The art of the radio stunt

From prank calls to song parodies, can a radio stunt drive a station’s ratings? Colin Delaney speaks to radio’s pranksters to find out. 

Crushing cars for cash, breaking world records and eating the inedible.

The aim of a good radio stunt is not only to entertain listeners, but to “create awareness and get talkability,” says Sydney radio station WSFM’s Brendan ‘Jonesy’ Jones.

In other words, to generate some free publicity.

Stunts have been part of the Australian radio landscape since its inception, but according to Craig Bruce, head of content at Southern Cross Austereo, “the thing that’s really changing is how we can spread these ideas. Ten or 15 years ago you just heard the stunt on radio but now we can take it to market in many interesting ways.”

Currently, two of the best at creating noise outside of the booth are Sydney’s Nova breakfast presenters Michael ‘Wippa’ Wipfli and Ryan ‘Fitzy’ Fitzgerald. Tom Ivey, the duo’s executive producer, says the key factor in a stunt’s success is social media. “The impact it has had is enormous. Now Fitzy and Wippa come in with a great idea for an online video and then we work out how it works on radio. When I started working in radio, you didn’t worry about the website.”

Song parodies are a favourite of Fitzgerald and Wipfli’s. While the track may get played once or twice in their show, a funny video can garner millions of views on YouTube, shared through Twitter and Facebook. Parodies of pop sensations One Direction and Carly Rae Jepsen have had more than 1.2m and 1.5m views respectively since April.



Likewise, when they hosted Dangi, a 72-year-old Nepalese man newly crowned the shortest person on earth, they caught the public’s attention well beyond local airwaves. An image of the pair rescuing their pint-sized visitor from a rogue wave on Sydney’s Bondi Beach crossed the sea with publicity peaking when TV personality Rove McManus tweeted to his 300,000 followers a clipping from the LA Times, a paper with a weekday circulation of 700,000.

Those in the industry say stunts most likely to deliver good PR coverage come with a built-in emotional story. Just as Dangi was about a life experience he’d never had – his first trip abroad – similarly Triple M’s Merrick Watts, with co-presenters Rachel Corbett and Julian Schiller, recently threw a gala premiere for a B-grade horror movie, The Nullarbor Nymph, giving its young director a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “Jules said ‘I reckon we should make a big event’,” says Watts. “Our listeners loved it.” The stunt was picked up by Seven’s The Morning Show and other media.

Watts’ former co-host, and Mix106.5 breakfast presenter, Tim ‘Rosso’ Ross says many stunts these days are brand-funded. “We did one last week. We got great content and the client got great coverage. Maybe six years ago, if you wanted to do something stupid, a radio station would find the money but very little happens without a brand paying for it.” Although a brand-driven stunt makes for more engaging content than a radio commercial, this approach is less likely to drum up publicity as the press are clued in to the brand’s involvement and less receptive to the commercial message.

In terms of ratings payback, large stunts can have a story arc of three weeks, equivalent to half of the six-week radio-rating period and Nova’s Wipfli says this delivers significant return. “The way the ratings system works, you need to be top of mind. You need to be present in the listener’s first thought when they fill in the ratings books,” says Wipfli.

And while stunts may lead to ratings, they can just as easily result in bad PR. WSFM’s Jones notes 2DayFM breakfast hosts Kyle and Jackie O’s 2009 controversial lie detector stunt. “It put them on the map and gave them two or three ratings points, but it would have been uncomfortable,” says Jones. And Jones knows about getting in hot water with the media. He was once taken to task by the Sun Herald for prank calls to a fake terrorist hotline. Watts and Ross also recall taking a beating. “We had a program director who forced us to do a stunt where punters ran out of petrol on the Harbour Bridge. It was page one on the Sunday Telegraph calling us dumber and dumber,” says Ross.


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