In the early days of Top 40 radio, stations desperate to build ratings scrambled to outdo one another with stunts and contests. A Miami station gave away a baby shark. A Texas station awarded a lucky listener a mountain (well, a tiny hill deep in the prairie). And stations across the country teased audiences into taking part in wild, citywide treasure hunts with thousands of people competing to find cash that had been hidden, for example, between pages of a random book in the public library.
But after a woman in Sacramento died last month from drinking too much water for a radio-station contest, some voices are decrying the half-century-old tradition of stunting, arguing that it has morphed into a dangerous game in which listeners are goaded into life-threatening behavior.
KDND's morning show staged a "Hold Your Wee for a Wii" contest, promising a free Nintendo video-game system to the listener who could drink the most water without having to relieve himself. Jennifer Strange, 28, was trying to win the Wii for her three children when she drank as much as two gallons of water. She died five hours later, apparently of water intoxication.
An attorney for the Strange family filed suit against the station, which fired 10 employees as a result of the stunt, including the morning show DJs, but none of the station managers. Calls for tougher federal regulation of radio stunts emerged from both the family and other people across the country who have suffered from contests gone bad.
Although death from water intoxication is not common, another California station had a close call last year, when a man suffered ill effects after drinking 1 1/2 gallons of water in 35 minutes. The station's reward for the stunt: a pool table.
Beginning in 1996, when limits on station ownership were greatly loosened and thousands of stations changed hands, radio companies let stations push the envelope on sexual content and stunts.
DJs and talk hosts say they felt pressure to do whatever it took to boost ratings.
"They're paying me to feign intimacy and get as many people as possible listening," says Tom Leykis, a Los Angeles-based syndicated talk-show host who for years has encouraged his female listeners to lift their shirts and flash motorists on the freeways. "We sell spots. We are here to serve the shareholders. To do that, I am going to try to get away with whatever I can get away with, because whoever goes the farthest does the best."
That is a far cry from the innocent times when a contest such as the 1960s Principal of the Year giveaway sponsored by New York's WABC could draw more than 100 million votes, forcing the station to hire 80 college students and street people to sit in an armory for two months just to open the ballots.
The Federal Communications Commission is looking into KDND's water intoxication case, and radio companies are telling DJs to ease up on sensational stunts such as cockroach-eating contests.
The standard argument made by radio executives is that listeners who participate in stunts are adults and ought to take responsibility for their own actions. That stance, however, is under attack by lawyers who want courts to make media companies pay for harm that comes to contestants.
In this world of "Fear Factor" and "Punk'd," legal disclaimers and long, densely worded waivers have turned what were once spur-of-the-moment contests into corporate strategies in which lawyers play as big a role as DJs. The attorney for Strange's family, Roger Dreyer, believes that "the power of punitive damages" will turn back the clock on dangerous stunts. He told the San Francisco Chronicle that "the reality is that the only thing large corporations understand is financial punishment."
But the history of excess in radio teaches that the bouts of hysteria that follow the more outrageous cases generally recede after a few months. Already, many of the raunch-radio DJs whose acts were toned down after the Janet Jackson Super Bowl breast-reveal hoohah in 2004 are finding ways to get back to discussing all manner of bodily substances and activities.
Dreyer wants the FCC to pull the Sacramento station's license, and FCC Chairman Kevin Martin has called for an investigation of the fatal case. But in a pop culture in which humiliation is a proven audience-builder, extreme radio stunts aren't going away.
The FCC -- caught between members of Congress who want the regulator to respond to outraged voters, and the courts that consistently tell the agency to stay out of the content of broadcasting -- will find a middle road. And broadcasters will get back to the business of racking up ratings numbers, almost no matter what it takes.