Yesterday, they were bragging about “the prank call the world is talking about.” Now, the woman they duped has apparently committed suicide, and Australian DJs Mel Greig and Michael Christian have voluntarily suspended themselves from their radio program.
Greig and Christian are immediate casualties—but for 2Day FM, the Sydney radio station that employed them, this disgrace has been a long time coming.
For over a decade, 2Day FM, which launched in 1980 as one of three radio stations to be granted FM broadcasting licenses in Sydney, has marched on the edge of propriety, fostering a culture of shock jocks and raunchy content. Various hosts working for the station have deployed an alarming amount of questionable stunts in an attempt to goose ratings, which have been on a roller-coaster course for much of the past decade.
It’s only now, with this week’s prank call to the London hospital where Kate Middleton was resting with extreme morning sickness, that the station has finally charged over that edge. And gauging by the reaction on social media and from Greig and Christian’s peers, it could be a violent fall.
On Dec. 4, Greig called into King Edward VII Hospital, and, adopting a ghastly British accent, pretended to be the Queen in order to get an update on Middleton’s condition. Implausibly, the nurse working reception, Jacintha Saldanha, obliged. Apparently fooled, she transferred the call to one of Middleton’s nurses, who divulged confidential information about the Duchess. Christian also got on the line pretending to be Prince Charles.
Predictably, the blogosphere ridiculed Saldanha, and Greig and Christian boasted shamelessly about their ruse. “Easiest prank call ever made,” the pair giggled on its show. “They were the worst accents ever and when we made that phone call, we were sure 100 people at least before us would have tried the same thing,” Greig marveled, calling it a “career highlight.” The radio station’s website touted the gag as “the biggest royal prank ever.”
But when Saldanha was found dead on Friday in a suspected suicide, the braggadocio suddenly ceased. The Twitter accounts that previously hosted gloating were deleted, and the DJs, perturbed by the course of events, suspended themselves from the radio station indefinitely. “They are both deeply shocked and ... have decided to that they will not return to their radio show until further notice out of respect for what can only be described as a tragedy,” the station said in a statement.
While the duo never could have predicted the heartbreaking conclusion to their so-called clever prank, the end results do belie an almost gleeful recklessness that has defined their shock-jock radio station for years.
At the time of Saldanha’s suicide, 2Day FM was serving two five-year license probations over stunts that violated Australia’s broadcast code. In August 2009, DJ Kyle Sandilands of “The Kyle and Jackie O Show” got a 14-year-old girl to admit that she had been raped after strapping her to a polygraph machine while her mother quizzed her about her sexual activities. “I’ve already told you the story about this, and don’t look at me and smile because it’s not funny,” the girl said on air. “Oh OK, I got raped when I was 12 years old.” Cruelly, Sandilands pressed on, asking, “Right, and is that the only sexual experience you had?”
The show was taken off air following protests from listeners and the then-prime minister. The station’s (very) formal statement at the time: “Following a great deal of consideration and having consulted Jackie O and all stakeholders, Austereo has formed the view that it is in the interest of all parties, for the ‘Kyle & Jackie O Show’ to go into recess until we have completed an across-the-networks review of the principals and protocols of our interaction with our audience.”
The program was reinstated three weeks later.
Fast-forward to November 2011, and Sandilands returned to vileness when he launched a Rush Limbaugh–style attack against female journalist Alison Stephenson, who at the time was reporting on his show’s low ratings.
“Some fat slag on news.com.au has already branded it a disaster,” he said. Other highlights of the diatribe: “What a fat, bitter thing you are … You’re a piece of shit … You’re supposed to be impartial, you little troll … And your blouse. You haven’t got enough titty to be having that low cut a blouse. Watch your mouth or I’ll hunt you down.”
The station apologized for Sandilands’s comments at the time, saying it valued its “listeners and clients dearly and hold the utmost respect for their opinions and actions.” When an investigation was launched by a watchdog group that could have led to banning Sandilands from the airwaves, the station defended the host.
Previously, Sandilands drank breast milk on air and held a contest to find Sydney’s smallest penis. This past April, he made headlines again for calling a Pakistani girl born with additional limbs a “spider baby.” He once said actress Magda Szubanski, who is of Polish descent, should lose weight by visiting a concentration camp.
But Sandilands, who still co-hosts a morning program for the station, is hardly 2Day FM’s only problem child.
In 2006, Craig Lowe was the station’s rising star. His rocket to the top, however, was fueled by a radio program so crass that he was repeatedly warned by management, to 2Day’s credit, to tone down his show’s smuttiness. Not enough was done, however, as a stunt in which he had a porn star named Amber Pie relay her most ribald sexual experiences on air led to a breaching of standards codes and his eventual firing.
“Top 30 Countdown,” the program that was hosted by Christian Greig, has cycled through many hosts since it launched in 1994, and its history of controversy stretches nearly back to its beginning. In 1996, host David Rymer pretended to be from a school testing board and convinced a young girl that her perfect score on a major national test was a mistake, causing her to burst into tears. Her father sued, the media vilified him, and he was suspended. His replacement, Phil O’Neil, led a program that was routinely cited for foul language and obscenity.
In another incident, the station told a family that they were being awarded $150,000 to care for their disabled child, but when the family attempted to claim the donation, they were instead handed a list of names of people who pledged money and in the end couldn’t collect more than $50,000.
That’s not to mention the station’s “Heartless Hotline” shows, which exploited disadvantaged listeners by offering them prizes, but threatened to take them away if a more interesting listener wanted the loot. In one 2009 case, a mother of five children, four of them disabled, was offered tickets for the family to the Sydney Royal Easter Show, but was then told she had to argue with another caller over the tickets while the station decided whether she could keep them.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority launched an investigation (PDF) into the stunts when listeners filed numerous complaints.
The latest gaffe clearly finds the station facing its severest repercussions yet, and many people consider Greig and Christian’s resignations a good start for retribution. Twitter users resoundingly called for the duo to step down instantly after the suicide took place. “If you have any kind of conscience or morals … Right about now you should be typing your resignation,” one user tweeted. “You scumbag, hope you get what’s coming to you! … You have blood on your hands now!” tweeted another.
While the extreme reaction is expected given the extreme nature of the tragedy, Greig and Christian have their supporters as well.
“I think it’s misplaced to blame the prank callers here,” Slate writer Farhad Manjoo tweeted. “They couldn’t have known that this would happen.” Politics.co.uk editor Ian Dunt agreed, tweeting “Death of #royalprank nurse is deeply sad, but not an excuse to hound DJs for prank calls. This was unforeseeable.”
In fact, before the hoax took a dark turn—and even as the station was apologizing for leaking confidential medical information—some of the hosts’ peers praised the act. Some expressed jealousy that they hadn’t pulled it off themselves. “Three cheers to them, I think they’ve done an amazing job,” said Michael “Wippa” Wipfli, a host from a rival Australian station. “The joke went really well, they should have aired it. Anyone who doesn’t laugh at this story, and works in the media, is just angry they didn’t do it first.” Comedian Julian Morrow (previously arrested for his own stunt in which a member of his comedy team impersonated Osama bin Laden) said, “It’s funny and I think [the station] was fairly silly to apologize.”
Also in their corner is Piers Morgan, who tweeted, “The dumb Aussie DJs’ prank was silly, but they never expected to be taken seriously, let alone possibly cause someone’s suicide.”
Whether or not the prank was funny, whether or not the 2Day FM needs to reconsider its station’s mission, at least that much is true.