Prank Phone Calls

Chris Byrnes – ByrnesMedia

The prank phone call to a London hospital by two Sydney DJ’s has gotten worldwide attention, sadly for all the wrong reasons.

I have worked with lots of morning shows that made prank calls, I have had to deal with the fallout from calls that upset people, and I have been on the receiving end of prank calls. One of the morning shows I worked with made a prank call to the White House pretending to the Prime Minister of New Zealand. Somehow they convinced the switchboard operator at the White House they were who they said they were, and the call was transferred to someone higher up the line. As it turned out the President was on Air Force One and the call was intercepted before it was transferred any further when the person became suspicious. As the PD of the station I was the one who ultimately took the heat from the station owners, the authorities in New Zealand, and the US Embassy in Wellington. The Americans were rather upset that a radio station could potentially breach their security and they wanted heads to roll. We eventually calmed everyone down, and no one lost their job. But we did make changes to the way that station and those personalities executed their prank calls moving forward.

When I first heard about the call to King Edward VII Hospital, where Prince William’s pregnant wife Catherine was staying, pretending to be the Queen and Prince Charles, I thought well done for pulling off a harmless call when no one else had thought of it. They clearly took advantage of the time difference and beat even the other Australian morning shows to the punch. By the way these two DJ’s were doing the night show in Sydney as in 7 till Midnight. As I listened to the audio I thought that Mel Greig and Michael Christian were lucky to have gotten away with it given the impersonation of the Queen was rather poor and thick Aussie accents were obvious to my ear at least. The frequent references to “Charles” walking the Queen’s corgis perhaps should have also raised alarm bells with hospital staff. 

The nurse who took the call at 5:30am London time on Tuesday 4 December was a 46 year old mother by the name of Jacintha Saldanha. She was on the line for only a few seconds before she transferred the call to another nurse who gave out details of Kate’s condition and even suggested an appropriate time for the Queen to visit the hospital.

I do not know Mel Greig and Michael Christian myself, but I do know people who know them, and they tell me that they are both talented broadcasters and nice people who worked incredibly hard each day to create great radio. My Aussie friends tell me these two DJ’s are devastated by the suicide of this nurse. They have taken themselves off the air, are being protected by bodyguards because of the threats made on their lives. They have only recently spoken publicly for the first time and have publicly apologized. This may be the end of their radio careers, and it may also be the end of the prank phone call. This prank call has raised concerns about the ethical standards of Australian media, as Britain’s own media scramble to agree on a new system of self-regulation and avoid state intervention following a damning inquiry into reporting practices. In Great Britain radio stations are now required by the broadcast regulator OFCOM to get written permission to use a prank call on the air. In the case of 2day FM the hosts recorded the call and got the permission from management at the station before airing the call. One wonders if heads will roll at Austereo the parent company who owns radio, television and digital properties across Australia. The radio station has lost major advertisers including the Coles supermarket group and Telstra a major phone company. 2dayFM suspended all advertising for several days and then promised to give a percentage of all advertising revenue for the rest for the year with a minimum amount of $500,000 going to the family of the dead nurse. Austereo has launched an internal enquiry, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is starting an investigation, and Scotland Yard is now involved. There is talk that the two Australian DJ’s may be called to an inquest in London at some point in 2013.

I suspect in time we will learn that there was more going on in the life of the nurse than we know at this point. Perhaps this was the thing that put her over the edge, but what lead to this tragedy where she felt her only option was to end her life is unknown at this point.

Some are saying the hospital should have briefed staff and had a better system to deal with any calls, given they had such a high profile patient and a horde of media camped outside the hospital.

So what should radio stations do differently as a result of this tragedy? I have five suggestions:

  1. Don’t make any prank calls for the time being and not until we learn the full story as to why this nurse killed herself.
  2. Before you start making prank calls you would be wise to conduct some research to find out how popular prank phone calls are with your listeners. I was surprised by the number of people who have commented on social media that they do not enjoy hearing prank calls on the air, and how many say they change the station when these calls come on the radio.
  3. Review your procedures to see if there are appropriate checks and balances in place. Should you get the permission of the pranked party before the call goes to air? Who approves this type of content and at what point do legal get involved?
  4. Where at all possible use your creativity for good and not evil. By that I mean use your creativity to create compelling and entertaining radio, but not at the expense of other people.
  5. Come up with some new benchmarks and avoid prank calls completely. I am surprised that many stations who pit one caller against the other to find who has the best “expose the cheating boyfriend” stories have continued to run this bit following the death of this nurse.

The suicide of this nurse is likely to impact broadcasters around the world and may result in some changes to rules and regulations in countries beyond just Australia and perhaps England. It may cost some people jobs, radio licenses may be pulled and it may forever change what listeners will accept as entertaining radio.