In the wake of the tragic death of a nurse in the U.K. as a result of a prank call by Australian RJs, Prince Fredrick meets local RJs to garner their views

RJ Balaji is hanging up on Crosstalk, a popular call-up segment of his evening show “Take It Easy” on Big FM. On his official Facebook page, Balaji has announced the decision to discontinue this section that has thrived on good-humoured prank calls.

The reason: “I’m deeply disturbed on hearing about the death of a nurse in the United Kingdom because of a prank call made by two Australian radio jockeys. The ‘crosstalk’ in my shows follows requests by friends and families of the people involved. It goes on air only after permission is obtained from those directly involved. Touch wood. So far, I have brought smiles to people’s faces without offending anyone. Crosstalk has earned me accolades, but, after this tragic incident, I feel I should discontinue this segment. After all, it (Crosstalk) is just a show. I will definitely find an alternative way of keeping my listeners entertained. God Bless.”

As the tragic story involving the world’s oldest monarchy, another nation, a world in absolute shock and questions about radio ethics, broke, RJ Dheena, a voice heard since the inception of private radio stations in Chennai, conducted a special session for the students at his Academy of Radio Studies.

“Can there be a better illustration of the responsibilities that rest with radio jockeys? Of the effect a careless attitude can have on people?” says Dheena. “Speaking for myself, I am not for prank calls, especially ones that make unsuspecting people sound stupid. Look at this situation. You are drawing someone into a conversation and he is oblivious to the fact that lakhs of people are privy to it. There is something clearly not right about it.”

Says Balaji: “This incident will be on my mind every time I make a prank call. Despite extreme precautions, there is always a possibility that you’ll hurt someone out there. Why give room for it? Especially, after such a tragic story!”

RJ Ajai Titus, on Chennai’s airwaves since 2003 when the FM door was opened to private players, has made “a conscious decision” not to do any prank-call shows. “Just to improve your ratings, you can’t offer humour at someone else’s cost,” says Ajai. “The other person is just a call away, and may appear to be just a voice. But he may be going through a life event, dealing with the critical illness of a loved one or, worse, bereavement. When you make a prank call, you may be adding to his stress.”

Thumb rule

Ajay believes it will help to have this thumb rule: anything that makes someone look stupid, catches him unawares or causes distress can’t be good humour. “RJs can engage in self-deprecating humour. RJ Shiva (who is now a Kollywood actor) and I presented a programme called Radio Rettaival, where we directed our barbs of humour at each other,” says Ajai, who hosts Hello Chennai on Radio Mirchi.

Given this eye-opening incident, is it advisable to regulate prank call shows? Or, is it better to ban them altogether?

“There is a world of difference between being told to stop something and stopping something on your own,” says Balaji. “The initiative has to come from the RJs themselves.”

“Educating RJs that their words could mean life and death, peace and discord is half the battle won. Radio is more sensitive than any other medium. Words can hurt. When unaccompanied by images, words can sink in faster and hurt deeper. A sleazy song on television will appear more acceptable than a sleazy talk on radio. The fact that news is currently not allowed to be aired on private radio stations speaks for the sensitive nature of the medium. In the third phase of licensing, the private stations are expected to be given the right to broadcast news, but only what they have bought from All India Radio,” says Dheena.

Unless there is a ban, it is unrealistic to expect every RJ and radio station across the globe to call off their prank call shows. If the prank calls have to continue, a few guidelines will help. Balaji shares the self-imposed rules he followed during Crosstalk.

“Make calls only to people nominated by their friends or families. No revenge calls. Prior to the show, I would get mails and messages, some from people who would want a prank call played on someone they want to get back at. The RJ has to trash such requests. Apologise and hang up, when you realise the other person in not in a good mood. If the conversation goes well, seek permission from the person involved to air the conversation or upload it on the Internet. If he agrees first, but has second thoughts, take it off the air or the Internet.”

Dheena, Ajai and Balaji offer an alternative way out of the problem, a less cumbersome one: “Don’t make prank calls! An RJ can survive without them!”

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