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The Merry Pranksters of the Air

Some radio deejays will do almost anything to stand out from the crowd. But not everyone is laughing as hoaxes and stunts backfire.

May 26, 2003|Bob Baker | Times Staff Writer

What if ... ? wondered Cleveland disc jockey Shane French. What if a cat was tethered to a helium-filled balloon and launched toward the heavens, and callers to his station offered periodic reports, and finally, one gallant listener fired a gun, popped the balloon and brought the cat down gently. Would that be great radio or what?

It's what passes for great radio these days. On April 29, French kept the hoax going for more than two hours, fueled by recorded "calls" from "witnesses." It ended when police, suspecting a hoax after so many worried inquiries from animal lovers, visited the station and persuaded French to announce that none of it was true.

Nine days later, a Denver-area radio station copied the hoax and was delighted by the same results: a bigger, longer-listening audience and coverage on local television and in newspapers -- easily worth the complaints of the offended.

Hoaxes, pranks and stunts have been part of radio for generations, back to the granddaddy of them all, Orson Welles' 1938 Martians-invade-New Jersey broadcast, based on H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds," which inadvertently created widespread panic. There's rarely anything inadvertent in today's broadcast stunts, which feature an uneven variety of edgy cleverness and malicious manipulation. Radio stations with shrinking promotional budgets but a desperate need to stand out in their conglomerate-dominated world have taken on-the-air goofery to new heights.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 28, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Radio pranks -- An article about radio pranks in Monday's Section A incorrectly stated that the agent for fired shock-jock-radio hosts Opie and Anthony did not expect them to work in radio again. The article should have said that the agent, now seeking a television deal for the duo, is not currently seeking radio work for Opie and Anthony but expects them eventually to return to that medium.

The mischief plays out on a largely deregulated landscape. The Federal Communications Commission has a 10-year-old rule banning hoaxes, but the rule has enough loopholes to exempt all but the most catastrophic incidents.

The agency's 4-year-old Enforcement Bureau has never filed a hoax case. With prank- sterism -- mean, silly, sly or merely stupid -- unchecked in its merry romp across the nation's airwaves, perpetrators and listeners are on their own to separate right from wrong, never mind real from fake.

The tension between civil order and 1st Amendment rights was well-illustrated by the Cleveland cat stunt. French, who goes by the nickname "Rover" on WXTM-FM 92.3 "Xtreme Radio," said he never considered that people would call 911 when that "cat" took flight. But he was obsessed with jolting his morning drive-time audience.

"Our listeners really have an expectation of waking up in the morning and saying, 'I can't believe this is going on,' " said French, 27. "For 30 years, this is what radio has striven to do." No one in his right mind would take the hoax literally, figured French's boss, program director Kim Monroe.

But scores of people called the Cleveland Animal Protective League, which pulled its cruelty investigator off other cases and sent him looking for the flying cat. Not only did the league waste resources, but the hoax put a dangerous idea into the minds of teens and young adults, the organization's president complained to Infinity Broadcasting Corp., which owns 2-year-old WXTM and about 180 other stations. In Monroe's mind, only the backlash stopped it from being a perfect hoax. She still gives it "an 8 1/2 or 9 on a scale of 10."

The same tension was raised by a Houston station's April Fools' broadcast that claimed Harris County was running so short of transportation funds that it would start charging tolls per "any breathing creature" -- including pets -- in the car, rather than the old per vehicle formula. The hoax provoked nonstop protest calls to the toll-road agency, which complained to the station. "It was the most e-mail we ever got," boasted one station announcer.

More subtle was a New Orleans broadcast last fall. The host of a local politics show was interviewing a former federal prosecutor when, late in the program, came a phone call from former Louisiana Gov. Edwin W. Edwards, who was scheduled to enter federal prison that day after an extortion conviction.

The prosecutor had tried unsuccessfully to get a conviction against Edwards in the '80s. Now, Edwards said he wanted to explain himself to the public one last time. Bitter exchanges followed. Politics junkies phoned each other gleefully. Alas, "Edwards" was a local actor and impersonator -- a fact the show's host realized when the call came in, and something he chose to play along with. (The prosecutor later said he'd done the same.)

What kind of hoax should be out of bounds? How about the Pennsylvania station that scheduled a Saturday morning appearance by Britney Spears three years ago. Four hundred children and parents, some of whom camped in the station's parking lot overnight, turned tearful and angry when a limo pulled up and a tuxedo-clad man emerged carrying a Spears doll in a box. The station's excuse? Listeners should have been able to read between the lines of its promotional language.

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