IT was an expensive hoax, whose full cost will be counted in currencies more precious than money. Last June, the Burbank, Calif., radio station KROQ-FM broadcast a fake murder confession that wasted thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours worth of law-enforcement resources before authorities finally concluded 10 months later that the ``crime'' they were investigating had never occurred.
Disc jockeys Gene Baxter and Kevin Ryder, with help from Mesa, Ariz., radio personality Doug Roberts (who now works for KROQ), devised the stunt to generate publicity for a new show, ``Confess Your Crime,'' that invited listeners to call the station anonymously and reveal their illegal acts on the air.
``The duo, according to station sources, fabricated a conversation with Roberts, who acted like a `whacked out and disturbed' caller confessing to killing his girlfriend,'' the Los Angeles Times reported. ``Ryder and Baxter elicited a rambling murder confession from Roberts and persuaded listeners that the call was real.''
National reaction to the fake confession was overwhelming. NBC's ``Unsolved Mysteries'' twice broadcast a tape of the call, generating hundreds of inquiries from viewers and police departments around the country. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department assigned homicide Sgt. John Yarborough to work on the case.
After the hoax was exposed, KROQ offered to reimburse the county for expenses incurred during the investigation. The sheriff's department subsequently billed the station for $12,170.98, which includes travel and administrative costs, in addition to Yarborough's time.
BUT KROQ can never sufficiently pay for the 149 hours Yarborough spent trying to solve a murder that never happened. The station can write a check that covers his salary for those hours, but that cannot even begin to reimburse the county for diverting scarce law-enforcement resources from investigating real crimes.
Many of the calls to Yarborough and other police officers came from anxious parents desperately seeking information about their missing daughters. The fake murder confession gave those mothers and fathers false hope that they might finally discover what had happened to their daughters.
``I feel most sorry for people like that,'' Yarborough said. Baxter, Roberts, and Ryder apparently did not share that sentiment or they would have quickly revealed that they had broadcast a hoax. Instead, they callously disregarded those parents' fears and hopes, and continued the deception for almost a year. No amount of money can ever adequately atone for that cruelty.
This stunt also hurts the credibility of every media outlet and professional in the nation. It further blurs the already too indistinct line between news and entertainment. It fuels the intense distrust in which many Americans today hold the media. The industry and those who work in it will ultimately, if indirectly, pay a high price for the KROQ DJs' irresponsibility.
In addition to offering to reimburse the sheriff's department, KROQ management, which had not known about the hoax, publicly apologized and briefly suspended Ryder, Roberts, and Baxter. But this cost both the DJs and the station far too little.
The Federal Communications Commission is now investigating the case. Based on a regulation that prohibits broadcasters from airing hoaxes that waste police time and resources and divert them from real crimes, the FCC could fine KROQ or revoke its license.
The FCC should use this opportunity to tell the broadcasting industry and the public that what Baxter, Ryder, and Roberts did will not be tolerated and that any station involved in such a hoax will pay a penalty proportionate to the harm done. For KROQ and the three DJs, that will have to be a very high price indeed.