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."
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."
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.
-- 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.
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, Calif., 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.