said that they knew the position would be unpaid before joining, and initially had no problems with it. However, as one of them summarized, “We were told on various occasions that they wanted to pay us in some non-monetary way, varying from merch to paying for professional training, but none of that ever came through in the two years I was modding.” Many of the moderators received “an endless parade of suggestions and ‘we’re working on this’ and ‘we’d like to do this’ [from Rusty Quill] and nothing ever materialized.” Allegedly, Rusty Quill may have compensated some of their UK-based mods with a gift of beer, but US-based mods received nothing. The moderators we spoke to all emphasized that the issue was not that they weren’t compensated, but that they were reportedly lied to about being compensated, repeatedly.
Rusty Quill also wouldn’t provide mods with patron-exclusive content, even though “there was an assumption that [moderators] knew the content being discussed.” Brinn said:
The early access channels were the busy channels that needed a lot of moderation. You had to know what was going on in order to effectively moderate the conversation. Not having access to the content hogtied you for that. Allowing access to the paywalled stuff to the mod team without having to pay for it would have been an easy thing [for Rusty Quill] to do.
The content behind the paywall of Rusty Quill’s Patreon was vital for several aspects of the moderators’ job, and they weren’t provided access to it without paying out of their own pocket. One mod said, “If you needed to moderate a discussion about Patreon-only content you’d need to have paid for the Patreon to be able to do your job.” These former moderators alleged that Rusty Quill “really did not like giving us information. Not even just ahead of time, but complete information [at all]. How are you supposed to moderate conversations about things when you don’t know what is going on?”
When Rusty Quill announced their network, they reportedly gave Discord moderators very little notice, despite the direct impact it would have on the server. “We got zero info and zero answers,” a mod said, adding that the mod team gave Rusty Quill a list of questions they anticipated people in the server would have, only to be told that people in the server with questions could just email Rusty Quill.
This was unsatisfactory because, in the words of one mod:
Emailing RQ was largely seen as about as valuable as writing a letter and handing it to a passing carrier pigeon in terms of getting any kind of timely response, or indeed any response at all. ‘Email RQ’ meant ‘you’re not getting an answer’ and everyone knew it.
The mods reported feeling frustrated about the whole situation. “We had people from the network shows joining the Discord and we had absolutely no idea what to do with them,” one added. This alleged lack of information or communication from higher-ups was said to be a trend throughout these moderators’ time.
One moderator said:
The mods volunteered when the Discord was far smaller, maybe 2,000 people. After the massive rise in TMA’s popularity, we really struggled to get new mods approved, so we were massively understaffed. By the end, the Discord was at 15,000 people and we still had very little support.
Despite being understaffed, the moderators said it was difficult to add new mods to the team because the volunteers “did not have the control or ability to hire them.” The mods expressed that they were always talking about adding new members to their team and even had specific people in mind. However, getting Rusty Quill to approve additional moderators was said to be nearly impossible. “It grew so fast, and we needed help and we could not get it,” said one mod. “There was a year and a half where we were going ‘what about more mods?’” added another. “We wanted more diversity and better representation [in the moderator team] and it never materialized.”
The moderators said, “We had no power to deal with the people who were actually stirring shit up… no authority to do literally anything except tell people off and ban [spam bots].” One added, “We were caught between the astonishingly sharp vitriol of Discord members and the endless apathy of anybody with actual authority to do anything.” Rusty Quill’s higher-ups were allegedly not in the Discord server to see what was happening, “but also they did not listen to us when we told them what was going on.” As a whole, the moderators reported that they were left on their own to act on behalf of a company that, according to at least one mod, seemed to refuse to give them the time of day.
One mod said of their experience:
The rules [of the server] weren’t completely vague, but what was less clear cut was how genuinely empowered we were to enforce them and what was an appropriate escalation of consequence. We were told we had the authority to enforce server rules but had ultimately minimal support from [the company] when there was pushback. It was very much working in a vacuum.
We had pretty much no way of dealing with repeat offenders until they did something really egregious, by which point the damage would be already done. It also meant that when we were being harassed by server members we pretty much just had to take it.
One instance that brought ire towards the mods was when the initialism “ACAB” was banned from the server. The moderators we spoke to said “that decision came from above us” and that they had to enforce it regardless of their personal opinions. Brinn added:
We did not write the server rules. We did not have any say in the server rules. Anyone who’s spoken to me for more than thirty seconds knows I am a noted cop and landlord hater and enforcing rules that I did not write does not mean I agreed with the sentiment.
