Canadian radio station AMP Radio in Calgary, caused a lot of buzz with a promotion called “Bank it or Burn it” which asked listeners to vote whether they should #BANK C$5,000 and give it away to a listener, or #BURN the money, literally. With 54% of the votes, the option to #BURN emerged victorious, and AMP Radio burned C$5,000 and put it on YouTube.
A YouTube video was posted of the station’s morning show hosts throwing the bills into an incinerator. AMP Radio defended their actions noting that businesses can easily spend C$5,000 on marketing in a week, and that their promotion has garnered a lot of talk, but at what price? While this promotion received a lot of attention, the vast majority of it came from outraged Calgarians claiming that they would no longer be listening to station. However, that hasn’t stopped AMP Radio from continuing the promotion. The second phase is currently underway, and this time C$10,000 is at stake.
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. The fallout can range from disappointment to embarassment to property damage, crimes against the person, and even deaths. You probably recall the incident in California in 2007 where a contest called Hold Your Wee for a Wii, where contestants had to drink a large volume of water and the last person to go to the bathroom would win a video game console, resulted in a woman’s death from acute water intoxication. New Yorkers are unlikely to forget the day “shock jocks” Opie and Anthony finally went too far with a contest that encouraged people to have sex in public, with one couple opting to have their dalience in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Today’s topic was voted on by our patrons, including our newest member Paul D and Pigeon and our All that and Brain Too supporters, David N and EmicationLikely, who just got a bonus mini dealing specifically with radio pranks while I struggle, and struggle it is, to confine this episode to promotions and contests. The pranks go way, way worse. Patrons get early, ad-free episodes, but you can also get a glimpse of next week’s show and what it’s like hanging out in the booth with me by following my tiktok; I’ve start live-streaming *some of the recording process.
There’s nothing new under the sun and that applies to radio contests as much as anything else in life. Take Radio Luxembourg’s and the ice block expedition of 1958. The challenge: to transport three metric tonnes of ice from the arctic circle to the equator, without the benefit of any form of refrigeration. The prize was set at 100,000 francs per kilo of ice that made it to its destination as a solid, or about a million bucks per tonne in today’s money. Radio Luxembourg felt they could put their money where their mouth is since who could transport ice that far without refrigeration? The contest drew fewer hopefuls than your average ‘say the phrase that pays’ call-in, but the Norwegian company Glassvatt took them up on it. A company that produced fiberglass insulation, incidentally, and is still in business today.
Ice was cut out of the Svartisen glacier in 200kg blocks, flown to the nearest town, and melted together into a single 3,050kg block of ice. It was then wrapped in the company’s signature glass wool and placed in an iron container on a truck donated by the Scania company and fueled with with gas donated by Shell. This was an opportunity for publicity for everyone involved, not just the radio station. Together with a film crew and a van full of equipment, they expedition set off from the Norwegian city of Mo i Rana on February 22, 1959, stopping in Oslo to pick up over 600 lbs/300kg of medicine to schlep along to a hospital in Lambarene, Gabon, because when else was so much cold storage going to be going that way? They made stops in Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, France, which was the comparatively easy bit, then on to Algeria, Niger, and finally Gabon. That’s when the going got tough. Not a lot of paved roads across the desert, plus Algeria was in the midst of a civil war for independence from France. Getting stuck in the sand was a frequent occurrence that cost them hours of digging-out time in the 120degF/50C heat, and their supply of water ironically rather limited.
It took a month a day, but they did it! And the giant block of ice had only lost about 11% of its weight to melting, so even if Radio Luxemborg didn’t pro-rate for partial tons, Glassvatt was still looking to collect about $2mil. Except. Radio Luxembourg had withdrawn the offer. When an insulation company stepped up to their ‘move ice without refrigeration’ challenge, Radio Luxembourg got cold feet, npi. The cancellation wasn’t the jerk move it sounds like; they actually called it off before the Glassvatt truck even set out. Glassvatt decided to continue anyway, because even without the prize, it still seemed like good publicity.
That’s really the name of the game, the whole reason radio stations do these things. It’s the aural equivalent of butts in seats. You’ve got to entice the public to listen to your station over all their other options. They can be cheaply run, these contests. Folks my age probably won a bumper sticker, which costs the station very little, or some concert tickets, which often cost the station nothing since they come from the promoter. But a constant need for contests means you’ve got to keep them interesting while not blowing through the promotions budget. This leads some DJs to get creative and not in a good way. Oh and a word about DJ. My mom really wants me to refer to radio DJs as “on-air radio personalities” such as when I reference her background in FM radio in NY and FL in the 70’s, because these days “DJ” means Skrillex types, but I can’t be asked, so for today, they’re all DJs.
