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The Best (and Worst) April Fool's Hoaxes Ever--Radio Division

With thanks to the Museum of Hoaxes, here are the best April Fool's hoaxes of all time involving radio stations, followed by the two radio-instigated hoaxes that made the museum's 10 Worst list:

(Today's Listener column--on the jump below--looks at some of the great April Fool's tricks played on the radio.)

All text here taken from the Museum of Hoaxes' master list. For their complete directory of great hoaxes, go here.

#6: In 1992 National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation program announced that Richard Nixon, in a surprise move, was running for President again. His new campaign slogan was, "I didn't do anything wrong, and I won't do it again." Accompanying this announcement were audio clips of Nixon delivering his candidacy speech. Listeners responded viscerally to the announcement, flooding the show with calls expressing shock and outrage. Only during the second half of the show did the host John Hockenberry reveal that the announcement was a practical joke. Nixon's voice was impersonated by comedian Rich Little.

#25: In 1949 Phil Shone, a New Zealand deejay for radio station 1ZB, announced to his listeners that a mile-wide wasp swarm was headed towards Auckland. He urged them to take a variety of steps to protect themselves and their homes from the winged menace. For instance, he suggested that they wear their socks over their trousers when they left for work, and that they leave honey-smeared traps outside their doors. Hundreds of people dutifully heeded his advice, until he finally admitted that it had all been a joke. The New Zealand Broadcasting Service was not amused by Shone's prank. Its director, Professor James Shelley, denounced the hoax on the grounds that it undermined the rules of proper broadcasting. From then on, a memo was sent out each year before April Fool's Day reminding New Zealand radio stations of their obligation to report the truth, and nothing but the truth.

#28:
In 1979 London's Capital Radio announced that Operation Parallax would soon go into effect. This was a government plan to resynchronize the British calendar with the rest of the world. It was explained that ever since 1945 Britain had gradually become 48 hours ahead of all other countries because of the constant switching back and forth from British Summer Time. To remedy this situation, the British government had decided to cancel April 5 and 12 that year. Capital Radio received numerous calls as a result of this announcement. One employer wanted to know if she had to pay her employees for the missing days.

#30:

In 1993 Dave Rickards, a deejay at KGB-FM in San Diego, announced that the space shuttle Discovery had been diverted from Edwards Air Force Base and would instead soon be landing at Montgomery Field, a small airport located in the middle of a residential area just outside of San Diego. Thousands of commuters immediately headed towards the landing site, causing enormous traffic jams that lasted for almost an hour. Police eventually had to be called in to clear the traffic. People arrived at the airport armed with cameras, camcorders, and even folding chairs. Reportedly the crowd swelled to over 1,000 people. Of course, the shuttle never landed. In fact, the Montgomery Field airport would have been far too small for the shuttle to even consider landing there. Moreover, there wasn't even a shuttle in orbit at the time. The police were not amused by the prank. They announced that they would be billing the radio station for the cost of forcing officers to direct the traffic.

#33:
In 2001 Michael Enright, host of the Sunday Edition of the Canadian Broadcasting Corpation's radio program This Morning, interviewed former President Jimmy Carter on the air. The interview concerned Canada's heavily subsidized softwood lumber industry, about which Carter had recently written an editorial piece in The New York Times. The interview took a turn for the worse when Enright began telling Carter to speed up his answers. Then Enright asked, "I think the question on everyone's mind is, how did a washed-up peanut farmer from Hicksville such as yourself get involved in such a sophisticated bilateral trade argument?" Carter seemed stunned by the insult. Finally he replied, "Excuse me? A washed-up peanut farmer? You're one to talk, sir. Didn't you used to be on the air five times a week?" The tone of the interview did not improve from there. Carter ended up calling Enright a "rude person" before he hung up. Enright then revealed that the interview had been fake. The Toronto comedian Ray Landry had been impersonating Carter's voice. The interview generated a number of angry calls from listeners who didn't find the joke funny. But the next day the controversy reached even larger proportions when the Globe and Mail reported the interview as fact on their front pages.

