Prank Calls

I’ve been listening to some of the audio files of prank calls over at Ebaums World. Many of them involve radio talk show hosts who have been tipped off with personal details about the person they are about to pull a prank on.

In one, a woman’s husband tells them his wife has recently purchased a vibrator. The radio host calls claiming to be from the vibrator manufacturer, and gives her a very convincing story about the vibrator being defective and possibly causing ill effects on her health. The woman progresses through a story of it being for a gag gift, to having used it once, to finally admitting that she used it a LOT. In the end when he anounced that it was a live prank she sounded completely crushed.

In another, a different host recieved a tip from an unemployed young woman’s mother about a job she recently applied for. The host claims to be with the drug testing company and informs her that she has failed badly and that he will be sending the results to her prospective employer. By the end of the prank she is offering to sleep with him if he will help her get the job. Her poor mother was certainly listening, as she initiated the prank in the first place.

My question is, how do these radio shows insulate themselves from a lawsuit? While quite funny to listen to, an innocent person is being tricked into revealing very personal details “on the air”.

I assume that they must be on safe legal ground or they would not be allowed to make these prank calls. Don’t they have to have a person’s permission or at least identify themselves when they initiate an on-air call? Are they paying the person off after the fact in order to gain consent to air the call?

If it were me making these calls, I would expect to be liable for prosecution. How does a radio show get away with it?

Bump, Id like to hear the answer too. Ive asked a similar Q in the past and didn`t get the best response.

Sorry, I have no info on your question, but radio hosts CAN get in trouble for these calls. A couple of years back, two guys in Boston (“Opie and Anthony,” who later contrived the sex-in-St. Patrick’s-cathedral stunt in NYC) got fired and, I believe, sued for a “prank” where they said that the mayor of Boston had died in a plane wreck or something. The family, listening, was not amused and sued. What became of it, I don’t know.

Hmm . . . prosecution for what? Wiretapping is a crime in most U.S. jurisdictions, but at least some states define wiretapping as taping a phone call without the consent of at least one of the parties – and if the D.J. consents, there you go (other states may require both parties to consent).

Fraud? I don’t know – fraud usually requires some economic loss on the part of the ‘victim.’

Tort liability for intentional/negligent infliction of emotional distress? Maybe in some states. You’d hope the radio station’s lawyers looked into that.

Having watched the Taxicab Confessions-type shows on one or two late nights, I also wouldn’t rule out the possibility (incredible as it seems) that these people gave releases (after the fact) to have this stuff used. I’m always shocked by the number of people who will sign releases for HBO after saying/doing the most sordid stuff in those cabs (HBO requires releases not because it is necessarily unlawful to tape without them, but because with a signed release in hand, defense of any litigation becomes pretty easy).

There’s another Boston station that does these kinds of calls every day. For some reason people find them hilarious, but I think they’re pretty mean so I don’t even listen anymore. Maybe it’s just my sense of humor, but I don’t see how winding someone up to a fever pitch of anger and then saying “ha, ha, we’re only joking and humiliating you on the air to thousands of listeners,” is very funny at all.

I listened to one of the “alternative” stations awhile back and heard the radio dj call this girls mother (the girl was on the other end) the radio show connected mother and daughter and the daughter confessed to the mother that she was sleeping with her mothers boyfriend. (this was supposed to be a joke)
The mother was so flustered and upset and after awhile the radio station broke in and announced it was a gag so the daugher could win tickets to a local club. The mother was livid and hung up.

The next day the guys came back and apologized for the call.

I always wondered if they had gotten into trouble for such a prank.

How’s this for bizarre. Local FM station, popular DJ who does the morning drive time. Been on the air for years and is very popular. Show starts at 7AM, and I’m listening at that point. The previous DJ stays on the air, telling listeners that so and so must be running late, as he hasn’t shown up yet, but hang in there. After an hour, so and so still hasn’t come in and we are being told that they can’t reach him at any number, and that the police have been notified. Now, they really have my attention, and the station is turned on at work. At the start of hour 2, comes the grim news that so and so has been killed in a car wreck, caused by a drunken driver. The station would now suspend programing, and take calls from listeners. The onslaught of calls is a little overwhelming People are crying, people are pissed, people are speechless after being acknowledged on the air. This goes on until just before 11 AM. Onto the air comes So and so! Apologizing to all who had thought he had died. and now explaining that the reason for the show was to bring the horror of drunken driving to the forefront. :eek:

the second example in the OP is disturbing, i don’t see what sort of reaction the mother was fishing for in the first place…

It has often been suggested that a lot more celebrities would sue supermarket tabloids for invasion of privacy and/or defamation, except that they don’t want to go through the trauma and humiliation of having stories they find objectionable repeated, and they figure that a lot of the public will only half-listen to news about the trial and get the wrong idea that the stories were true.

