The delicate art of pulling off prank calls on the radio

Radio pranks have been part of the craft for years, but there’s a knack to pulling them off as 2DayFm hosts Mel Greig and Michael “MC” Christian found, says Jason ‘Jabba’ Davis.

Radio pranks have been a part of the game since 1938 when listeners were panicked at the prospect of an impending martian invasion by Orson Welles. It set the tone for the next 75 years of radio tomfoolery.

Pranks and prank calls have been a staple of radio shows with hosts from Howard Stern to the Jerky Boys favouring the ‘gotcha’ call.

But what makes jokes good or bad? Earlier this year two Canadian radio DJs known as the Masked Avengers created headlines when they prank-called the U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon who thought he was speaking with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Moon took the joke well, he is a diplomat after all, and the show benefitted from the publicity.

My favourite Aussie prank call came from WSFM’s Brendan ‘Jonesy’ Jones who played breakfast rival Kyle Sandilands live on air in 2005. “I sent my first community air-check tape, which was terrible, to every radio station in town,” says Jones. When a listener heard the tape on rival 2Day FM’s breakfast show, Jones was handled the perfect setup.

“I rang up and spoke to the producer and sounded a bit simple. ‘I’ve just heard you play my tape’. They said, ‘can we call you tomorrow morning?'”

Jones gave out the studio number and waited for the call from 2Day FM host Sandilands. Jones recalls Sandilands saying: “Mate, do you ever practice?” His retort: “Since you put my tape on air I’ve got a job at WSFM and we just kicked your arse in the ratings.” It was the kind of stunt you just couldn’t rehearse.

But for every success story like this, there is a David Rymer, a Sydney broadcaster who was soon out of a job after calling a year 12 student pretending to be from the Board of Studies informing her that her near perfect HSC result was actually a mistake and her real mark was much lower. The prank backfired spectacularly.

Audiences want to be in on the joke, and as broadcasters we want to make people laugh, but we need to pull it off without dishing out grief to the undeserving.

Jason ‘Jabba’ Davis is a TV and radio personality.


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