"Madame, bear in mind That princes govern all things--save the wind." -Victor Hugo, The Infanta's Rose

Friday, January 19, 2007

How to do, and not do, a radio contest

Today's post continues the "radio" theme from earlier this week, and is a peculiar mix of humor and tragedy.

A first-year marketing student will tell you that contests and promotions are the life-blood of any radio station. The radio broadcasting business has a unique and intangible "product" in that it's something that you can't see, smell, taste or touch. It exists only as waves in the ether, something which can only be "consumed" by the end-user if they take the pro-active step of turning on their radio receiver and tuning it to your particular spot on the dial. Therefore, radio is as much a state of mind or "image" as anything else, and throughout the history of radio, stations have relied on contests and promotions to make the potential listener aware of their existence and get them to tune in. Of course, once you get them to listen, you then must figure out the best way to keep them listening, but that's another story.

Program directors and promotion managers are always under pressure to come up with innovative, wacky ideas to intrigue listeners. Many years ago, when I was the P.D. of a rock station in Sarasota, FL, I cooked up a partnership with a local drive-in movie theater (anyone remember those?) to do a weekly "Friday Night Fright" promotion, where the theater would show all-night horror films on Fridays. The station gave away free tickets during the week leading up to each show, and as a bonus, we also featured a live appearance by "Count Dracula" -- me, in costume -- who would go around to the cars on the lot during intermission, giving away free stuff and scaring the crap out of little children. Every Friday night that summer, I donned my full Drac regalia including cape, fangs, and gruesome makeup. I had a blast doing it, and the listeners loved it too. On another occasion, I devised a contest for a Pizza restaurant which we dubbed "The Big Quacker". It starred a fictional giant waterfowl who was located "somewhere on the North American continent", and the person who could call in and guess exactly where would win a respectable cash prize. The station gave out cryptic clues to his location over the air (increasing our ratings), and additional clues were available at the restaurant (an incentive to visit the sponsor). Much to my surprise, the prmotion was wildly successful and the whole town got caught up in "Quackermania"; after someone finally won the prize, I naturally had to get dressed up in a giant duck suit and make a highly-promoted appearance at the restaurant to award it. Not only was it a lot of fun, I got free pizza there anytime I wanted it from then on. (Ah, the perks of show biz.)

So, many of you have no doubt heard of or participated in similar radio station promotions: concert ticket or record album giveaways are common, and the bigger the market, the more money a station can afford to spend on prizes. Elaborate contests, sometimes offering glamorous trips and thousands of dollars in cash or prizes, can have a significant impact on listenership and make the critical difference in ratings that generate huge advertising revenue for a station.

Sometimes a station will pull out the stops, and the more wacky and crazy a contest is, the more "buzz" it tends to generate; listeners have shown time and time again that they're willing to do almost anything to win a prize and get their name on the air. Last June, for example, Chicago's WLUP-FM offered baseball fans a chance to win tickets for the sold-out "Crosstown Classic" game between the White Sox and the Cubs by participating in what was advertised as the "Crosstown Classic Ass Kissing Contest." Listeners who had qualified earlier were summoned to plant a kiss on a live donkey outside of Wrigley Field. "The fan who keeps their lips on the donkey the longest wins tickets to the game," according to the contest rules. These contests are called "marathons"; they of course have their roots in the classic old-time radio dance marathons of the 30's, and tend to generate a lot of publicity. Who hasn't heard of the car dealership contest where a number of challengers try to keep their hands on a new car or truck longer than anyone else, with the winner getting to drive the vehicle home? In these events, the health and safety of the contestants due to such factors as sleep deprivation, dehydration, etc. can become an issue, and it's understood that any responsible planner of such a contest will have medical personnel on hand to supervise potential problems.

Therefore, I was shocked to hear about a station in Sacramento, CA, who recently sponsored a contest that went horribly awry. Called "Hold your wee for a Wii", the contest at Entercom's KDND(FM) was to see who could drink the most water without going to the bathroom; the prize was a Nintendo Wii video game system. A few hours afterwards, Jennifer Strange, a 28-year old mother of three who had participated in the contest, died in her home of what the local coroner's office called "water intoxication". Reportedly, Strange drank nearly two gallons of water in the kitchen of the station's Madison Avenue office.

To make matters worse, an audio recording of the show reveals the DJs joking about people dying from water intoxication. As contestants chugged bottle after bottle, a listener called in to warn the disc jockeys that the stunt was dangerous, and could be fatal. "Yeah, we're aware of that," one of them responded. Another DJ laughed: "Yeah, they signed releases, so we're not responsible. We're OK." At one point, they even alluded to a Chico college student who died during a similar hazing stunt in 2005. "Hey Carter, is anybody dying in there?" a DJ asks during the show. "We got a guy who's just about to die," the other responds, and all the DJs laugh. "I like that we laugh about that," another says. "Make sure he signs the release. ... Get the insurance on that, please."

Not surprisingly, the two DJs -- and eight other people responsible for the contest -- have been fired. Attorneys said they plan to file a wrongful death suit against the station, and the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department has launched a criminal investigation into the incident. Earlier in the week, Entercom Sacramento VP/GM John Geary (a respected broadcaster well-known to me and others in the industry for his visionary programming skills during the 80's and 90's) had posted an online statement that the "Morning Rave" show had been canceled. "All of you are probably aware of the tragic death of a contestant, Jennifer Strange, following her participation in a contest on the Morning Rave last Friday," he wrote. "First and foremost, our thoughts and sympathies go out to Jennifer's family and loved ones. I also want to assure you that the circumstances regarding this matter are being examined as thoroughly as possible. We are doing everything we can to deal with this difficult situation in a manner that is both respectful and responsible." However, no doubt due to the pending legal action, any mention of the contest or the station's reaction to it has recently been pulled from the station's web site.

You can bet that this tragedy will be discussed in staff meetings at virtually every radio station in the country over the next few weeks as an example of how not to do a contest. Ironically, KDND's on-air tagline is "107.9-The End"; unfortunately for Jennifer Strange, the "Hold your wee for a Wii" contest was exactly that.


  • At 1/20/2007 09:45:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    that was such a tragic story. i was outraged by the thought that something like that was promoted. let's hope that change is on the horizon.


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