From her home outside the no-stoplight settlement of Fiddletown, Sue Wilson tilted at a corporate windmill, and a funny thing happened.
Sue from Fiddletown won, on our behalf. You can hear the sound of that victory at the end of the FM radio dial in Sacramento. Where there once was commercial pop music, hooting deejays and stupid radio stunts, there’s static.
“We the People own the air waves,” she said, and repeats: “We the People.”
The start of this story probably is vaguely familiar. On a Friday in January 2007, Jennifer Strange, a 28-year-old mother of three and a regular listener to 107.9-KDND, The End, entered a contest called “Hold your wee for a Wii,” the Nintendo gaming console that was all rage at the time.
Strange, who wanted to win the console for her kids, was one of 18 contestants who gathered at KDND, which was owned by Entercom Communications Corp., the nation’s fourth largest radio chain. The person who gulped the most water without having to urinate would win. It was such a clever idea, sure to draw an audience.
“Can’t you get water poisoning and, like, die?” one of the disc jockeys asked, 16 minutes into the show. A caller who identified herself as a nurse practitioner warned that a person could die from water intoxication.
“Oh, my God,” Strange told another competitor, “I feel so awful, I’m about to pass out.”
The deejays worried that the contest wouldn’t conclude by the end of the show, and increased the size of the water bottles. Sixteen of the 18 had dropped out when Strange accepted the second prize, tickets to a Justin Timberlake concert. Her stomach was distended and she had a splitting headache, but she managed to drive home. She fell into a coma and died that afternoon.
A friend of Strange’s called the station with word of her death. Rather than call the other contestants to check on their welfare, the station’s management called Entercom headquarters in Bala Cynwyd outside Philadelphia and spoke to company lawyers. When the deejays arrived for work on the Monday after Strange’s death, they were told to hire attorneys and were fired.
The Federal Communications Commission, which licenses radio stations, opened an investigation, as did the Sacramento County District Attorney. Nothing came of either of them. The family, having hired Sacramento attorney Roger Dreyer, sued and received a measure of justice in the form of a $16.5 million judgment.
That might have ended the matter, except that Wilson couldn’t let go.
Wilson is a former television and radio reporter and producer, turned advocate for the old-fashioned principles of the fairness, equal time and an insistence that broadcasters that use public airwaves operate in the public interest.
She runs what she calls Media Action Center, agitates, organizes, blogs and occasionally files complaints to the FCC against conservative talk radio stations that fail to meet basic standards of fairness. “I don’t make any money,” she said, which is apparent by her cramped office and spotty cell phone reception.
During the trial over the family’s civil suit against Entercom, Wilson would drive from the Amador County foothills to the Sacramento County courthouse, gathering material for a film and for what would be a challenge to KDND’s license.
That license was up for renewal at the end of 2013. On Oct. 31, 2013, a day before the deadline, Wilson filed her petition against Entercom. And she waited. And people moved on.
The KDND on-air personalities managed to land jobs, though it wasn’t easy. Adam Cox, whose radio name is Lukas, said he was blackballed for years before finding work at a station in Wichita, Kan.
“It crushed me,” he said by phone; he’s writing a book about the experience.
Wilson figured that as the months and years passed, Entercom would win its renewal; corporations always do. But last Oct. 27, the commission issued a 35-page order calling for a hearing to determine, among other issues, “whether Entercom prioritized entertainment value over the welfare of contestants of the ‘Hold Your Wee for a Wii’ contest.”
In February, as Entercom was fighting to save its license, the company announced it was merging with CBS Radio, forming the second largest radio corporation in the nation, with stations in 23 of the top 25 markets, 230-plus stations in all.
Sue from Fiddletown stood in the way, with her petition before the FCC, which is one of the federal agencies that must approve the merger. Rather than risk the multibillion-dollar deal, Entercom took the extraordinary step of abandoning the KDND license, writing off its value, $13.5 million.
“Would we have won? I don’t know. But we would have made a lot of noise,” Wilson said.
Attorney Travis LeBlanc was the FCC’s chief of enforcement until recently, and knew the case. “The motive here appears to be financial,” he said of Entecom’s decision to forfeit the license. If not for the merger, “KDND probably still would be fighting the FCC.”
But though it was delayed, justice was served. The FCC will auction 107.9 to the highest bidder. Some large corporation, though not Entercom, probably will win the prize. But it doesn’t have to be that way, however.
Maybe a benevolent buyer will put together a group. Imagine what a 50,000-watt station at the end of the dial could do for the region if the owners bought into the concept of equal time and fairness, and decided to operate it in the public interest.
It’s improbable, highly unlikely, and it would cost millions. But who would have thought that Sue from Fiddletown would file a petition that would bring about the end to The End.