When Bill Simmons, the popular former ESPN sports columnist set up The Ringer in 2016, he drew legions of fans to his irreverent sports podcasts. As the L.A. site grew, however, so did the demands of his employees. This summer they formed a 66-member union with the Writers Guild of America East and management moved quickly to recognize it.
But the process has not been seamless. Last month, Simmons's nephew Kyle Crichton, a producer at The Ringer who appears on Simmons' popular podcast, posted a rap to his Soundcloud page called "State of the Union," rhyming about not wanting a handout and a lockout. The rap prompted a swift backlash on social media, with some Ringer fans suggesting the company was "anti-union."
Four long-serving contributors have left the site since September. One person close to the company, who asked not to be identified, said the office environment had become more tense after the scrutiny of certain perks, such as working from home.
A spokesperson for The Ringer said Simmons and Crichton declined to comment.
The closely watched contract negotiations at The Ringer mark the latest push by Hollywood unions to extend their reach into digital media and podcasting, which is growing rapidly in L.A. The WGA East has in recent years mainly focused its organizing efforts on New York City-based sites such as Huffington Post, Vice, Vox Media, Slate and Refinery 29.
WGA East officials declined to say whether other podcasting companies in L.A. were being targeted, but a person with knowledge of the union strategy stressed that the guild is not making a broader push into the West Coast, where its sister union, the Writers Guild of America West, has long dominated.
Nonetheless, bringing union benefits to podcasting startups and other digital media firms is a high priority, said Lowell Peterson, executive director of the WGA East.
"We see how the media landscape is changing, and our goal is to keep pace with it," Peterson said. "There is very much the sense that unions are more essential than ever."
The guild scored a coup in March when Brooklyn-based Gimlet Media, one of the early pioneers of podcasting with such popular shows as "Reply All," became the first podcast company to join the guild.
The Gimlet Union, which formally emerged about a month after Sweden-based Spotify announced a takeover of the 5-year-old podcast company, said in a tweet that their members have helped the company grow from a "small, scrappy operation into a company worth $230 million ... we're going to work toward a contract that includes equitable salary bands, rules around contractor employment, concrete diversity initiatives, protection of our IP, and more."