#37:

In 1973 BBC Radio broadcast an interview with an elderly academic, Dr. Clothier, who discoursed on the government's efforts to stop the spread of Dutch Elm Disease. Dr. Clothier described some startling discoveries that had been made about the tree disease. For instance, he referred to the research of Dr. Emily Lang of the London School of Pathological and Environmental Medicine. Dr. Lang had apparently found that exposure to Dutch Elm Disease immunized people to the common cold. Unfortunately, there was a side effect. Exposure to the disease also caused red hair to turn yellow and eventually fall out. This was attributed to a similarity between the blood count of redheads and the soil conditions in which affected trees grew. Therefore, redheads were advised to stay away from forests for the foreseeable future. Dr. Clothier was in reality the comedian Spike Milligan.

#38:
In 1959, as Hawaii was being admitted into the Union as the 50th state, a Hawaiian radio station announced that Congress had passed an amendment to the Statehood Bill refunding all federal income taxes that the Pacific Islanders had paid during the previous year. Thousands of people believed the announcement, and the backlash when they realized that there was no refund coming their way was enormous.

#39:
In 1999 the Today program on BBC Radio 4 announced that the British National anthem ("God Save the Queen") was to be replaced by a Euro Anthem sung in German. The new anthem, which Today played for their listeners, used extracts from Beethoven's music and was sung by pupils of a German school in London. Reportedly, Prince Charles's office telephoned Radio 4 to ask them for a copy of the new anthem. St. James Palace later insisted that it had been playing along with the prank and had never been taken in by it.

#41:

In 1993 Westdeutsche Rundfunk, a German radio station, announced that officials in Cologne had just passed an unusual new city regulation. Joggers going through the park would be required to pace themselves to go no faster than six mph. Any faster, it was felt, would unnecessarily disturb the squirrels who were in the middle of their mating season.

#55:

In 2004 National Public Radio's All Things Considered announced that the post office had begun a new 'portable zip codes' program. This program, inspired by an FCC ruling that allowed phone users to take their phone number with them when they moved, would allow people to also take their zip code with them when they moved, no matter where they moved to. It was hoped that with this new program zip codes would come to symbolize "a citizen's place in the demographic, rather than geographic, landscape." Assistant Postmaster General Lester Crandall was quoted as saying, "Every year millions of Americans are on the go: People who must relocate for work or other reasons. Those people may have been quite attached to their original homes or an adopted town or city of residence. For them this innovative measure will serve as an umbilical cord to the place they love best."

#56:

In 1999 a Canadian radio station, in conjunction with Warner Music and Universal Music Group, informed its listeners that the arrival of Y2K would render all CD players unable to read music discs created before the year 2000. Luckily, the deejay said, there was a solution. Hologram stickers were available that would enable CD players to read the old-format discs. These stickers would be sold for approximately $2 apiece. Furious listeners, outraged at the thought of having to pay $2 for the stickers, immediately jammed the phones of both the radio station and the record companies, demanding that the stickers be given away for free. They continued to call even after the radio station revealed that the announcement was a joke.

#60:

In 1972 listeners to England's Radio 3 program In Parenthesis were treated to a roundtable discussion of a few cutting-edge new works of social anthropology and musicology. First up was a discussion of La Fornication Comme Une Acte Culturelle by Henri Mensonge (translated as Henry Lie). This book argued that "we live in an age of metaphorical rape" in which "confrontation, assault, intrusion, and exposure are becoming validated transactions, the rites of democracy, of mass society." This sparked a blisteringly incomprehensible debate, which eventually segued into an exploration of the question "Is 'Is' Is?" Finally, the audience heard a rousing deconstruction of the 'arch form' of the sonata's first motif. Listeners seemed to accept the program's discussion as a legitimate exploration of new trends in the arts. Thankfully, it was a parody.

#68:
In 1994 National Public Radio's All Things Considered program reported that companies such as Pepsi were sponsoring teenagers to tattoo their ears with corporate logos. In return for branding themselves with the corporate symbol, the teenagers would receive a lifetime 10% discount on that company's products. Teenagers were said to be responding enthusiastically to this deal.

