Some attribute it to a widespread decline in radio standards, others to creativity gone awry, a prank carried too far. Still others trace the motivation to plain old greed.
These are some of the reactions that radio industry officials have had to the revelation of an on-air murder-confession hoax concocted for publicity by three KROQ-FM (106.7) disc jockeys--morning personalities Kevin Ryder and Gene (Bean) Baxter and late-night host Doug Roberts. They were suspended without pay on April 11 following publication of an article about the scheme in The Times and are expected back on the air today.
The Federal Communications Commission says that it is investigating the incident, and the radio industry is watching closely to see what action, if any, the regulatory agency will take toward the station and the three deejays.
"I don't think anybody's scared at all about this until they see how the FCC reacts," said Jeff Wyatt, program director at KPWR-FM (105.9). "If it amounts to a hand slap, a letter of reprimand, who cares? If it's a letter of reprimand, (KPWR morning deejay) Jay Thomas is going to have a murderer on the air live tomorrow. If they do something drastic like take their license away, that's a message. A $20,000 fine--that's a message."
Allen Klein, president of Media Research Graphics Inc., a radio consulting firm, agreed: "If there's a slap on the wrist and everybody laughs about it, then it will happen again."
It refers to the phony confession that Roberts called in to Ryder and Baxter last June, which led to a plethora of media appearances for the KROQ deejays and ultimately triggered a 10-month homicide investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. One of the shows on which the radio confession was replayed was "Unsolved Mysteries," which ran the segment twice, generating about 400 responses linking the confession to real crimes.
"It was unconscionable," Klein said. "My personal feeling is they should never work again on the air. How can you trust people like this? They had the opportunity to say it was a hoax in the early stages and didn't. Who pays for all the man hours in the Police Department? And you're dealing with people's emotions and lives."
Emotions indeed ran high when Lis Cummings learned that the on-air confession had been a fake. Cummings' 19-year-old daughter, Angela, was fatally shot last year near Yuba City, and she had hoped that the call might provide clues that would lead to someone being arrested for the crime.
"I listened to the tape and it was a pretty chilling thing," she recalled in a phone interview last week. "It was really creepy. You know how you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach? A feeling of how horrible that anybody could be so cold. . . . And then I felt hope that it was the person who killed Angela. I thought, 'God, this really could be it. It would really fit in with a lot of things that happened.' " Cummings' voice trailed off. "You grasp at anything. . . ."
When she learned this month that the murder confession was a phony, Cummings' hopes were dashed.
"Someone that would do a hoax like this is just as sick as a murderer," Cummings said. "You can't care about anyone else's feelings and do something like this. It's just cold and it's cruel.
"(The deejays) have obviously never had anything serious or painful happen in their lives," she continued. "There are lots of other things that people can do for ratings that don't hurt other people. This affected so many people's lives. I felt like I became a victim again. This was like being slapped in the face again. When your child is murdered and it's unsolved, it's not done. What they did was like taking sandpaper and rubbing it in an open wound."
Neither Ryder, Baxter nor Roberts returned telephone calls from The Times.
Several others in the industry, interviewed a week after the hoax was revealed, expressed outrage on behalf of people like Cummings, the innocent victims of the deejays' ploy for ratings.
"Did they think these people's pain was worth exploiting to get ratings?" said KLSX-FM (97.1) deejay Jim Ladd, a veteran deejay with 20 years at various Los Angeles radio stations. "It's almost like a vampire who is sucking off the tragedy of America."
But other industry veterans see the hoax as an unfortunate, but excusable, concomitant of the competitive world of morning radio.
"When you're dealing with creative talent, you have to take what's part and parcel to that--and sometimes that includes going too far," said programming consultant Jeff Pollack, who currently consults for KQLZ-FM "Pirate Radio" (100.3).
"You have to understand that there are going to be some times where an idea that's been created just goes wrong," Pollack said. "I think they're talented, they're good guys and should be given another chance."
Bill Summers, general manager of KLOS-FM (95.5), voiced similar sentiments.