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Aussie DJ scandal: Does radio share the blame?

By Thom Patterson, CNN
updated 11:36 AM EST, Tue December 11, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • An Australian radio prank prompts U.S. broadcasters to re-evaluate
  • "My advice: it's a tragedy, but just calm down," one expert says
  • The tragic prank revives memory of a 2007 radio stunt that killed a contestant
  • Are pranks driven by ratings? Will the Aussie DJ scandal affect U.S. radio?

(CNN) -- In the radio biz, if the buzz is good, the listeners will come. But now a suicide that followed an Australian radio prank is forcing American radio broadcasters to look in the mirror.

"It was a feeding frenzy last week when the prank first happened," said Paige Nienaber, a radio consultant for about 100 stations. "We thought, 'This is the greatest thing ever!' Then, of course, it became a tragedy."

Although the story is Topic A on U.S. airwaves, where pranks and stunts are all too common, it's hard to know what's being said off the air -- when studio microphones are not live.

The blame is widespread, says 40-plus-year radio veteran Bruce Kelly. "Most of the industry people I've talked to are saying it's not the DJs' fault. But it does make radio as a whole look pretty stupid."

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Nurse Jacintha Saldanha's apparent suicide after Australian DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian fooled her into thinking they were Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles has triggered American station owners to take a new look at their policies concerning pranks and stunts, industry insiders say.

"There is no way they could have anticipated this," said Nienaber. Now station owners, he said, are reviewing policy and reminding their talent to toe the line when it comes to stunts and pranks. "My advice: it's a tragedy, but just calm down."

"The DJs should not blame themselves," wrote CNN commenter Marci Richardson, who described herself as a paralegal. "No one commits suicide over a prank."

But another commenter, identifying as yokohamacat, wrote that "without their prank, she would probably be alive now. DJs can not go claiming total innocence as long as there is a clear sequence of suicide and the prank call."

Related story: Prank call radio station donates to nurse's family

When it comes to prank phone calls on American radio -- believe it or not -- there are rules. In fact, the Aussie prank never would have happened in the United States, broadcasters say, because the FCC dictates that anyone featured on air must give their permission before their voice is broadcast. Some stations take this so seriously that they produce fake prank phone calls by hiring impromptu actors to play the roles of unwitting listeners.

Radio has been successful partly because it has realized April Fool's Day doesn't have to happen once a year, Nienaber said.

He should know. The stunts he's helped stations promote are creative to say the least.

Jacintha Saldanha died after being hoaxed by an Australian radio show.
Jacintha Saldanha died after being hoaxed by an Australian radio show.

--Hundreds of listeners were fooled into thinking they were appearing in a Brad Pitt movie.

--A station promoted a "baby giveaway" contest by offering the winning couple free treatments for in vitro fertilization.

--A contest dubbed Swap Your Wife for a Brand New Life offered several couples prizes after they switched partners.

The tragedy has morning shows nationwide thinking twice. "Those of us in the media forget the impact we have on people's lives, both positive and negative," Kelly said.

"Personally, I think anytime you publicly embarrass someone it doesn't sit well with me," said 31-year radio veteran Kevin Robinson, who programs 106-5 The Arch in St. Louis.

Related story: Opinion: DJs broke 'no harm' rule

Is there a line that should not be crossed? "The line is, don't do it if it endangers the public directly," Kelly said.

The suicide dredges up memories of an American radio stunt that ended tragically: a 2007 contest that left 28-year-old Jennifer Strange dead from acute water intoxication. Strange entered the contest sponsored by Sacramento, California, station KDND. The contest promised a free Wii video game system to the person who could drink the most water without going to the bathroom or vomiting. Promoters dubbed the contest, "Hold Your Wee for a Wii." Strange's family was awarded $16.5 million in a wrongful death suit against the station owners.

"Sacramento really seemed to validate what a lot of people already believe: that we are this dangerous medium," said Nienaber. But he also calls it the "intestinal gas, fart joke medium," because "a lot of the people are emotionally stuck in the eighth grade." People who own radio stations, he says, see DJs as "children playing with explosives."

What's the payoff for radio pranks? In a word, buzz. Pressure from programmers often forces talent to go to extremes to "make noise" in the market, insiders say. Get listeners talking.

What about ratings? Are pranks a direct result of trying to win a ratings war? Not necessarily. "I don't think there's a correlation," Nienaber said. DJs would devise pranks regardless, he says. "At the end of the day, it's just fun."

But like every medium these days, radio is changing. Will the Aussie DJ's scandal leave a permanent mark? Will your favorite morning DJs change their tune in the aftermath of the tragedy?

"I don't think radio pranks will ever go away as long as there are 'funny' morning shows," said Lee Abrams, an industry pioneer and consultant who's legendary in the business. "The Australian prank was a fluke ... though the hosts and their employers will probably think twice" in the future "and that's probably a good thing."

Phone pranks like the one in Australia have become "old and boring" Kelly said. Much of radio's fun with pranks has roots in the 1950s with shows like "Candid Camera" and in the '80s with Scott Shannon's "Morning Zoo" at New York's Z100.

"I think it was something that was happening more in the '80s and '90s," said Jim Denny, morning co-host at Indianapolis' WFMS. "I think you hear more mean stuff on the sports radio and news-talk stations, where they're beating up on the listeners sometimes."

Pranks and stunts appear to be moving from radio to reality TV, Kelly said, leaving radio with a few basic formats that he calls "shut-up-and-play-the music"; "I-hate-Obama-I-love-Obama" aka talk radio; or an "ensemble of human interaction with Morning Zoo-like overtones, without the snarkyness."

If radio ends up becoming more predictable as a result of the controversy, it will disappoint many broadcasters as well as listeners. It's radio's unpredictability, they say, that makes it great.

"Anything can happen," Nienaber said. "But should this stop us from doing everything? No."

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