#70:

In 1998 hundreds showed up in Baltimore's Inner Harbor hoping to receive some free gold. They had heard on WQSR's morning show that a box full of gold coins had been found hidden inside the decking of the old sailing vessel the Constellation, which was on display at the harbor. After using some of the gold to pay for repairs to the ship, the management of the Constellation Restoration Committee had decided to give the rest away to Maryland residents. Anyone showing up with a valid Maryland driver's license would be given a free gold coin. And show up they did, many driving miles to get there (and paying to park at the harbor, in addition). In fact, the Constellation Restoration Committee hadn't existed for over twenty years.

#74:

In 1975 the famous naturalist David Attenborough reported on BBC Radio 3 about a group of islands in the Pacific known as the Sheba Islands. He played sound recordings of the island's fauna, including a recording of an alleged night-singing tree mouse called the Musendrophilus. He also described a species whose webbed feet were prized by inhabitants of the island as reeds for musical instruments. Unfortunately, the night-singing tree mice were merely products of Attenborough's imagination, perhaps inspired by that old yarn about the Tree Squeaks, that North American species which lives high in the trees and squeaks every time the wind blows.

#75:

On March 31, 1940 the Franklin Institute issued a press release stating that the world would end the next day. The release was picked up by radio station KYW which broadcast the following message: "Your worst fears that the world will end are confirmed by astronomers of Franklin Institute, Philadelphia. Scientists predict that the world will end at 3 P.M. Eastern Standard Time tomorrow. This is no April Fool joke. Confirmation can be obtained from Wagner Schlesinger, director of the Fels Planetarium of this city." The public reaction was immediate. Local authorities were flooded with frantic phone calls. The panic only subsided after the Franklin Institute assured people that it had made no such prediction. The prankster responsible for the press release turned out to be William Castellini, the Institute's press agent. He had intended to use the fake release to publicize an April 1st lecture at the institute titled "How Will the World End?" Soon afterwards, the Institute dismissed Castellini.

#92:

In 1987 a Los Angeles disc jockey announced that on April 8 the LA highway system would be shut down for repairs for an entire month. This was alarming news in LA where it's necessary to use the highway to get almost anywhere. The radio station immediately received hundreds of frantic calls in response to the announcement, and the California Highway Patrol reported that they were also flooded with calls throughout the day. The station later admitted that it was stunned by the intensity of the public reaction to the hoax. A representative from the California Department of Transportation called the station's managers to share their opinion of the prank. Reportedly "they didn't think it was very funny."

#97:

Carolyn Fox, a disc jockey for WHJY in Providence, Rhode Island, announced in 1986 that the 'Providence Labor Action Relations Board Committee' had decided to close the city for the day. She gave out a number for listeners to call for more information. The number was that of a rival station, WPRO-AM. Reportedly hundreds of people called WPRO, as well as City Hall and the police. Even more called into their offices to see if they had to go into work. WHJY management later explained that it had never imagined its joke would have such a dramatic impact on the city.

#100:

In 1977 the BBC gave airtime to Tom Jackson, General Secretary of the British Union of Post Office Workers. Mr. Jackson was up in arms about a recent proposal that the British mail adopt the German method of addressing envelopes in which the house number is written after the name of the road, not before it (i.e. Downing Street 10, instead of 10 Downing Street). Jackson spoke at great length about the enormous burden this change would place upon postal employees, insisting that "Postal workers would be furious because it would turn upside-down the way we have learned to sort." His comments elicited an immediate reaction from the audience, many of whom phoned up to voice their support for Jackson's campaign. What the audience didn't realize was that there were no plans to change the way the British addressed their mail. Mr. Jackson's diatribe was an elaborate April Fool's Day joke.

And from the 10 worst April Fool's hoaxes of all time list, the two perpetuated by radio stations...

#8:

In 1986 Israel Radio broadcast that Nabih Berri, leader of the Shi'ite Amal movement, had been assassinated. The news caused an immediate flare-up of tensions in the region. However, Israeli officials quickly denounced the report as a hoax. The false report was traced back to an army intelligence officer who had planted the news item in the broadcasts of the Israeli Army's intelligence monitoring unit, from which it had been picked up by Israel Radio. Apparently the officer had meant it as an April Fool's joke (because hey, nothing says funny like stirring up tension in the Middle-East). Israel's Defence Minister, Yitzhak Rabin, announced that the unnamed officer would be court-martialed. "Berri Berri funny," one foreign correspondent wryly commented.

