Guest Blogged by Sue Wilson
Wow. The FCC just fined a radio station $4,000 for getting a date wrong in some radio contest rules. If that infraction is worth four grand, whatever will the FCC do to the station which killed someone because it failed to give contestants any rules at all?
Will the FCC find that such a 'murder-by-radio' did not, in fact, serve the "public interest" which broadcasters are supposed to uphold in exchange for their free license to use our public airwaves?
DJs at Nassau Broadcasting's WWEG-FM, "106.9 The Eagle" in Myerson, MD, had broadcast rules that a Father's Day contest would be open "through June 13, 2008." But the contest actually ended June 12, apparently depriving would-be contestants of their right to enter. Two years later, the FCC is punishing WWEG for violation of Section 73.1216 of the Commission's rules, which state that broadcast licensees must "fully and accurately disclose the material terms" of any contests that it conducts, and "conduct the contest substantially as announced or advertised."
Okay. Let's now contrast that swift accountability in the public's interest, against what happened when Sacramento's Entercom Communications station, KDND, the unfortunately nicknamed "107.9 The End", didn't follow its own rules when it ran a water drinking contest which resulted in the January 2007 death of a mother of three, Jennifer Strange. This is a case where a jury found the station liable for Strange's death, awarding her family more than $16 million, even as the corporation who has been granted the broadcast license has yet to face a single sanction from the FCC…
Upon reading comments about the award, I find that public opinion is leaning heavily against the family; most people seem to think that Jennifer was stupid for drinking two gallons of water, and is responsible for her own death. Of course, most people did not sit through the trial. I did. Here's what really happened…
It was bad enough that just a month before they sponsored the "Hold Your Wee for a Wii" contest, the "Morning Rave" DJs went on the air and made fun of the death of Matthew Carrington. Carrington was a 21 year old college student at Chico State who died in a fraternity hazing incident from - guess what? Drinking too much water. "Water Intoxication," they call it.
Even on the fateful morning of the Wii contest, "Morning Rave" host Trish Sweet said, "Can't you get water poisoning and like, die?" To which Peter Inzerillo (gag guy "Fester") started talking about "that poor kid who died," only to be cut off by the other on-air hosts. (Contestants were sequestered in the lunchroom and were not allowed to hear those remarks, or the listeners calling in to warn the on-air personalities of the pending danger of hyponatremia.)
So the DJs clearly knew they were promoting a dangerous stunt; they just did not bother to tell the contestants of the danger. And so the issue of "contest rules" became the lynch-pin of Plaintiff attorney Roger Dreyer's case.
See, KDND had a release form, and it also had contest rules, but those two documents were not the same. When contestants walked into Entercom's lobby that cold January 2007 morning, they were handed a generic "Release for All Claims Including Personal Injury" form to sign, which was so vague that the judge instructed the jury that under California law, that document was insufficient to constitute a waiver.
But Promotions Director Robin Pechota had drafted a set of contest rules that said "participants acknowledge participation may be hazardous and involve physical contact." That set of rules, however, was kept hidden. Station manager Steve Weed testified he'd never considered giving rules which actually spelled out hazards of the contest - to the contestants.
Those rules also indicated that contestants would drink eight ounces of water every fifteen minutes. (Last one to hold their wee - wins!) Problem was, too many people were holding their wee, and the morning drive program was scheduled to end, so the DJs (and possibly the promotions department) took it on themselves to change the rules, more than doubling the amount of water contestants would drink. This, they reasoned, would get people peeing much quicker, and the contest would end while their show was still on the air.
Trouble is, eight ounces of water every fifteen minutes is considered safe; twice that amount is deadly.
You would think they would have figured that out as contestant after contestant fell ill, suffering severe headaches and vomiting into wastebaskets, all while the callous KDND staff took their pictures. Even after the contest, when Mrs. Strange told the Morning Rave crew she was too ill to drive home, they abandoned her to the station's lobby.
She did drive home, then died alone in her house a few hours later.
Oh yes, then there was the rule that in any contest involving physicality, medical personnel be present. None were.
This is a case where radio contest rules really mattered.
So if getting a date wrong in a radio contest rule is worth $4,000, what's this reckless violation of the public trust --- one that resulted in the actual death of a contestant --- worth? How about stripping KDND of its broadcast license? In theory, broadcasters get licensed only if they serve the "public interest"; surely there was no public interest being served in this case resulting in the death of one of its listeners who participated in one of its on-air contests.
FCC rules say there must be a pattern of activity to strip a broadcaster of its license. Does that mean KDND will have to become a serial killer to pay the ultimate price?
FCC, we the people are watching you closely on this one.
Full coverage of the Strange v Entercom trial can be found at SueWilsonReports.com.
Sue is a media activist, director of Public Interest Pictures' Broadcast Blues, and a 22 year veteran of broadcast journalism. Her numerous awards include Emmy, AP, RTNDA, and PRNDI for work at CBS, PBS, FOX, and NPR. She blogs at Sue Wilson Reports.