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Is everyone laughing?

Priyanka Sharma  |  New Delhi 

Pulling a prank can be dangerous business as two found out last month. Priyanka Sharma looks into what do to ensure their practical jokes don’t get them into trouble

A few weeks ago, an unsuspecting woman in Delhi received a call. On the other line was a man speaking in a heavy Urdu accent, repeatedly referring to her as his loving wife “Mehjabeen”. When she insisted he was mistaken, he claimed to be working in Qatar; he wanted to speak to his wife but had dialed her number by mistake. Just when she was about to hang up, the man began sobbing profusely, coaxing her to pretend for a few minutes that she was, in fact, his wife since he had but a few rupees left on his calling card. A few weeks later, seated inside the studio, radio jockey plays the clip for Business Standard — hilarity ensues as the woman, evidently full of sympathy for the lonely husband thousands of miles away from home, takes on the identity of his wife to placate him.

“While some abuse me, some have a sense of humour and even empathy,” says Naved, the chirpy host of “Mirchi Murga”, a call-up segment on where the jock amuses, fools, brings to tears, and at times imparts social messages to many unsuspecting listeners in Delhi. “I ensure they don’t hang up before I get a reaction,” he says in between fits of laughter. And for that, he puts on distinct accents and creates implausible scenarios.

Recently, a radio prank played by two popular made headlines for all the wrong reasons. In early December, Sydney-based announcers and made a hoax call to a London hospital pretending to be and Prince Charles asking for details about the condition of the pregnant Kate Middleton. A few days later, Jacinta Saldanha, a 46-year-old nurse of Indian origin, was found dead in the staff quarters near London’s King Edward VII hospital. Apparently, she’d put the call through to the colleague who had unwittingly disclosed details of the Duchess of Cambridge’s morning sickness to the RJs. A recording of the call, broadcast repeatedly by the station, went viral online and was reprinted as a transcript in many newspapers. 2Day FM’s parent company Southern Cross Austereo received over 1,000 complaints from outraged Australians over the incident — the popular presenters have been taken off air after an investigation by the broadcasting watchdog. Rhys Holleran, chief executive of Southern Cross Austereo, was reported as saying that the station called the hospital five times to discuss what it had recorded before going on air; the hospital has reportedly said that it was not contacted by Austereo before the broadcast.

Indian radio jockeys, especially popular pranksters, are confident that such an incident could never happen in India. They’re cautious about how they deal with listeners and the nature of their gags, they say. Sensing the public outcry over the Australian hoax call, some radio stations are playing it safe, at least for the time being. RJ Balaji, the host of “Crosstalk”, a popular call-up segment on Big FM, announced on his Facebook page that he would discontinue prank calls.

Radio producers and jockeys walk a tight rope and continue to push the boundaries, hoping that listeners will play along. While numbers are hard to come by to gauge listenership of prank calls alone, private radio channels like Mirchi and Red FM receive over 20,000 requests for pranks in a day via phone or on their Facebook pages, a number that has gone up in the last few months — it is these requests that serve as their safety blanket in case of a prank gone wrong.

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All radio channels fall under the ambit of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and must adhere to the All India Radio Code of Conduct which lays out detailed guidelines prohibiting “criticism of friendly countries, attack on any religion or community, anything obscene or defamatory”, among other restrictions. As for pranks, there is no specific guideline that regulates their nature and content. It is up to radio channels, then, to enforce internal guidelines. Mirchi, for instance, says programming head (Delhi) Akash Banerjee, has always had a policy against imitation of public figures in pranks or otherwise. To avoid allegations of impersonation or defamation, “We don’t imitate anyone, be it the prime minister or the Queen of England,” he stresses. “Officials from the I&B ministry often drop in for surprise checks to ensure we’re not broadcasting news.” According to government guidelines, All India Radio is the only channel allowed to broadcast news in India.

But on radio pranks, there seems currently to be no regulation from the ministry. Speaking about the Australian hoax call, an official from the Association of Radio Operators for India says, “No RJ in India would ever play a prank like that. We give radio channels freedom to decide their content. They always inform the listener at the end that it was just a prank.”

The most important element of a prank call, insists RJ Malishka, host of “Morning No 1” on Red FM in Mumbai, is research to find out some character traits and habits of the person at the other end of the line. For her popular segment “Shendi”, Malishka comes up with quirky ideas — convincing a jeweller to make a replica of the Kohinoor diamond for a “khufiya operation”, or ringing up a butcher pretending to be a super-rich Sheikh’s wife whose priceless solitaire ring has been swallowed by a goat. “But before pranking someone, I find out from his/her friend if the person is shy, if he/she gets angry easily and if he/she is depressed for any reason,” she says. “After years of experience on radio, you know when to draw a line and what kind of shendis to pull.”

