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Who's Accountable for Reckless Broadcasting?

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A couple weeks ago, through my non-profit project, the Media Action Center, I filed a "Petition to Deny" the renewal of the broadcast license of a radio station in Sacramento, because, simply put, they killed a woman.

While the radio station's insurance company paid millions after they were found guilty for negligence in a lawsuit, the station itself never paid any price, as you or I would, if we had killed someone, even accidentally. The death, however, can hardly be called an accident, as the jury discovered.

And now, it's up to the FCC as to whether they will force real accountability in this matter, by denying renewal of the station's license to broadcast over our public airwaves. 

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In 2007, Entercom Sacramento's KDND sponsored a water drinking contest called "Hold Your Wee for a Wii." The idea was to compete to see who could drink the most water without peeing. The "last man standing" would win a Nintendo Wii!  But the stunt went bad, so bad that 28-year-old mother of three, Jennifer Strange, died as a result

Her family hired a lawyer, who did two things: he filed a lawsuit against Entercom and he wrote to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), asking that the station's license be revoked.

The attorney, Roger Dreyer, won his lawsuit and a $16.6-million award for the family in 2009. The jury in William A. Strange v Entercom unanimously decided Entercom Sacramento was 100% liable for Mrs. Strange's death. 

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The jury understood that her death was caused by no mere accident, but resulted from circumstances that were rather more like those of a reckless driver careening down the wrong side of a busy freeway doing 120 mph. 

See, the radio staff knew their water drinking stunt could kill someone. They'd even made fun of another water-drinking death on the air just days before they planned their contest. They knew it was dangerous, but they never bothered to tell that to the contestants. They even went so far as to hide the release form that outlined the dangers (and the rules) of the contest. Instead, they gave contestants a generic release form so vague that it couldn't hold up in a court of law.  

Moreover, Entercom added to the risks by ignoring the contest rules, by which each contestant would drink no more than a safe 32 ounces of water per hour. For the staff, "good radio" meant that the contest needed to finish by 10 AM, the end of the "Morning Rave" program. They therefore started the contestants off with 48 ounces of water an hour--which is not safe. But, then, because  people were still not peeing quickly enough, the radio shock jocks pulled out all the stops. They doubled the consumption rate, turning water into a lethal potion.  

Meanwhile, listeners were calling into the radio station, warning the deejays and management of the danger of their stunt.  But the staff just laughed it off (while making sure the contestants themselves did not hear those warning calls.) 

As the contest went on, contestants were getting sick, really sick, suffering severe headaches and vomiting into wastebaskets, while callous KDND staff took pictures. No medical personnel were present, though they were supposed to be.  Even after the contest, when Mrs. Strange told the "Morning Rave" crew she was too ill to drive home, a deejay abandoned her in the station's lobby.

Mrs. Strange did manage to drive home--but died alone there just hours later.

When John Geary, then market manager for Entercom Sacramento, learned of her death, he instructed his staff not to call the other contestants to warn them of possible health risks. He did, however, ask his station manager to get on the phone--to start calling lawyers.

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My own take on the entire incident is that it represents the most reckless broadcasting I have ever seen. I covered the trial, and can say with certainty that finding Entercom liable for Jennifer Strange's death was a no-brainer for the jury. Entercom, with revenue of about $400 million per year, did not appeal the case, and its insurance paid the $16.6 million dollar award.

Now six years after the incident, however, the Federal agency tasked with protecting the public interest in broadcasting has still done nothing about the request to strip Entercom of its license. Instead, the FCC has granted Entercom several more radio licenses across the U.S. Just after I announced I would be filing the legal Petition to Deny, local former radio guy and Sacramento Bee columnist Bruce Maiman opined in his column that MAC (the Media Action Center) was angry because the station hadn't really been punished and Entercom hadn't lost any money. He wrote that the whole purpose of having insurance is to defray the cost of doing business, and questioned what more could possibly be gained by denying the station its license. I find it obscene that he regards a negligent death as merely a radio station's "cost of doing business."

It's true that denying Entercom its license will not bring Jennifer Strange back or personally benefit her family. But it has the potential to be a benchmark for the entire broadcasting industry, sending a clear message of what operating "in the public interest" means. If I drive recklessly and kill someone, my insurance pays, but I will lose my license. If a radio station broadcasts recklessly and kills someone, shouldn't it, too, lose the free license it's been granted by the people to use our public airwaves?

Broadcasting is a public privilege entrusted to precious few private entities.  Radio and TV stations privately own their equipment; the public owns the air frequencies over which signals are broadcast. The frequencies, called public airwaves, are like public highways: Just as we own the highways and receive a license to drive, we own our public airwaves, and stations get licensed by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to broadcast. The license is free, but stations are only granted the lucrative and scarce privilege to broadcast IF they agree to "serve the public interest" in exchange. When stations do not keep that bargain, the FCC should rescind their license. 

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http://www.suewilsonreports.com/
Sue Wilson tells important stories which move politicians to act. The Emmy winning director of the media reform documentary "Broadcast Blues" and editor of SueWilsonReports.com, Sue recently founded the Media Action Center. Wilson was 1987's (more...)
 

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