In 2005, a Bakersfield, CA station announced they were giving away a Hummer to the person who could correctly guess the number of miles that two Hummers the station had had supposedly driven around the town during the course of a week. The answer was 103.9, the same as the radio station’s frequency, which one Shannon Castillo cleverly guessed. She must have been on cloud 9 to have won herself a $60k vehicle, which if I were her I would sell because it would cost $60k in gas, so you can imagine her disappointment when she went to collect her prize and was handed a remote control car. Castillo hired an attorney, and I don’t blame her, who pointed out that the station had indicated that the vehicle had 22” rims, so either they were claiming it was a real vehicle or that was one jacked-up RC car. Castillo sued the station for $60k, but as if often the case, lot of news outlets carry the initial story about the lawsuit, but nobody cared to report how it came out. That’s my research bug-bear. Well, one of them.
A similar but 166% worse frustration was felt by that same year by Norreasha Gill, a KY woman who was the to the lucky tenth caller in a contest to win “100 grand.” This was going to be life-changing! She told her kids how they could finally buy a home of their own and have financial stability, so she probably saw red when she turned up at the station to collect her prize, only to be handed a 100 Grand candy bar. I like caramel, rice crispies, and chocolate as much as the next person, probably more than a lot of next persons, but I totally agree with Gill suing the radio station for 100,000 actual dollars.
Pulling the wool over peoples’ eyes is not only mean-spirited; it can also land businesses into all manner of trouble. You can’t say “it was just a joke” and go about your business. A FL Hooters, not a radio station, I grant you, learned that lesson in 2001 when they held a contest among their waitstaff for most drinks sold, with the prize being a Toyota. The winner was blindfolded and led out into the parking lot to discover her Toyota was a toy Yoda, a foot-tall figure of the puppet from Star Wars. She quit and sued the owners of the franchise, settling out of court a year later.
Radio stations operate under the auspices of the Federal Communication Commission, and they have some pretty firm opinions about what shenanigans you can get up to if you want to do it on the broadcast airwaves. The rules require a radio station fully and accurately disclose the material terms, aka the relevant details of the contest, which cannot be deceptive, misleading, or patently false, and then to follow through with those terms. If you’re talking about a contest on the air, you have to give the material terms on the air. It’s not good enough to say “we’re giving away a hundred grand, see the website for more info” and on the website, admit that it’s a candy bar, no siree. No claiming it was just a joke if you made it out to be a legit contest.
The FCC fined a Kansaa station $4,000 for failing to announce all material terms of a contest, even though it was on the website, and for failure to comply with the terms for their Santa’s Sack contest. Listeners were to call in and guess what was in Santa’s Sack and you’d win what was in the sack plus a teddy bear; seems simple enough. A listener who guessed the sack held $1,000 was told she was wrong, but the next day, she heard someone else guess $1k and that person was proclaimed the winner. The first caller complained to the station and when that went nowhere, filed a complaint with the FCC. With the feds breathing down their necks –don’t forget, the FCC isn’t just about issuing fines, they can yank your broadcast license– the radio station claimed it was an innocent mix-up among the staff, some of whom included the value of the $10 teddy bear and some didn’t, and that the rules were on their website. The radio station then sent a check for $1,000 to the complainant, meaning they were out $5k over a $10 teddy bear and for want of a memo.
The FCC issued KDKA in Pennsylvania with a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture, a scary-sounding document that says “Look what you did! I should take away your license for that.” On Thanksgiving day 2007, a DJ, I assumed bored or annoyed at having to work a holiday, said that he’d give away $1,000,000 to the thirteenth caller and he’d do it once an hour. A listener called and was told he was the thirteenth caller and was then placed on hold for 43 minutes before being put through to the DJ and immediately hung up on. The station claimed that the on-air contest rules did not apply here because listeners should have realized it was a joke. The FCC disagreed, since the DJ never said anything to indicate he wasn’t serious, at one point saying it was “the real deal,” and he announced the “contest” *several times during his 3-hour show. After finding that the on-air contest rules applied, the FCC smited them–smote?– for the tag team of failure to announce the material terms *and failure to comply with said terms, i.e. pony up the dough, and fined the station $6,000.
An LA station got their own Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture and $6k fine after they held a contest online with a drawing for tickets to the musical Les Miserables. Their web site said the contest would run from 3:50 pm on May 29 to 8:50 pm on June 2. A listener complained to the FCC after the station awarded the prize to three people at only 3:00. Yer man must really have wanted to see Les Mis. The radio station responded that the on-air contest rules didn’t apply to its contest because the contest was exclusively online. The FCC disagreed. The rules apply to “all contests conducted by the licensee and broadcast to the public” and since the radio station had announced the contest several times on-air and told listeners who entered the contest to stay tuned, it was an on-air contest.
