It was a chilly Friday morning when I got off the E train at Spring Street in Lower Manhattan, just two blocks away from the headquarters of New York Public Radio. As I approached the nine-story building on Varick Street, I noticed a scrolling marquee near the front doors that read “WNYC Radio 93.9 FM | AM 820.” After signing in at the security desk in the lobby, I made my way up to the eighth floor (one of three floors that New York Public Radio occupies) and was greeted by my host, Mr. Ivan Zimmerman ’80.
My day started with a quick tour of the eighth floor, which included several recording booths used by WNYC FM and AM (news stations) and WQXR (a classical music station). Ivan pointed out the handful of people who were waiting by to screen and connect incoming calls to the host, as a show was going on. I also toured the newsroom, in which there were several reporters working in their cubicles and several TVs overhead, each tuned to a different news channel. After this quick tour, we went to Ivan’s office and chatted about his varied responsibilities and his route to his current position.
Ivan explained two of the projects he was working on, one of which dealt with more corporate and contractual issues, while the other involved an individual who contacted his office. A major part of Ivan’s work deals with contracts. Some of the things he looks for when combing through and approving contracts are making sure that both parties’ responsibilities are explained unambiguously, making the parties’ relationship clear, and general proofreading.
After a quick discussion about Princeton life and how things have changed in the last 30+ years (e.g., what is now the Mathey Common Room used to be called the ‘Lower Cloister’ and was a vegetarian dining hall), Ivan explained another major responsibility of his, which is to review the underwriting that comes in from sponsors of the radio station. Underwriting is when a broadcasting outlet identifies and makes reference to a financial sponsor on the air. But public broadcasters have to be particularly careful in making sure they only identify but not promote a supporter, since they are tax-exempt and publicly funded. The wording of the underwriting has to be neutral and short, cannot be a tagline, and cannot use comparatives or superlatives (for example, saying something is “The hottest show in town!”). As the morning went on, the vast majority of the emails coming into Ivan’s inbox involved short underwriting spots that would be announced on the air, which, together with his co-counsel Janna, he would have to review and confirm as neutral.
Ivan and I also talked about his career before starting at WNYC in 1999. After graduating from Princeton, Ivan went to Columbia Law, lived in China and Japan, and eventually started working for Planned Parenthood in 1991 as their general counsel. Ivan loved working for Planned Parenthood because he loved contributing to a cause greater than himself. Similarly, he loves working for WNYC because he’s part of something creative and productive. I related to what Ivan said extremely well. For the last few years, I’d been unsure of whether I wanted to pursue law, and I recently realized that I also want to pursue a career in a very creative environment and one that aligns with my great interest in media and entertainment. Several months ago, I determined that I could reconcile my varied interests by pursuing a career as an in-house attorney for a media company, which is why Ivan’s Princeternship seemed so fitting for me. When I asked him what he thought about my tentative plan to take about two or three years off before starting law school and spending that time working for a media company in production or communications, for example, to accrue some work experience in the industry, Ivan supported my idea wholeheartedly. Knowing the ins and outs of an industry would be absolutely helpful to getting an in-house position in a company. To be sure, however, it is rare to start in-house right after law school. Most law school graduates begin at a firm, though one could start in a smaller firm that specialized in media law. Something Ivan said that resonated with me was, “It’s important to find who you are. It’s great to be driven, but you shouldn’t force yourself to be something you’re not.”
Later, Ivan treated me to a nice lunch in the West Village, where we continued our conversation. He told me more about the work he did for Planned Parenthood, and suddenly I realized that I too had a great interest in a field of law that deals with more social issues, as opposed to corporate. I have been involved with a handful of projects relating to gender, sexuality, and family law, and I wondered whether studying law and pursuing a career in this field instead would be right for me. I came to the conclusion that my ideal career would be working in the legal department of a large media company, while doing pro bono work in gender, sexuality, and family law on the side, if possible.
Once we got back to the office, we talked a bit more about the industry in general, as Ivan continually reviewed underwriting spots that came into his inbox. I found it really interesting that even the slightest, implicit hint in an underwriting spot suggesting the comparative quality of a sponsor’s event or organization was impermissible. It had to be absolutely, 100% neutrally informative and nothing more. Since Ivan and Janna do the legal work for the entire organization, they also advise on website development, as well as programming. Ivan gave me a crash course on copyright law from a PowerPoint that was presented to employees who might develop a website. There are several nuanced but important guidelines to follow relating to trademarks, fair use, images, etc., which I found really interesting.
Ivan also explained the rules behind setting up contests. Since lotteries are illegal in New York State, unless run by the government, WNYC needs to be very careful when crafting contests to give away free movie tickets, for example. A lottery is defined by three elements: (1) a prize, (2) chance, and (3) consideration (a player gives something up to participate in the lottery – usually money). In order to not count as an illegal lottery, one of these elements needs to be missing. For example, the seventh participant to call in to win a movie ticket gives no consideration (a phone call is negligible).
We ended the day with a full tour of the three floors of WNYC offices. On the seventh floor was Ivan’s office, as well as the publicity, digital media, and marketing departments. The eighth floor held several recording booths and the newsroom, which I saw first thing in the morning. The ninth floor held the executive offices and cubicles of employees working on several of the radio’s programs. I also saw the radio archives, which held records dating back to the station’s founding in 1924.
I truly enjoyed my Princeternship and feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet with Ivan. I learned so much about working in media law, from the basics of copyright law to contracts. Most important, I left with a better understanding of what I wanted to pursue in my future, now that I got a glimpse of how the job really operates on a typical day. Again, I think that my ideal career would be working as an in-house attorney for a large media company, preferably a broadcast network, while perhaps doing pro bono work in gender, sexuality, and family law. Thank you so much Ivan for your time and all your advice!