Exploding Maple Trees? Aw, What Saps We Are.

Greg "Opie" Hughes, left, and Anthony Cumia, were suspended without pay in 1998 after their fake announcement that Boston's mayor had died. (By Louis Lanzano -- Associated Press)
By Marc Fisher
Sunday, April 1, 2007

In 1940, in Philadelphia, a PR man at the Franklin Institute put out a press release announcing that the world would end the next day, April 1. When radio station KYW reported the news, helpfully including the exact time at which all life would cease -- 3 p.m. -- the authorities were besieged with calls from panicked listeners.

The panic didn't ease until the institute announced that its press agent had put out the release in a misguided effort to publicize a lecture titled "How Will the World End?" The institute sacked its PR man, but the tradition of April Fools' pranks on the radio was just starting.

Newspapers and television tend to steer clear of April Fools' stories, fearful of undermining their credibility or creating mass alarm. But radio stations have long charged ahead with pranks delightful and dangerous.

Radio pranks, many of which are catalogued at the online Museum of Hoaxes ( http://www.museumofhoaxes.com), fall into a handful of categories.

· Impending disaster: In 1949, in New Zealand, a deejay for station 1ZB announced that a mile-wide swarm of wasps was headed toward Auckland, but said listeners could protect themselves by putting their socks over their pants and placing honey-smeared traps outside their front doors. Hundreds of listeners followed the directions before discovering they'd been punk'd.

Similarly, in 1986, a deejay at WHJY in Providence, R.I., told listeners that the city's Labor Action Relations Board Committee had decided to close the city for the day. For more information, the deejay said, listeners could call a number, which just happened to be that of a rival station, which was swamped.

But when deejays at KSJJ in Bend, Ore., announced in 1999 that the Ochoco Dam had burst, the memory of hundreds of houses having been damaged a year earlier was too fresh: Panicked residents were already getting ready to take flight when the station admitted its report was a joke.

· Fake deaths: In 1998, radio bad boys Opie and Anthony -- now heard on XM Satellite Radio and on WJFK here -- were based in Boston, where they announced that Mayor Thomas Menino had died in a car crash. Even some members of the mayor's family believed the story. The radio duo were suspended without pay after that one.

· Curious crops and other agricultural oddities: Recently, National Public Radio, which has developed a consistently inventive tradition of April Fools' stories, produced a persuasive piece portraying the passions and predilections of pickle farmers. NPR also relied on nature's bounty for a report by Robert Siegel on Vermont maple trees that were exploding because farmers didn't relieve them of their syrup content after low-carb diets suppressed customer demand for the sweet stuff.

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