You don’t necessarily need the FCC in your stable to hold a radio station’s feet to the fire. Just ask the folks at Singapore’s Gold 905 after their big-money game “The Celebrity Name Drop.” They made a montage of 14 celebrity voices, edited so that each celebrity said one word of “Gold 9-0-5, the station that sounds good, and makes you feel good.” I couldn’t find a clip of it, but if you do, hit up the soc meds or post it in soc.
To win $10,000, the caller had to correctly identify each voice in order. It took a skilled ear, as well as listening out for other people’s right and wrong guesses. Muhammad Shalehan thought he had it after a month of puzzling and repeatedly trying to get through the phone lines, but when he read his list of names, the DJ said he got one wrong. A few weeks later, Gold905 declared they had their winner, one Jerome Tan, and that was a wrap.
Except. Listeners jumped on the station’s FB page, pointing out that Shalehan had given the right answer more than two weeks earlier. Mediacorp, the station;s parent company, said that Shalehan’s attempt was invalidated because he failed to pronounce the string of celebrity names accurately, specifically that of Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet. So Muhammad went to the mountain or in this case, the internet, whereby Shelahan was able to locate Hadley’s management and ask if they could help. He then got a video from Hadley himself, confirming that, while Muhammad Shalehan has a “slight accent,” he had, in fact, “pronounced my name absolutely correctly.”
Armed now with some pretty bitchin’ evidence, Shalehan went back to the station again. After viewing Hadley’s video, Mediacorp …. still refused to pay out. [sfx] But they offered to make a “goodwill gesture” of $5,000. By then, the online community, a barely-controlled and badly-tempered beast on the best of days, was having none of it, making for some long work-days for the PR department. Finally, Mediacorp relented and paid Muhammad Shalehan the full $10k.
MIDROLL don’t forget ad sting
If these stories haven’t made you face-palm and ask “what were they thinking,” I’d bet my mortgage one of these will. Strap in, kids. The tragic Hold Your Wee for a Wii contest wasn’t the first or only radio station promotion to involve urine. In 1999, KOMP 92.3-FM of Las Vegas DJ Greg McFarlane was trying to think up a novel approach to give away some Mötley Crüe tickets. His first idea was to have contestants re-enact the Pamela Anderson-Tommy Lee sex tape live on-air, fully clothes of course; wouldn’t want to be in bad taste. Idea number 2: make contestants drink their own urine. Y’all 1999. What was the value in seeing Motley Crue in 1999? That cheese had been moldy for years. Three die-hard fans actually came into the studio, then lost their nerve when confronted with the fact that McFarlane was in no way kidding. Then, in McFarlane’s own words, “The fourth guy walks in, pushes everyone out of the way and throws it down like it was Pepsi.” So concert tickets for guy #4 and an empty cardboard box to McFarlane, to gather his personal effects because he’s just been sacked.
Hey, remind me to check my stats and see how many people jumped ship in the last 60 seconds. For those still with me, we go now to a library in Ft Worth, TX, where the staff suddenly found themselves terrorized by crowds of people ransacking the stacks. Unbeknownst to them, a KYNG DJ thought it would be a keen idea to announce that he had hidden $100 in $5 and $10 bills between pages of books in the library’s fiction section. Even adjusted for inflation, that’s just under $200 to try to outcompete hundreds of other people for.
“People started climbing the bookshelves; they started climbing on each other, and books became airborne,” library spokeswoman Marsha Anderson said, adding that 3k books had been thrown on the floor and some ended up ripped and with broken spines. Count the books on your nearest bookcase or shelf. How many of those would need to get to 3k? That’s a lot of damage!
Do I need to say that the library has an amount of heads-up from the radio station and that amount was none, or did you just assume because what librarian would agree to that? More than 500 people stampeded through the Fort Worth Central Library looking for the money. There was money in the library – the station claimed it was $100 and that was the only amount it was ever said to be, whereas a number of people in the money-mob thought it was as high as $10k. A KYNG spokesman said the DJ was only trying to boost public interest in the library by giving away about $100, and they had no idea where people got the $10k idea. That was after the fact of course. In the moment, it was the librarians who had to handle the situation…because they couldn’t get ahold of anyone at the radio station. They told the crowd the only thing that could possibly make them stop looking – that someone already found the money and had just left.
Sometimes it’s not judgment that’s wobbly; it’s taste, subjective as that may be. BRMB in Birmingham, England ran a contest where they would pay for the winner’s wedding, which as anyone less clever than my hillbilly butt getting married in my own yard both times can tell you can really run into money. There was, of course, a catch. The station reserved one creative right for the wedding that the station paid for. This wedding had to be conducted au naturale. In the buff. Nude. At a minimum, the happy couple had to be in all their glory; don’t know if there was a maximum. The lucky couple, who won by listener vote, had been together for eleven years, attributing their long engagement to the cost of the wedding. Again, back yard, it’s free. The station paid all the expenses and the bride and groom held up their end…as it were, though the bride had her veil and the groom used a top hat as a fig leaf.