The moderators described multiple instances of not being able to remove problematic server members, even as those people’s actions caused others to become uncomfortable and leave. Brinn said, “We were hamstrung on several levels. People could get away with saying racist shit and we wouldn’t be able to ban them.” Some moderators left allegedly because of how they were treated by server members.
At this point it is important for us to highlight that enforcing racist rules and regulations is something we are taught to do, through our upbringing and existence in society. It is not anti-racist to implement and enforce those rules, even if one feels they have no other choice and especially if one benefits from white supremacy. After communicating with these mods and reviewing public information posted by former members of this server, we believe that the moderators should have made different decisions when faced with the directions they were allegedly given. As such, we also believe that their unpaid work in this server resulted in harm both for themselves and the community they were trying to serve.
The mods we spoke to also wanted to make it clear that “the majority of the server was lovely.” One mod said:
Up until the last few months it was essentially self-moderation. The community did an amazing job of encouraging the culture of being polite and respectful. It was a really good community and for a really long time, the mods were there not so much to enforce as to encourage. Towards the end is where it got bad.
When the community manager was let go, the moderators alleged that other employees were told by Rusty Quill not to talk to her. Some of them reportedly reacted by unfriending her on every platform. While the moderators of the Discord were initially not told she had been fired, one of them alleged that Rusty Quill had gone to the moderator of the fan-run Facebook page and told them to remove the former community manager from the page. Many of the moderators said they considered the community manager to be a friend, and seeing this treatment of her made them deeply unhappy.
“People have the impression we quit because [the community manager] was fired and that is not the case… It’s not just that they fired her, it’s that they were not going to tell us,” said one mod, adding, “That event is what made it clear that we were not valued.” Allegedly, Rusty Quill was “taken aback” when the moderators asked about the situation. After the moderators stepped down, they said “We got ghosting, we got so much passive aggression” from the Rusty Quill team. “I had thought better of them.” Brinn said that when they quit, they received an email from Rusty Quill’s head of HR that deadnamed them. “They don’t value people. They really don’t… They treated some of my very good friends — and me — like garbage.”
We had faith in RQ and we were happy to do [the moderation job] for free. But over time the utter disregard for us became more and more obvious … they took us for granted and were happy to leave us scrambling in the dark.
Two or three people having the experiences we’ve shared is an outlier. Ten to twenty people is, in our opinion, a trend. We’re glad for the positive stories people have shared in the aftermath of our first article, but plenty of unhappy tales came our way as well. Here’s a quote from someone who reached out after the article’s publication:
Rusty Quill promised a lot more than they could deliver when they took on a small, successful podcast and suggested they’d bring greater success… RQ see no value in the work of audio editors and producers. I count myself very lucky that by seeing my work and contribution to a podcast as completely worthless, simply for not using the same software or methods that they demanded I use, that they never got me on a contract.
This person requested anonymity, so we are unable to share the full story of their situation, which we verified as true. We also spoke with Matthew Hurst, a writer who has done work for the BBC and others. He was willing to go on record about his experience with Rusty Quill:
I saw linking up with Rusty Quill as a way to get my work in front of more people because they have a huge listener base, and any drama writer just wants to be produced, in the end.
I’m sure that most of the people at RQ have the best of intentions and are working in what they see as good faith, but they seemed to be expanding so fast their infrastructure couldn’t keep up with the hares they set running. That meant a bunch of delays and falling back on being very controlling about the IP they were dealing with, at the same time as telling the podcast community what a great home they were for creatives. I’ve worked with big broadcasters and production companies and had work commissioned, produced and paid for. I love the development process and I’ve never been precious about it.
The reality for me with Rusty Quill seemed that as soon as I even asked a few basic, polite questions about their offer they took their ball home. RQ seemed to have the best intentions but were out of their depth. They talked a lot of idealistic aspirations but maybe couldn’t match them with the realities of how successful they wanted to be as a business.
While Matthew was never an employee, his experience is similar to many of the stories we’ve heard, both before and after the initial article’s publication. We’ve provided these stories to you so that you can form your own conclusions. Ultimately, this entire project was an endeavor to bring to light how individuals have been treated by Rusty Quill. We hope this follow-up article has provided additional clarification, and we’re always happy to hear from more sources. However, we’d like to reiterate that we will not tolerate harassment of ourselves, Rusty Quill and their collaborators, or anyone readers think may have spoken to us.