Pranked! Radio show hosts’ hoaxes, old and new

by Paul Little / 14 March, 2017

Whoever said sarcasm was the lowest form of wit probably hadn’t heard a lot of breakfast radio hosts making prank calls.

Today’s commercial radio relies on the prank call or listener phone-in contributions for much of its entertainment value. But there was a time when your radio hosts put themselves out and went to a bit of trouble in the form of some elaborate hoaxes. Of these, the greatest remains Phil Shone and the 1949 swarm of non-existent wasps, not just for its content but also for the fallout from the ill-conceived jape.

Shone, broadcasting on then government-owned 1ZB, told listeners that a mile-wide swarm of wasps was approaching Auckland. He advised them to place strips of honey-smeared paper outside their windows and wear their trousers tucked into their socks, among other preventive measures.

Many locals took Shone at his word and followed his instructions. When the hoax was uncovered, the fallout was stinging. The broadcasting minister denounced it in Parliament. Shone’s ultimate boss, James Shelley, director of the New Zealand Broadcasting Service, was forceful in his criticisms and Shone lost his job at the same time as he won a place in broadcasting history. Today, notes radio host and writer Phil Gifford, Shone would have got a pretend telling-off and been back on air the next day.

Gifford credits a hoax with ensuring the very survival of a Christchurch breakfast show he co-hosted with Simon Barnett and Susi Allison in the early 90s. Initial response to the on-air teaming had been lukewarm, to say the least, and there was real concern about the show’s prospects.

“We’d heard about a station in Sydney that had said a jumbo was going to go under the city’s harbour bridge. Instead, they put an elephant on a barge and took that under. So we went on air and said a jumbo was going to land at Hagley Park and it would be the first time a jumbo had landed on a grass runway,” says Gifford.

“The godsend was Susi’s partner was a pilot for Air New Zealand and we recorded some crosses with him a couple of days before. Then the show’s producer found sound effects that made it seem as though he was in the cockpit of a 747. We got a lot of yellow tape, sealed off an area and by the time the plane was due to arrive there was – and this is very unusual in Christchurch – a traffic jam around Hagley Park. We did a contra with a helicopter company and it flew in over the park and into the roped-off area. We had a giant, toy jumbo and the helicopter landed it. When we looked back, there’s no question that was the turning point for us – the show went from number five to number one.”

But it’s not always the audience that gets conned. Just ask current Radio New Zealand board member and industry luminary Bill Francis, whose job once saw him responsible for cleaning up after “shock jock” Iain Stables, among others. On one occasion Stables, who was on ZM, borrowed the company four-wheel drive.

“Then I got a phone call,” recalls Francis, “telling me Stables was running a promotion down at a service station forecourt saying, if you come in in the next half hour you’ll get free petrol provided to you by Newstalk ZB’s fleet card petrol voucher.”

Francis ordered the vehicle back to the office and summoned Stables to an audience. “I saw this guy sheepishly walking from the far end of the ZB news area towards my office. I firmly asked him what he was up to and told him he had no right to do it and they’d be charged for whatever had been spent,” he says.

“Unbeknown to me, this little prick had a tape recorder running and I was going live on air on ZM. Reflecting on it afterwards, the way I spoke, while it was firm, was above board. I didn’t use a lot of bad language. But I was completely caught out and done over.”      

This was published in the February 2017 issue of North & South.
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