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The Lawyers Ruined Radio


Who hasn’t heard the expression “Lawyers ruined radio?” Usually, it is spoken after you’ve been turned down for a promotion that you wanted to execute, the rejection of a talent or seller you wanted to hire, or an appearance that you wanted to execute has been deemed inappropriate for the station. My joke with the corporate attorneys was always “I think that I can handle this. I watch Law & Order, LA Law, The Goodwife and Boston Legal. I got this.” A pun usually answered with a chuckle from the counselor I was meeting with at that moment.


The legal department is there to protect everyone from themselves. Protecting the contestants, the winner, the radio company, the station employees and participating advertisers. Given the litigious nature of our business, you have to think through every possible aspect of what could go wrong and then account for it or prepare for it.


I’ve had my share of radio mishaps over the years. WAKY/Louisville sponsored and presented the Wacky Ramblin’ Raft Race every spring. A race of homemade rafts on the Ohio River. We were surprised when someone drowned. We shouldn’t have been. People were duck taping plastic milk jugs together and using them as rafts. A morning talent at KSFM/Sacramento decided to live on a billboard until a certain pro team won a game to snap a losing streak. They fell off the billboard in the middle of the night and shattered both legs.


Then there are “contests gone bad.” WMYI/Greenville, SC executed the tried and true “Key Song Contest” to giveaway a boat. They didn’t announce that the first key to start the boat won it. They just said “If your key starts the boat, you win it.” All of the keys were cut to start the boat. They gave away more than one boat that day. Similarly, a station that I once consulted in Atlanta gave away 6 Mazda Miata’s. We now make sure the rules say “The first key …”


“Events gone wild” is another favorite of mine. One station that I consulted threw a party to celebrate #1 ratings and #1 sales. A physical fight with punches thrown broke out between sales and programming. So much for esprit de corps. Many remember the Who concert in Cincinnati where 11 people were trampled to death. That was a concert where many stations gave away tickets to contest winners. It’s events like these where an ounce of preparation prevents a pound of problems.


Contests have to be legal. Claims have to be real. Radio most of the way through the 90s was like the AMC Television show Madmen. Saying the word “chance” seemed to be the icing on a burnt cake and emboldened stations that giveaway chances to win while making them sound as if the prize was actually awarded. Radio stations have been fined for falsehoods around promotions and several have lost their licenses in years past. Not to mention the class action suits against major broadcast companies for presenting group contests without checking the variance in state laws.


The first contest rules date back to the Communications act of 1934. The Federal Communications Commission “Contest Rule” still applies to television and radio broadcasters and their sponsors. The Contest Rule provides that it is illegal to “predetermine or prearrange” the outcome of a contest or to broadcast a “predetermined or prearranged” contest. That’s the easy-to-understand part. What comes after that can be challenging to follow and a real chore to explain to the audience.


Contest rules need to be detailed specifically. Should show the odds of winning. Need to be presented on-air, online, and have a copy available to the air-talent and at the front desk … if you have a bricks and mortar location. Contests themselves cannot be a lottery. A lottery is when you have chance, consideration and prize. Consideration means that someone pays or invests a payment or expense to play and potentially win.


The checklist for contest rules contains the following; Eligibility. Contest or sweepstakes period. How to enter. How to win aka winner selection. Verification of the potential winner. Prize/s. Entry conditions and release from claims. Publicity and the right to use the winners name, likeness and voice. Taxes. Prize awarding/pick-up of prize. General Conditions. Limitations of liability. Disputes. The contestant’s personal information. Sweepstakes results. A hold harmless release.


Think about what can go wrong and plan for it to prevent it. Once your promotion or event is set in stone, meet with your staff and share the details with them, so that there is no confusion. Be sure that your team knows the dos and don’ts of every contest, promotion and event. Be sure that your employees know that they and their family is not eligible to play.


The items here are just the tip of the iceberg. We need lawyers, their experience and position, to look out for us and protect us. Their conservative nature is purposeful so that something that was meant to be fun doesn’t turn into something that’s quite the opposite. Please know that I don’t profess to be an attorney. Although as stated, I watch Law & Order, LA Law, The Goodwife and Boston Legal.

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