There’s something about a voice coming through audio speakers that gives whatever it’s saying an air of authority and truth—even if the message is unbelievable otherwise. Radio personalities, whom listeners usually think of as reliable sources of information, sometimes take advantage of this power to have a little fun and create a little chaos. Other times, listeners fool themselves by misinterpreting a broadcast, and chaos ensues all the same. DJs all over the world play tricks on people from time to time; even venerable NPR programs get in on the game every April 1. But sometimes, the intentional-or-not joke goes too far and its impact is bigger than anyone probably expected. Radio hoaxes are nothing new, but a few throughout the years have really stood out.
The Martians Take Manhattan
During the 1930s, Orson Welles (the man behind Citizen Kane) and his drama company put on a CBS radio program called Mercury Theater on the Air. They weren’t on the air for very long, but they did manage to produce the most famous radio episode in broadcast history. Called “The War of the Worlds,” it aired on October 30, 1938, and was based on a novel of the same name written by science-fiction author H.G. Wells. The episode was formatted to sound like various news broadcasts around the country, the first one reporting on gas explosions on Mars, followed by a flaming object hitting a farm in New Jersey, and then New Yorkers falling prey to Martian attacks.
Radio signals “went out” after New York was supposedly hit by poisonous extraterrestrial gases, prompting some listeners to freak out and call police stations and radio stations and prepare frantically for invasion. (To be fair, this was near the start of World War II, so tension and paranoia were running high.) But if they had tuned in at the beginning of the episode, they would’ve heard the intro explaining the story’s origins.
Before 1955, Jean Shepherd was just a DJ at a New York City radio station during the sleepy hours between 1:00 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. But after a plea to his listeners in April of that year, he became the talk of the publishing world. It all started with a trip to the bookstore, where he requested an old radio program’s script and was told by an employee that it didn’t exist because it wasn’t on a publisher’s list. That close-minded way of thinking frustrated Shepherd so much that he asked his listeners to go contact their local bookstores and ask for a fake book title. They came up with I, Libertine, a book written by eighteenth-century erotica aficionado Frederick R. Ewing.
There were so many baffling requests for this work that booksellers began asking publishers about it, and one in particular, Ian Ballantine, decided to capitalize on the press by publishing it himself. He enlisted the help of a science-fiction writer and had Shepherd pose as the author on the back cover. The book itself wasn’t well received critically, but it’s considered a collector’s item now.
Radio-Dial M for Murder
Less than a year into hosting their KROQ morning radio show, Kevin Ryder and Gene “Bean” Baxter, of The Kevin and Bean Show, caused a huge, messy problem for the station. During a segment called “Confess Your Crime,” which aired on June 13, 1990, they had one of their DJ friends, Doug “The Slug” Roberts, call in and pretend to be a murderer. But they didn’t let listeners in on the prank, and so the phony confession launched investigations by both the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and the TV show Unsolved Mysteries. Once Kevin and Bean admitted it was a hoax, ten months later (after the FCC stepped in), they were suspended without pay, forced to pay $12,170 to cover the LASD’s bill for man-hours spent investigating a phony crime, and had to complete almost 150 hours of community service.
Just Like a Circus
Keith Kramer and Tony Longo, controversial DJs who worked at Dallas’s KEGL-FM, told listeners in June 2001 that Britney Spears and her then-boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, had been in a car crash in Los Angeles, and that Spears had died and Timberlake was in a coma. Fans tied up the phone lines at L.A. hospitals, police and fire stations, and even the California Highway Patrol to see if it was true. A BBC-like website was even created to host the story, a link to which soon spread around the Internet like wildfire. Things died down once Spears’s publicist assured everyone she and Timberlake were fine. The station then fired both DJs for the trouble.
Clearly, sometimes the hoax isn’t worth whatever fun the DJs derive from it, especially if it lands them more than $12,000 in the hole or renders them jobless. Of course, when the hoax is good-spirited, instead of malicious, as was the case with Jean Shepherd and his book, the results can be surprisingly positive. But because either approach generates publicity and ratings, there’s really no telling what the next big radio prank will be. Let’s hope it errs on the side of epic, rather than horrific.