Bruce Maiman: Tragic death from contest doesn’t warrant loss of radio station’s license

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013 - 12:31 pm

A hospital in Redding is facing a wrongful-death lawsuit. Raymond Ingerham died during a common surgical procedure to correct an irregular heartbeat. He was 44. The lawsuit alleges that doctors and nurses performed the procedure improperly. Additionally, Raymond was his 78-year-old mother’s caregiver.

Moseley Collins, the Sacramento attorney representing Raymond’s mother, tells me that hospitals in such situations not only face lawsuits, they’re also investigated by the California Department of Public Health to identify potential procedural lapses and issue corrective measures.

Assuming a jury finds in favor of the plaintiff, should the hospital be shut down?

“No,” Collins said. “You have to give people a chance to change what they’re doing. The state has the right to close the hospital, but it’s such an ultimate penalty.”

So why is anyone demanding we shut down a radio station that was successfully sued for a stunt it conducted nearly seven years ago and has since mended its ways?

Two Sacramento media watchdog groups last week announced they will challenge the broadcast license renewal of KDND/107.9 “The End” over the water intoxication death of Jennifer Strange in its 2007 “Hold Your Wee For A Wii” contest.

In a news conference, Media Action Center founder Sue Wilson said that although a jury held the station liable for Strange’s death and awarded her family $16.6 million, the Federal Communications Commission has shown no inclination to go after its broadcast license.

Why should it? In her 2009 documentary, “Broadcast Blues,” that spotlighted Strange’s death, Wilson asks, “Should a radio station that killed a woman remain licensed to broadcast?”

The station didn’t do that. Its employees did. They were fired. To my knowledge, not a single employee working at The End back then is working there now. The station was given the chance to change, and it did. Indeed, the water-drinking contest, enormously popular for years, is no longer done by anyone, so an entire industry changed. What more can be gained by denying the station its license?

Should we have closed the Ford Motor Co. 35 years ago for all those Pinto deaths, or shutter BP now for that Gulf of Mexico oil spill? Today, Ford routinely builds some of the industry’s safest cars. BP has already agreed to pay $4 billion in fines and penalties, and could face another $18 billion penalty, the largest environmental penalty in U.S. history.

The watchdog groups believe The End’s owner, Entercom Communications, should suffer because it was exonerated of any liability, and it didn’t lose money since its insurance company paid the damage award.

Isn’t that the whole point of having insurance, to incur and/or defray the cost of doing business, just like driving a car or owning a home?

Last I checked, insurance coverage isn’t free, and you can bet those premiums skyrocketed as a result of the ill-begotten contest.

“Radio stations hold very lucrative licenses ... to serve the public interest,” said Roger Smith, a spokesman for Sacramento Media Group, the other watchdog agency involved in the FCC petition. “On-air stunts that kill people do not serve the public interest.”

“I detect the malignant odor of hysterics and over-generalization,” my longtime radio colleague and talk show host Brian Wilson told me. “How many other contests have they run during which someone died? If no one had died, would the contest have been ‘in the public interest’?”

Tom Taylor, a broadcaster who’s covered the radio industry as a journalist for more than 20 years, emails me that it’s possible “Entercom could find its renewal hung up while the commission staff investigates the complaint,” which “probably means additional legal expenses for Entercom.”

Or the FCC might apply the more practical approach of its rule-making policy, which is to determine whether “a range of possible substantive alternatives for fixing the problem” are less burdensome than any action by the commission itself. Like a successful lawsuit, perhaps?

You should know, dear reader, I recently interviewed for the still-open position to replace Walt Gray at KSEG/96.9, “The Eagle,” another Entercom property. Rest assured, this column isn’t a suck-up pitch to secure the job. If a trick like that could work, that’s not a company I’d work for. This is solely about the watchdog groups’ effort, which, to me, is an utterly ridiculous waste of time, or, to delicately rephrase in the more dignified Latin, “bovinum excrementum.”

Jennifer Strange’s death was surely tragic, but with numerous issues facing the broadcast industry – performance royalties, spectrum reallocation, retransmission consent and low-power FM – why would the FCC need to concern itself in a matter so thoroughly addressed long ago by and for all parties involved?

Or as Brian Wilson asks: “Since your proposal cannot possibly have anything to do with a solution (the family wouldn’t receive additional compensation for Entercom losing the license), what’s the real agenda?”

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at brucemaiman@

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