Michael Smerconish: In defense of the DJs
I still have the album. It's called WFIL Is Together, and the imprint on the vinyl credits Lost-Night Records, at 1005 Chestnut St.
I still have the album.
It's called WFIL Is Together, and the imprint on the vinyl credits Lost-Night Records, at 1005 Chestnut St.
The record contains 16 songs from the end of the '60s, including "The Letter" by the Box Tops, "Good Morning Starshine" by Oliver, "Happy Together" by the Turtles, "Venus" by Shocking Blue, and "Wipe Out" by the Surfaris.
But for my brother and me, the target track was the fifth song on Side 1 - "Hello It's Me" by Nazz. I'm not sure why we favored that number. Maybe it was a local homage, given that Nazz featured Upper Darby's Todd Rundgren.
Anyway, here's how the gag worked:
My brother would run his finger through the Doylestown phone book and pick out a name at random. Next, he'd call the person and tell whoever answered that he was a member of a garage band in town and that we were - right now - rehearsing a new song and desperately needed feedback. Then he'd ask, "Would you be willing to listen while we play?" If the person who answered said, "Yes," he'd quickly shout out a faux: "One, two, one, two, three, four ..."
That's when my role kicked in.
Up until that point, I was hovering over our parents' stereo turntable, listening to my brother's pitch. When he gave the signal, my job was to drop the needle right at the beginning of "Hello It's Me," while he held the receiver from our brand-new "push-button" telephone in my direction.
Sometimes I'd get nervous as he dialed the number. My hand would shake and I'd end up putting the needle down in the middle of the song, eliciting that burp that anyone who ever played a vinyl record will remember. Worse, I'd drop into the wrong song and our victim would hear "My Pledge of Love" by Joe Jeffrey or "Hair" by the Cowsills, which didn't have the same feel as a garage band, or so we thought.
The object was to see whether we could get someone on the other end of the telephone to listen to the entire song. Of course, the joke was mostly on us, because as I think back 40 years, I'm sure the only people who hung in that long were the ones humored by our truly elementary phone prank. Nobody got hurt. Just another element of a partially misspent youth, like calling Thrift Drug and asking if they had "Prince Albert in a can." (If they said yes, then you'd tell them to let him out.)
I've been thinking about my hijinks while digesting the tragic suicide of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse at King Edward VII Hospital in London who apparently took her life after receiving a prank call from two Australian DJs who pretended to be Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles, calling to check on Catherine, the duchess of Cambridge. The radio hosts, Mel Greig and Michael Christian, have been suspended and their employer is donating nearly $500,000 to the family of the dead nurse. For some, that's not enough punishment.
The case is a tragedy, for sure. But the Aussie joke had about as much sophistication as my old capers. It lacked an evil motive, and the idea that someone would die from their call was about as expected as someone jumping out of a window after hearing me playing Nazz. Greig told Australian TV's Channel 7:
"It doesn't seem real, because you just couldn't foresee something like that happening from a prank call. You know it was never meant to go that far. It was meant to be a silly little prank that so many people have done before. This wasn't meant to happen."
Their prank lacked the predictable scare that followed the War of the Worlds broadcast in 1938, when radio listeners across the country were told we were under alien attack. It didn't have the callousness of the 1998 stunt when DJs Opie and Anthony told a Boston radio audience that the mayor had died in a car crash in Florida. And it was nowhere as inherently dangerous as the water-drinking contest ("Hold your wee for a Wii") at a Sacramento radio station that resulted in the death of a 28-year-old woman.
The exchange with Nurse Saldanha was brief:
Greig: "Oh, hello there. Could I speak to Kate, please, my granddaughter?"
Saldanha: "Oh, yes, just hold on, ma'am."
Greig: "Thank you."
That's it. Saldanha then forwarded the call to a colleague. She provided no patient information to the DJs. If anyone had grounds to be embarrassed it was the nurse who then revealed personal details of Kate's condition and treatment when confronted with horrible accents from "the Queen" and "Prince Charles," not to mention their imitation of barking corgis.
That Saldanha may have ended her life after this episode is terribly sad, but so far there is no evidence to suggest that it was the fault of the DJs.
on Twitter @Smerconish and visit www.Smerconish.com.