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Radio stunt contests can prove to be dangerous

January 18, 2007

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Radio stunt contests can prove to be dangerous

In latest tragedy, woman dies after binging on water

Thursday, January 18, 2007
By Mackenzie Carpenter, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

 
Six years ago, when a crowd gathered outside a New York state radio station after its morning drive hosts announced -- untruthfully -- that Britney Spears was visiting, a woman collapsed and died of a heart attack.
 
In 2003, three contestants spent 10 weeks in a British hospital recovering from burns after being challenged by a radio station to sit on blocks of dry ice to win concert tickets.
 
And last week, a Sacramento-area woman died after participating in a water-drinking contest, sponsored by a morning drive radio program, in the hope of winning a video game system for her three children.
Radio stunts, and their shifty cousins, radio hoaxes, have been with us since the early days of broadcasting as a favorite marketing tool to gain listeners and advertising sponsors. Orson Welles' 1938 "War of the Worlds," caused widespread panic among listeners, who actually believed Martians were invading.
 
Once radio's "shock jocks" took over in the 1980s and 1990s, radio stunts became increasingly edgy and gross if not outright dangerous -- from a couple having sex in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York to a pumpkin-pie eating contest in which one child nearly choked to death.
 
In last week's tragedy, 28-year-old Jennifer Lea Strange died of water intoxication after drinking more than a half-gallon of water during the "Morning Rave" program on KDND-FM, as part of a "Hold Your Wee for a Wii" contest. The station fired the show's three hosts and seven employees Tuesday, but beyond a public expression of sympathy to the family has declined further comment.
Still, the episode had many longtime radio industry insiders shaking their heads.
 
"There is lots of bad judgment out there on the part of early morning drive shows, where most of this happens," said Robert Unmacht, a Nashville-based media consultant. "I was surprised, frankly, when I heard that of the 10 people fired, not one was the general manager or his boss. They're the ones who must take responsibility because they set the tone."
 
While Pittsburgh radio stations have had their share of competitive eating contests and other bizarre promotions, several executives said they were unaware of any stunts that ended badly, although there have been some close calls.
 
A few years ago, WRRK-FM (96.9) gave away free dental makeovers and hosted an outdoor "sleepathon," where winning listeners could get free concert tickets, said Gregg Frischling, vice president and general manager of Steel City Media, which owns WRRK.
"We got a lot of exposure for [the sleepathon], but even that was pushing it," he said. "Everyone was able to eat and use a restroom, but it started to rain, it was cold, and the contestants were not allowed to get off a 3-by-6-foot banner for a week.
"At the end we did a recap and realized too many things could have gone wrong. It was a lot of work and wasn't really worth it."
WDVE-FM (102.5), like a number of radio stations across the country, sponsors the "Breast Christmas Ever" contest every year around the holidays, which features free breast enhancement surgery. The event has come under fire from feminist groups and some health care advocates, who note the surgery is risky. WDVE officials didn't return calls for comment.
 
"A lot of stations are doing this kind of stuff for free exposure, or because they'll get money from a client," noted Mr. Frischling. "We've talked about doing promotions like that, but because so much is at risk and someone could get hurt, we've really shied away from it."
 
While some of the more raunchy challenges by radio hosts have been toned down somewhat since federal fines for indecency were increased last year -- to $325,000 per incident -- the FCC doesn't regulate radio stunts, which constitute programming content, said Mr. Unmacht.
 
"Plus, this trend hasn't exactly been helped by network television," he added, citing shows like "Jackass" and "Fear Factor," where people consume worms and other delicacies in exchange for a big payoff.
 
"Somewhere along the line someone decided it would be really funny to see people get hurt."
 
People will do just about anything, it seems -- from painting themselves green to eating flies -- in exchange for Kenny Chesney tickets, said Jeremy Mulder, also known as "Danger Frog" on Pittsburgh's simulcasting "Froggy" country stations.
"People shave the word 'Steelers' into their heads, or ruin the paint job on their cars by plastering 'Froggy' bumper stickers all over them. I had one woman who offered to walk 40 miles from Wheeling to Pittsburgh in her bikini," he said, noting that he himself will take all sorts of risks to get attention. He recently skateboarded through the Fort Pitt Tunnel. "I won't be doing that again, that's for sure."
 
When listeners offer to do something daring in exchange for free concert tickets or other prizes, he generally nixes the idea.
"People are always offering to bungee jump off a bridge," he said. "And if I let them do that, they're gonna bust their head, so I say no.
 
"Still, it's not as though anyone makes people do these things. The only rule of thumb is, you try to police yourself and make sure it's fun, entertaining and safe."

(Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949. )
 

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