On-air pranks have been around almost as long as there have been radios and televisions.
Most are intended to be fun and harmless. No one ever wants a prank to result in tragedy, like the recent incident when a prank by two Australian DJs prompted a chain of events that ultimately led to a nurse taking her own life. This tragic situation has thrust the issue of radio pranking into the spotlight.
Television pranks can be traced back to the wildly popular syndicated series Candid Camera, which ran from 1948 until 2004. It initially began on radio in 1947 as Candid Microphone, where hidden mics captured people's reaction to outrageous events. Since then, countless radio stations worldwide have engaged in the tradition of pranking others across the airwaves.
Don Percy is undoubtedly one of the most well-known radio personalities in Winnipeg, and today can be heard as morning show host on 100.7 The Breeze. He remembers when local radio started using live telephone calls to play jokes on people.
"Many personalities used the technique, like Don Imus, now famous as a political satirist in New York with national syndication. He did a series early in his career, the most famous one being a call to McDonald's ordering 400 hamburgers to go for the U.S. army," says Percy.
"I was picked to do a series of jokes as part of a morning show in the 1960s in Peterborough, Ont.," Percy says. "My favourite was one in which I picked a phone number at random and told the lady who answered that I represented the city, and we were going to cut down the tree in front of her house. I didn't even know if there WAS a tree there, but evidently there was, and she became frantic trying to save it."
Percy, who has precipitated hundreds of radio pranks during his career, believes they should only be done in fun. "My personal philosophy is that if you're going to do them, make sure they are of a fairly innocuous nature, and not based on making the recipient look foolish or to cause them anxiety or fear.
"Make them good-natured and non-invasive. Better still, try to do humour without making someone the butt of the joke. Unless that someone is you."
One of Winnipeg's most active radio pranksters is Brian Cook, afternoon drive host on NCI FM. He pranks people all over Manitoba on a daily basis and has great fun with it, usually at his own expense.
"I've been making goofy calls since I started working at 92 CITI in 1991. I started a bit called 'You've Been Cooked,' and it's really just me calling people, many in the retail and service industries, and acting like a twit. Then at the end I say, 'Could you tell yourself you've been Cooked?' Most laugh and say I'm not their strangest call, which says a great deal about their level of patience or my level of foolishness."
"One of my favourites was the time I called GOTTA GO portable toilets. I was playing a woman whose husband's use of the bathroom was causing her distress as his 'odours' were ruining her home and driving her friends away. She wanted a portable toilet in the yard for him to use. Well, the man on the phone was trying so hard not to laugh. He was so much fun, and at the end he just howled and said I made his day."
Cook adheres to strict guidelines when pulling off pranks.
"I believe in being tasteful, respectful and keeping it fun. The characters I play must always be the brunt of the joke. I never call police stations, hospitals, first responders, anything like that, because I never want to interfere with important services. And I never want the person I'm calling to be made a fool of. I don't want to make someone embarrassed or get them fired. So I'm always the brunt of the joke."
Susan Krepart is the midday announcer on Winnipeg's 99.1 Fresh FM. She doesn't do radio pranks herself, in part because she doesn't trust herself to go through with them.
"Though sometimes I'm admittedly laughing along when I hear radio pranks, I get really uncomfortable, especially when the 'prankee' is the butt of the joke. I feel the same way when watching Sacha Baron Cohen -- a mix of entertained but nervous. It just isn't my thing. I would chicken out halfway through because I would feel too guilty, probably.
"I think it's ridiculous that everyone is so huffy about this. I feel for the woman's family, I really do. But for these DJs to receive hate mail and death threats and potentially lose their job? I think it is ridiculous. The outcome here was one hundred per cent unforeseeable."
One of the DJs pretended to be Queen Elizabeth, calling the hospital to inquire after her daughter-in-law, Kate Middleton.
Bruce Leperre is the program and music director at 730 CKDM in Dauphin. He has done a few pranks over the years, and believes one has to be careful when treading into that territory.
"Well before the Aussie personalities' ill-fated prank, we've discouraged our announcers from engaging in that style of radio where you call to prank someone on air. If it has been done it's usually been off-air and played back later with the listener's OK.
"My own personal philosophy has been that pranks are fine as long as they're well thought out with no chance of anyone getting hurt emotionally or physically. However, if there is even a remote chance of something backfiring, I'll choose not to go ahead with it.
"As we've recently learned, even a prank that may seem like it couldn't create any deadly issues might. And can. I believe this was a rather extreme reaction, but one doesn't know what is going on in people's heads and how they will react. It's definitely not worth the risk."