The history of radio is full of hoaxes. The most famous, Orson Welles’ 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast, set off nationwide panic. But while Welles and CBS Radio got off with a slap on the wrist from the Federal Communications Commission, the latest big prank — a shocker at Los Angeles’ rocking KROQ — has a station’s license hanging in the balance. Last June KROQ morning jocks Kevin Ryder and Gene ”Bean” Baxter staged a murder confession during their call-in show, Confess Your Crime. The call led to national publicity and a 10-month murder investigation by the L.A. sheriff’s department before the jocks confessed that the confession was a setup.
The station’s owner, Infinity Broadcasting, has denied any knowledge of the hoax, but KROQ officials blamed the prank on intense pressure for ratings in the L.A. market, which has nearly 90 radio stations. KROQ ultimately apologized on the air, suspended the deejays for six days without salary, and ordered them to pay $12,170 to the sheriff’s office for wasting homicide investigators’ time. An FCC probe, which started in April, will determine whether KROQ will stay on the air.
But what might appear as an isolated outrage by a single station actually partakes in a legacy of other hoaxes. Here are some of the worst-case stunts:
At WWDC in Washington, D.C., Doug Tracht, better known as ”the Greaseman,” was famous for his wacky wake-up calls. In April 1985, a male caller asked the Greaseman to phone his girlfriend and wish her a happy 21st birthday. The Greaseman rigged the wake-up call by hiring an actress to play the girl and an actor to play a man she was sleeping with. The caller and his girlfriend broke up over the incident and filed a joint $10.7 million civil lawsuit, claiming their reputations had been damaged. The lawsuit was dismissed.
Shock jock Howard Stern of WXRK in New York, KROQ’s sister station, created a dating game variant called Lesbian Dial-A-Date, with three women vying for one another’s affections. For that and other ”lewd and vulgar” broadcasts in 1988, the FCC cited Stern for indecency and fined Infinity $6,000. But in radio there is no such thing as bad publicity. As soon as the FCC decision was announced, Infinity raised the advertising rates at its three stations that carry Stern.
One disc jockey made the ultimate surgical sacrifice for his station: He had a vasectomy. Steve Dahl of WLUP in Chicago went live from the operating table March 16, 1989. He miked the doctor and a fellow deejay, who provided a detailed account. The station covered the 41/2-hour ordeal from start to finish, with the highlight delivered by the doctor: ”I am cutting the vas deferens now.” The FCC took no action.
During the gulf war, St. Louis’ KSHE switched on a mock Emergency Broadcast Signal while deejay John Ulett told listeners they were under nuclear attack. For that stunt, the station got the heaviest fine the FCC can levy for a single offense: $25,000, the first punishment under a stern new FCC policy. Who knows what it may mete out for KROQ?