I suspect that such concerns keep a good many victims of radio pranks from seeking redress as well. Really: would you like it on the news that you are suing because a disc jockey tricked you into discussing your sex habits on the air?

I recall years ago–in the early 80s, maybe–hearing a disc jockey say that radio pranks used to be more common but that government regulators had cracked down on abuses. There has been a considerable resurgence in such pranks since, and I suspect this reflects the disinterest of the FCC in maintaining standards.

Maybe five years back I was listening to an on-air Christmas Party held by a local public broadcaster. This was a small, “alternative” operation, not an NPR-type station. One of their on-air personalities started talking about how she got her husband into the Christmas spirit by singing carols up the shaft of his erect penis.

While I am generally not figured to be a prude, I thought this kind of went beyond the pale as: (1) this broadcast was on weekend afternoon (2) there had been nothing in the previous hour to suggest the show would not be entirely suitable for children (3) this broadcast was actually a repeat of a show from a previous year, so they had plenty of opportunity to delete this material.

I wrote a letter to the FCC expressing my concerns. More than a year later I received a form letter saying the FCC could take no action as it only regulated obscenity.

The state of radio broadcasting really has gotten pretty disgusting. For years now I’ve listened to virtually nothing but all-news stations and public radio (and there’s one public radio station I now avoid).

Maybe ten years back a local television news personality in St. Louis–who was married, and living with his wife-- was trying to reconcile with an ex-girlfriend. She recorded a phone message he left her in which it was apparent he was crying. Two local “shock jocks” played the recording on-air, laughing and making jokes at the man’s expense. Later that day he took off in his private plane from a local airport, then did a nosedive directly into the runway, killing himself.

Another time they made some misstatements about Affirmative Action on air, and a black woman called up and politely attempted to correct them. They hung up on her after calling her a “nigger” on air. It was a rare moment of unity in the St. Louis community as blacks and whites, religious people and nonreligious, joined in complaining about their conduct.

The guys are still on the air. They seem to get a lot less criticism now. This may be partly due to declining ratings, and partly due to the fact that one of them, though he has not significantly changed his on-air style, is now very vocal about how he is a Born-Again Christian.

It is nice to know that such broadcasters do occasionally still get their share of trouble. About ten years back a drunk driver tried placing an order at a fast food drive-through in south St. Louis. The restaurant was next door to a police station, and he was arrested when he pulled into the wrong driveway and tried placing his order in a police intercom.

It was a funny story, but some local disc jockeys couldn’t be content with merely reporting it. Instead, they sent one of their crew to the police station to place a breakfast order over the intercom. It turned out he had an outstanding warrant against him, and he was arrested on-air.

I’ve only seen Taxicab Confessions a couple of times, but I would have guessed that they knew before getting in the cab that they were being taped. There seemed to be at least one righteous light source in the cab, in addition to two cameras. Maybe the producers talk with people who’ve had a few drinks and appear fairly uninhibited about talking about private stuff. And then tell them how interesting they are and that their stories would make a great TV show, and then ask if they would talk about their lives in the cab while being taped. Afterwards, the producers would tell them they were awesome, and then get them to sign a release.

Or maybe they are just wanna-be actors.

Could I see any cites that DJs regularly make prank calls? I’m not interested in cites that such a call was played on the air… Has anybody actually ever taken one of these calls?

It seems like an incredibly easy thing to fake, with no risk at all.

That was T.J. Trout in Albuquerque. He does these crank calls all the time, and some of them are hilarious.

Here’s how it works for him:

If you want him to make a “crank call” (his terminology), you must make the request in writing (usually by fax). He will not do a crank call on anyone without a written request from a relative or acquaintance.

His reasoning is “if we get sued, you get sued.” I’m not sure if this would actually insulate him or the station from liability, but it seems to be enough. Some of the victims are absolutely livid by the time he reveals that it’s a joke, so I doubt these people sign releases.

In any case, he’s done so many of them, it must be worth something to “get it in writing.”

DJ’s are not lawyers, nor do they check with them for stunts.
There have been many cases of backfired radio DJ stunts, from traffic jams on bridges when someone climbs the wires in Superman tights, to traffic jams around a building from fake free offers- even if it’s something stupid, like saying a pirate on Main St. is passing out gold dubloons, a crowd will still form.

Accoding to this site,

I highly doubt a release is needed.

A local radio station here in MSP has a routine where a woman thinking her husband/fiance/boyfriend is cheating on her. She contacts the station…

A DJ calls the guy saying she is from a new floral company and, as a promotion, they wish to give him a dozen roses and he can send them to whoever he wants anywhere in the nation.

She then asks where he wants them sent.

Much of the time it is not the wife/fiance/girlfriend.

The wife/fiance/girlfriend, who is listening, breaks in and hammers on the confused guy who usually becomes enraged at the station/DJ threatening lawsuit etc.

I cannot imagine many of them giving consent.

{It is a pretty neat idea though…}