Joining the ranks of Wells, Stern and Langdon
Later this month, radiophiles and media historians will mark the 70 th anniversary of Orson Welles’ infamous broadcast of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. As per Orson’s direction, the first act of his radio play (aired on Oct. 30, 1938) consisted of fake news bulletins announcing that murderous space aliens had just landed in New Jersey. But listeners who tuned in late thought the bulletins were real, and widespread panic ensued as a result. Industry insiders opined that Welles timed the fake newscasts to occur when people would be flipping through their dial during a station break from other programs. Welles, however, denied the charges and later made a public apology for his unintentional transgression. Either way, the damage was done. Welles had, in effect, used the broadcast airwaves to yell “fire” in a crowded room. It was perhaps the first, and most famous, radio scandal in history, establishing Welles as a pioneer of dubious distinction, and setting the stage for future generations of radio performers to push the envelope of public decency. One of those descendants is Howard Stern, whose envelope has included profanity and sexually suggestive speech. After incurring numerous fines from the FCC, Stern retreated to satellite radio, where he is free to say and do whatever he pleases, at least until the government rules that celestial radio should be regulated. And though their styles are polar opposites, the offenses of Stern and Welles are not totally dissimilar. After all, they both caused a public stir by taking liberties with their medium, and by abusing their power. But those kinds of abuses are not limited to nationally known celebrities. Last week was marked by two incidents involving medium-market radio hosts. In Minneapolis, KTLK’s Chris Baker and Langdon Perry joked that Magic Johnson had faked his AIDS. Johnson responded in writing, saying, “I am extremely disappointed in KTLK… I am outraged that Chris and Langdon would minimize such a serious and deadly issue…. They should use their power in a more positive light by encouraging people to get tested for this
disease, instead of making up such ridiculous lies.” The Minnesota duo should have been reprimanded, perhaps in the same manner as WKZL’s Jack Murphy who was suspended following an ambush interview. Earlier, the Greensboro host had solicited letters from female viewers who couldn’t get their boyfriends to propose marriage. The gimmick was that Murphy would select one of the women to appear live on air, and offer her and her beaux $1,000 if they tied the knot on his show. Sure enough, on Thursday, at about 8:30 a.m., Murphy put the winning lovesick lady on air, then he proceeded to call her reluctant suitor. Unfortunately (and allegedly), Murphy did not inform the man that he was on live radio. Needless to say the man was not happy about a stranger mediating his future nuptials, and seemed even more distraught when he learned that the embarrassing verbal exchange was being broadcast to thousands of listeners. Later that day, WKZL manager Bruce Wheeler issued a statement on the station website: “It has come to our attention that the Murphy in the Morning Show may have engaged in an illegal phone call during their show today. These allegations are being taken very seriously, and we are launching an internal investigation into the matter. Until this matter is resolved we are suspending all the members of the Murphy in the Morning show.” I applaud Wheeler for finally taking a stand on sensationalism. After all, Murphy is famous for putting unwitting people in embarrassing situations. Like the time he teamed up with wives who suspected their husbands were cheating. As the story goes, the wife would reveal to Jack the name of the hotel at which her husband was staying, supposedly under the guise of a business trip. Then Murphy would call the man’s hotel room and pose as a florist who is offering free flowers. Murphy would ask the cheating man who he wanted the flowers to be sent to, and what the inscription should read. Inevitably, the man would name his mistress as the recipient, then the wife (who was listening in on the phone sting) would go ballistic. Funny stuff unless you’re the cheating spouse. Sure, no one sympathizes with a philanderer, but radio wasn’t invented to intervene in private domestic disputes. For some reason, many morning show hosts tend to fill their shift with these kinds of stunts — that is, when they’re not busy referencing bodily functions, launching crude and cruel criticisms of celebrities and
engaging in conversations with inarticulate callers. For his part, Jack Murphy has created an on-air fiefdom by surrounding himself in studio with college-age groupies who can’t challenge his authority or threaten his ego. He holds court each day, generally talking about “American Idol” (when it’s on TV) or inducing listeners to call in with awkward and embarrassing admissions. And on the few occasions when Murphy attempts to comment on serious issues, he doesn’t always let facts get in the way of a good story. Granted, Murphy has helped to promote various local charities and organizations, but those contributions are diminished by and incongruous to his daily, sophomoric frat party. Meanwhile, across the dial at FM 101, Brad Krantz and Britt Whitmire offer intelligent conversation with callers and special guests. They are the Triad’s gold standard for what local radio should be, and I admire their work. They are also funny. But their humor grows out of the issues under discussion, not from contrived comedy bits that serve to lower the bar of discourse or abuse the mission of the medium. Unfortunately, Brad and Britt are in the minority amid an atmosphere of crude comedy and ambush interviews that pervades today’s radio. Speaking of which, Murphy now finds himself historically linked with Welles and Stern when it comes to abusing the power of the medium. Welles’ erred by faking an invasion of aliens. Murphy screwed up with an invasion of a man’s privacy. I’m no prude, and I abhor censorship in any form, but the public radio and television airwaves are increasingly being misused, all in the name of entertainment. Radio has its Sterns, Langdons and Murphys, while TV has its “Fear Factor,” “Big Brother” and “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?” Neither medium was designed to dumb down our society or deride its citizens, yet that’s what it’s coming to. We’d almost be better off if the aliens really had landed in 1938. After all, they are considered by many to represent a higher form of intelligence. That’s why somehow I doubt they would have used valuable communications mediums to embarrass people or to fake events, just for the sake of an extra rating point. ET, please come home.
Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).