James Ihaka

James Ihaka is a Herald reporter based in Hamilton.

Why radio hoax calls are here to stay

On-air presenters are unlikely to stop prank calls despite the recent tragedy in Britain, though local networks are promising to tighten the rules

Sociologist, Dr Robert Bartholomew, believes stricter protocols surrounding broadcasters' ability to make prank calls could help.
Sociologist, Dr Robert Bartholomew, believes stricter protocols surrounding broadcasters' ability to make prank calls could help.

The fallout from a nurse's death following an ill-fated Australian radio prank has put the brakes on New Zealand radio stations making hoax calls.

But former shock jock Iain Stables is dubious and says prank calls are here to stay because humiliation and exploitation sell better than sex.

MediaWorks skipped its weekly prank call segment on radio station The Rock "out of respect" for the death of British nurse Jacintha Saldanha, who died in a suspected suicide. Saldanha had received a call from Australian DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian, who put on fake British accents and pretended to be the Queen asking after the Duchess of Cambridge.

MediaWorks spokeswoman Rachel Lorimer said The Rock had not made any new pranks calls for a few months following the end of a campaign, but afternoon show Drive with Robert and Jono had been replaying previous pranks in a segment called "Wind Up Your Wife Wednesday".

The company had decided it would not air a prank call this week "just out of respect".

She noted that Wind Up Your Wife Wednesday had always been done with the full consent of all parties.

Suggestions for the pranks are made by listeners to target people they know and the company would decide in the new year whether to bring back the prank call segment.

"There would be no reason for us not to," Lorimer said.

The Radio Network announced it too would review whether stations such as ZM, Hauraki and Classic Hits would continue to be involved in prank calls.

General manager of content David Brice said there would probably be tighter editorial control on the various shows.

But Stables doubted whether this would actually happen as he said prank calls were still a staple part of entertainment radio.

"MediaWorks and TRN's statements are purely there to go with public opinion to condemn what's happened, but in all reality no one really gives a shit," he said.

The former shock jock said he would try to calculate the risk before going ahead with airing the call although this risk sometimes didn't pay off with people's jobs lost and the occasional public relations contract down the gurgler.

He said he would have made the same judgment call the Australian announcers made and would have aired the prank.

"It's all a risk, but you calculate the risk, then you assess it and think that it will be fine."

"I think it's fair to say no one goes out to hurt anyone but they have committed career suicide and that's a consequence of making a judgment call.

"But in saying that if I was in that position with a similar phone call I would have made the same judgment call."

He believed both of the announcers would be genuinely devastated by the incident. He doubted either would continue in the industry for a few years at least.

"They probably need to take the counselling they're being offered at the moment. I genuinely believe they are devastated but they need to get help for themselves and be on the first flight to Bali."

Sociologist Dr Robert Bartholomew, the author of The Martians Have Landed! A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes believed prank calls did more social harm than good.

He believes stricter protocols surrounding broadcasters' ability to make prank calls could help.

"The whole idea needs to be re-thought in terms of radio. It is driven by ratings, one-upmanship and trying to outdo the other person, but there's a real potential for harm here, not only with people committing suicide but the emotional issues."

"There are unintended consequences that people need to be more sensitive to. Particularly with YouTube, things can be circulated much more readily and any embarrassment can be circulated as well."

Dr Bartholomew said a growing number of reality-based TV and radio shows in the US such as Pranked, Tosh.o and Jackass have made "harmless" pranks more common.

He was teaching history in the US when a student from his school filmed a stunt to be sent to Jackass where he jumped out of a moving car at 35km/h, hit his head on the pavement and died.

"How many tragedies like this get reported? Aside from death and serious physical injury, what about the emotional scars that are caused by radio DJ pranks?"

"One issue is that radio stations and DJs are driven by ratings but I think they need to look elsewhere because many people are emotionally fragile and they do not know who is and who isn't.

"Pranks can be emotionally stressing events, especially in situations where your hoax call is broadcast to the world."


Media pranks gone wrong

1. As part of a skit for TV3 show Wanna-Ben, comedian Bryce Casey dressed as a pilot in a rented costume and tried to get into a restricted area at the airport.

He left after being turned away by airport staff but he and his colleagues Ben Boyce and Andrew Robinson faced charges over the incident. The trio were later discharged without conviction.

The pilots union suggested the three should go to prison for the stunt while Prime Minister John Key told them to "grow up".

2. A lesbian couple sabotaged a radio station's controversial "Win a Divorce" competition - turning the tables on the presenters.

The Rock radio station was slammed for the Valentine's Day prank, which was set to have someone telling their spouse they were leaving live on air. In exchange, the station would pay for the divorce.

A woman called Sam said she entered the competition because things had not been good lately with her husband, "Andy".

When a woman answered, host Robert Taylor wondered if he had the right number.

"No, this isn't Andy. It wasn't Andy to start with you f***ing idiots," said a woman who identified herself as Sam's wife, Amber.

3. As Tiger Woods was preparing to tee off at the 2002 New Zealand Golf Open shock jock Iain Stables called Kapiti's Beach FM claiming to be a traffic safety manager and told motorists there was a two-hour traffic jam.

He recommended motorists relieve the boredom by "playing with themselves".

The station and NZ Golf Open promoter David Pool didn't see the joke.

"Given the way the world has changed since September 11, prank calls are now taken very seriously worldwide," Pool said.

4. In September 2000, Stables was convicted and fined $1100 for impersonating a detective from Interpol. He called Los Angeles airport police and claimed three fellow DJs had tried to enter the US with kiwi eggs hidden in their "rear cavities".

- NZ Herald

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