Your other why-is-this-so-expensive life event would come just after the end of your life, your funeral. It costs as much as a decent used car and you don’t even get to enjoy it. Half of that would be handled if you won the contest offered by Radio Galaxy in Germany – they’d pay for your funeral, provided your funeral cost less than 3000 Euro and a modest one could. Listeners sent in their own epitaphs, that being the words on their tombstone, like how Winston Churchill’s says “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.” But you can’t have a party without a party-pooper and the radio station was hit was a lawsuit from the Association of German Undertakers. Also in Germany, station RTL 89.0 wanted to give away a Mini Cooper, but couldn’t apparently be asked to put a lot of effort, or forethought, into it. They just said, pull off the most amazing stunt. Because that’s safe. Whatever the other entries were paled in comparison to the stunt submitted by the eventual winner – he would have the word mini tattooed on … how to put this delicately?… onto an appendage which most gentlemen would find distressing to have labeled “mini.” The winner, Andreas Muller, went through with it, live on air with the female host looking on. Can you imagine if the station refused to give him the car though?
That kind of personal touch would have been right up the alley of the folks at WDVE 102.5 in Pittsburgh. Every year, for the festive holiday season, they hold a “Breast Christmas Ever.” Yep, they foot the bill for breast enhancement surgery. To the surprise of no one, the event has come under fire from both feminist groups and health care advocates, who should like us to remember a boob job is surgery and surgery carries risk. But sometimes, even the tackiest contest isn’t as bad as it seems – there’s always a silver lining if we look for it. A Calgary station did a similar give-away and the winner, by popular vote, was a 19 year old trans-female listener who was quotes as saying having breast implants would mean she wouldn’t “have to face so much bigotry on a daily basis.”
Ottawa radio station Hot 89.9 looked at all that and said Hold My Molson’s. They put on a “Win a baby!” contest. Specifically, they would pay for up to three rounds of in-vitro fertility treatment up to $35,000. The contest drew criticism like jellowjackets at a cook-out, but it wasn’t without redemption – it brought attention to the issue of IVF funding in Ontario just before voters head to the polls to vote if the provincial government should be required to pay it like other health care.
Said Beverly Hanck, executive director of the Infertility Awareness Association of Canada, “The station is clearly, clearly capitalizing on vulnerable patients that are desperate to have a family.” The fact that couples have to turn to a radio contest at all points to a “sad state of affairs” in Ontario, she added.
Morning show host Jeff Mauler said the contest was intended to appeal to the station’s 24 to 54 year old demographic, but that it has opened up a dialogue about an issue that is “more common than you think.” “Anyone who complains is lucky enough to have kids or doesn’t want kids,” Mauler said. “Anyone in the struggle doesn’t slam the contest.”
Common enough that more than 400 couples applied for the contest, which they launched on Labor Day. Because of course they did.
If babies aren’t your thing, how about a full-grown human woman? Edmonton’s the Bear FM also poked the bear with their contest to win a Russian bride. The Bear partnered with an on-line matchmaking service that connects Russian women with foreign husbands. Problem the first: eww. Problem the close second: it’s not uncommon for women you can meet through such services being exploited. Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk found the contest so offensive, he pulled his ministry’s advertising from the station. The prize included a free two-week trip to Russia, and $500 spending money.
New Zealand radio station The Rock FM sponsored their own contest in which the winner would be flown to the Ukraine to pick a bride from an agency, originally called “Win a Wife.” When people complained, they changed it to “Win A Trip To Beautiful Ukraine For 12 Nights And Meet Eastern European Hot Lady Who Maybe One Day You Marry.” Well, does what it says on the tin. This is the same station that, when they needed a contest for Valentine’s Day 2012, crab-walked around love and instead offered to cover all the costs of one lucky couple’s divorce. Asterisk, you had to drop the Big D bombshell on them live on the air. Who says romance is dead? No one who’s watching OFMD on a binge loop for the last 9 days…not that I know anyone like that. It’s just a hypothetical. An offly specific hypothetical
If you’re thinking to yourself, it can’t get worse than that, you haven’t been paying attention. Again in Canada (it’s always the quiet ones), a Halifax radio station q104 put on a foreign bride contest. The contest, which would send the winner to Prague, closed on March 8, International Women’s Day. The program director JC Douglad said firmly that there was no sexual connotatioin to the contest. The men are promised dates with women in the Czech Republic, but they station made no warranty, express or implied, as to how those dates will go. Okay, sure, but you’ve kind of undermined your position by calling it the “Male is in the Czech,” didntcha?
And that’s…AMP Radio defended their actions noting that businesses can easily spend C$5,000 on marketing in a week, and that their promotion has garnered a lot of talk, so it was kind of the same thing. While a lot of Calgarians vowed to stop listening, then went on to do it again, this time with $10,000.