The telephone prank played on a London hospital last week by a pair of Australian morning radio show hosts would not have been allowed to air in this country, according to local broadcast professionals. It would have violated federal broadcast regulations.
“The station got away with something we can’t do here,” said Larry Norton, longtime morning show host at WGRF-FM 96.9. Pranks have been part of radio culture for years, he added.
“In this country you are not allowed to put a person on the air without them knowing they’re on the radio,” Norton said. “And that’s strictly enforced by the FCC.”
On Dec. 4, 2Day FM radio host Mel Greig and co-host Michael Christian called the London hospital where the Duchess of Cambridge, wife of Prince William, was being treated for severe morning sickness. They pretended to be Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles, checking on her condition, and the call was put through to a nurse, who divulged confidential information. Three days later, the nurse who put the call through, Jacintha Saldanha, a 46-year-old mother of two, was found dead and left a suicide note, according to published reports.
Saldanha’s death has stirred worldwide outrage and has resulted in the suspension of the two radio personalities and the cancellation of their show. Meanwhile, the owners of Australian radio station 2Day FM released a statement saying it broke no laws by broadcasting the phone call, according to Australian newspaper reports.
In the United States, the broadcast of telephone conversations is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission.
The FCC requires any broadcaster recording a phone conversation to inform the other person that the call is being recorded and may be played on the air.
Harv Moore, who from 1979 to 1989 hosted a morning show with Robert Taylor on WPHD-FM 103.3, recalled a regular part of his show that featured the broadcast of prank telephone calls.
“Rude Awakenings” involved morning phone calls to unsuspecting listeners, whose names were submitted to the station by friends suggesting the prank.
“After we pulled the prank that we recorded we always had to get their permission,” recalled Moore, who now works for AM-1270 The Swing. “We never put anybody on the air without their permission. It was never malicious, and most people were good sports.”
Moore expressed surprise that the Australian radio station allowed the broadcast of the conversation between the radio hosts and hospital personnel, who divulged confidential medical information.
“I’m sure [the hosts] didn’t have any clue that it would end up the way it did,” Moore said.
Norton, whose involvement in radio pranks spans more than 35 years, explained why morning radio hosts like to do it.
“We don’t pull a prank because we think it will be a ratings grabber. We’re just having fun,” said Norton. “It’s not always well-thought-out, but you never want to hurt anybody. You’re just kind of playing.”
Some of Norton’s most memorable on-air pranks included broadcasting the sound of a cat for days in the background of a broadcast and then pretending he could not hear it.
Norton admitted that some radio stunts performed in the past are no longer allowed for reasons of safety.
“A radio studio is like a locker room,” he said. “There used to be a lot of eating contests, like who can eat the most worms. But people have gotten ill and died, so we can no longer have people walking on glass or eating bugs.”