As the recent royal hoax that led to the death of young nurse proved, the line between juvenile joke and dangerous prank is thin when it comes to mass media. But Sydney’s 2Day FM wasn’t the first radio station to take a prank too far, and it likely won’t be the last. From the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast to the faked death of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, some radio pranks that generated more outrage than laughs.
London’s Imaginary Revolution (1926)
During the golden age of radio, the BBC learned the hard way that some jokes just aren’t funny. On Jan. 20, 1926, announcer Ronald Knox, during his regular radio program, announced that a violent revolution was sweeping through London. In his “special announcement,” Knox described an angry mob of unemployed workers storming the city’s major buildings, looting and destroying everything in sight. Worried listeners scrambled around their radios to listen, terrified they were next. Knox even went so far as to claim Big Ben had fallen. The broadcast caused widespread panic across Great Britain until the radio station confirmed to listeners that the segment was “imaginary,” all part of Father Ronald Knox’s satirical skit. “London is safe. Big Ben is still chiming, and all is well,” read the BBC’s statement.
War of the Worlds (1938)
On Oct. 30, 1938, radio listeners across the United States were stunned to hear that America was being invaded by aliens from Mars. A dramatization of H.G. Wells’s fantasy science-fiction novel The War of the Worlds, the adaptation was designed to sound like a news broadcast—and it succeeded. Starting with a “flaming object” that fell from the sky, the report included a “field newscaster” with an eyewitness account of the aliens. “That face,” he said, “It…it’s indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it. The eyes are black and gleam like a serpent.” The broadcast sent the nation into chaos, and—with the help of the actual news—led to a national scandal. The cycle of confusion was ultimately broken when the media learned it was a farce. “Note to Editors: Queries to newspapers from radio listeners throughout the United States tonight, regarding a reported meteor fall which killed a number of New Jerseyites, are the result of a studio dramatization. The A.P.,” read the statement.
Mayor Menino’s Death (1998)
April Fools lived up to its name on April 1, 1998, when popular shock jocks Opie and Anthony announced on WAAF-FM that Boston Mayor Thomas Menino had died in a car crash in Florida. Due to Menino’s packed schedule, City Hall was unable to reach him for several hours, leading even the mayor’s family members to question whether or not he was alive. Opie (Greg Hughes) and Anthony (Anthony Cumia) were immediately fired from the station. The pair eventually landed in New York, where they staged a “Sex for Sam” contest (where couples were awarded points for having sex in public) that eventually led to the arrest of a couple having sex in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Infinity Broadcasting Operations was fined a total of $357,500 by the FCC, the maximum allowable amount. Opie and Anthony now host their own channel on XM Radio.
The Ochoco Dam Incident (1999)
In 1999, two DJs at KSJJ in Bend, Ore., announced that the Ochoco Dam had burst, sending millions of gallons of water downstream. The prank, meant to be a sly quip on April Fool’s Day, caused the town to spiral into chaos. With the memory still fresh of the hundreds of houses damaged a year earlier when the Ochoco Creek flooded, residents scrambled to pack their things and get out. The prank lasted until the two DJs came forward and announced that they had simply made it up for fun.
Methane Gas in Virginia Beach (1992)
In an earlier feigned natural disaster, two DJs at F99 WNOR, a radio station in Hampton Roads, Va., convinced their listeners that a massive buildup of methane gas was about to produce a deadly explosion at “Mount Trashmore,” a landfill near Virginia Beach. The DJs claimed an evacuation was necessary, causing the local 911 dispatchers to be inundated with anxious phone calls. As word spread that an explosion was imminent, panicked residents began fleeing the area. The radio station eventually announced that the news was fake, but the listeners of Hampton Roads weren’t amused, and neither was the FCC. The DJs responsible were suspended without pay for two weeks.
“I’ve Been Screwing Your Sister for the Last Year” (2008)
To be honest, we’re not sure if this is real or not. If not, it’s fairly well acted—and absolutely horrifying. When a woman called into a radio station in 2008 hoping to win tickets to a Kanye West concert, she got more than she bargained for. In order to win the tickets, the DJs told her she would have to call her husband, on air, and pretend that their 9-year-old son wasn’t his—and then get him to say he still loved her. The plan went terribly wrong. Not only did the husband not tell her he still loved her, but in his fury he announced he had a secret of his own. “I’ve been screwing your sister for the last year!” he shouted. Too gruesome to be true?