She cites one instance: a caller spoke of his close bond with his doting mother-in-law, who “would do anything for him”, and requested Malishka to fool her into believing that he had died while crossing the railway tracks! Knowing well the kind of extreme reactions such a prank could incite, Malishka refused to go ahead with it. Instead, she tweaked his request. “I called up the mother-in-law and said that he had been arrested for crossing railway tracks...the prank eventually had a social message in it.” But even this prank went awry as the woman hung up on Malishka and ran out the door to bail out her son-in-law. “We had to make him call her and stop her,” she says with a laugh.

“While pranks tend to go overboard sometimes, I know how to placate the listener. Even if I have to call him/her 20 times, I will do it till he/she knows it was just a prank.” While she might call Mayawati’s Public Relations Officer (who hung up on her in a minute) to ask about her birthday celebrations, she also follows up concerns of listeners with a Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority officer, she adds.

“We initiate prank calls only on being approached by listeners,” highlights 93.5 Red FM Senior vice-president (programming and projects) Nisha Narayanan. “We always have a fun premise for prank calls. We never make prank calls which may offend on the basis of caste, creed, religion or colour. We stay away from any call which gives people false hopes about their dreams or ambitions.” Narayanan adds that the channel never indulges in pranks which have an element of crime in them. “We would never call a listener saying that a loved one has been kidnapped, and we are the kidnappers.”

But does a radio jockey, at times, take a prank too far? “RJs are capable of judging and deciding when to stop and end the prank by divulging the name of the person who requested the prank. Getting a reaction from the subject denotes an ‘effective’ prank call, though how much further one takes it is an art only good communicators possess,” says Narayanan.

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Placating an irate listener can be difficult at times. Colourful curses, angry abuses, tears, and even threats to cause bodily harm are everyday reactions. “Some subjects get very angry and threaten to cut the call right away. Some even threaten to take the caller to the cops,” admits RJ Peeyuush, who co-hosts the call-up segment “Band Bajega” with RJ Swati on Red FM in Delhi. “We have to take their anger with a pinch of salt and ensure that we play it [the prank] tactfully and drive the phone call in a particular direction to get a reaction from the subject.”

In live programming and broadcast, even an idle remark or a spontaneous joke can get RJs into trouble. In 2007, Delhi-based Red FM was banned for a week for airing an allegedly racist remark against Gorkhas after Darjeeling boy Prashant Tamang was crowned Indian Idol. The radio jockey in question was Nitin, who had reportedly said, “If chowkidars are the Indian Idols then where from we are to obtain chowkidars” (sic). His remark sparked off violence in Siliguri and strikes in Kalimpong and Sukna. The I&B Ministry served a show-cause notice on the station following a complaint from Gorkhas and the West Bengal government. Now popularly known as “Khurafati Nitin” on Fever FM (run by HT Media), the radio jockey and the channel said that they were unable to be a part of this article.

Is there a need for more stringent regulation? “The backbone of radio is spontaneous engagement,” believes Ramnath Bhat, vice-president, Community Radio Forum India. “While what happened in London is unfortunate, we cannot hold all radio channels ransom to this one incident and set norms accordingly,” he believes. “Pranks, jokes and jests are a large part of the cultural freedom enjoyed by radio channels...stifling this would mean killing the medium.”

Sajan Venniyoor, a member of Community Radio Forum India, says, “RJs must engage and hold the attention of listeners despite not being able to broadcast news. Pranks, thus, become central to a channel’s popularity.” The I&B Ministry, he adds, issues regular warnings in form of “advisories” to monitor content. While there hasn’t been any guideline warning channels to regulate their pranks after the death of the nurse in London, an advisory dated October 15, 2012 on the ministry’s website says, “It has been noticed that the language used by many Radio Jockeys is indecent and offensive. They often make defamatory and derogatory statements, particularly in night hours, which do not appear to be in good taste.”

“I would never say on radio, what I wouldn’t say in reality,” says RJ of Mirchi. “If I so much as sense that the listener might hurt himself because of my prank, I would stop it there and then. My radio persona is an extension of my real personality.” Banerjee of Mirchi adds, “Once the RJ enters the studio, he dons an invisible cloak of responsibility and knows his limits — this helps him fight close shaves with trouble.”

remembers a prank call which had the potential to turn ugly. On a listener’s request, he called up a man who, he was told, had sold off his mother’s jewellery to spend on sex workers. Naved recorded a conversation with his parents who had no idea about their son’s activities and doted on him. On ringing up the man pretending to have the police with him, Naved realised, just in time, that the prank could get the man into trouble if he revealed too much. So while he omitted the sobbing man’s identity, Naved advised him to mend his ways —on air. “While I can’t guarantee he stopped, I would like to believe that I made him think about his actions.”

First Published: Sat, January 19 2013. 00:43 IST