(In the category of 'really bad fake death reports' one must also note the time in 1998 when Boston DJ's Opie and Anthony announced that the mayor of Boston, Tom Menino, had died in a car crash. Because City Hall couldn't immediately reach the Mayor to confirm that he was actually alive, many believed the report, including members of the Mayor's family. The next day Opie and Anthony were suspended without pay.)

#9:

In 1999 DJs at Oregon radio station KSJJ announced that the Ochoco dam had burst, threatening downstream areas with massive flooding. What made the warning believable was that hundreds of houses in these areas had been damaged the previous year when the Ochoco Creek had flooded, so terrified homeowners who heard the news quickly prepared to flee. Later the DJs informed their listeners that it was all a joke. They had just been 'having a little fun'. The homeowners were not amused.

(In the same genre of non-funny disaster warnings, there's also WNOR's 1992 April 1st report in which it warned that a large build-up of methane gas was about to cause a fiery explosion at Mount Trashmore, a landfill near Virginia Beach. Residents were warned to evacuate the area, causing the local 911 to be flooded with calls. The DJs responsible for the prank were suspended without pay for two weeks.)

In 1940, in Philadelphia, a PR man at the Franklin Institute put out a press release announcing that the world would end the next day, April 1. When radio station KYW reported the news, helpfully including the exact time at which all life would cease -- 3 p.m. -- the authorities were besieged with calls from panicked listeners.

The panic didn't ease until the institute announced that its press agent had put out the release in a misguided effort to publicize a lecture titled "How Will the World End?" The institute sacked its PR man, but the tradition of April Fools' pranks on the radio was just starting.

Newspapers and television tend to steer clear of April Fools' stories, fearful of undermining their credibility or creating mass alarm. But radio stations have long charged ahead with pranks delightful and dangerous.

Radio pranks, many of which are catalogued at the online Museum of Hoaxes ( http://www.museumofhoaxes.com), fall into a handful of categories.

? Impending disaster: In 1949, in New Zealand, a deejay for station 1ZB announced that a mile-wide swarm of wasps was headed toward Auckland, but said listeners could protect themselves by putting their socks over their pants and placing honey-smeared traps outside their front doors. Hundreds of listeners followed the directions before discovering they'd been punk'd.

Similarly, in 1986, a deejay at WHJY in Providence, R.I., told listeners that the city's Labor Action Relations Board Committee had decided to close the city for the day. For more information, the deejay said, listeners could call a number, which just happened to be that of a rival station, which was swamped.

But when deejays at KSJJ in Bend, Ore., announced in 1999 that the Ochoco Dam had burst, the memory of hundreds of houses having been damaged a year earlier was too fresh: Panicked residents were already getting ready to take flight when the station admitted its report was a joke.

? Fake deaths: In 1998, radio bad boys Opie and Anthony -- now heard on XM Satellite Radio and on WJFK here -- were based in Boston, where they announced that Mayor Thomas Menino had died in a car crash. Even some members of the mayor's family believed the story. The radio duo were suspended without pay after that one.

? Curious crops and other agricultural oddities: Recently, National Public Radio, which has developed a consistently inventive tradition of April Fools' stories, produced a persuasive piece portraying the passions and predilections of pickle farmers. NPR also relied on nature's bounty for a report by Robert Siegel on Vermont maple trees that were exploding because farmers didn't relieve them of their syrup content after low-carb diets suppressed customer demand for the sweet stuff.

NPR producers have a knack for finding phony stories that sneak right up to the edge of credibility. In 1994, "All Things Considered" reported on teenagers who agreed to tattoo their ears with corporate advertising in exchange for a lifelong 10 percent discount on the company's products. NPR has presented April 1 reports on dog-bark translation software, the abuse of performance-enhancing steroids by classical violinists and a U.S. Postal Service program that would allow Americans to take their Zip code with them when they moved.

? Preposterous government edicts: In 1987, Los Angeles deejay Steve Morris went on KRTH and delivered word that all of Southern California's major interstate highways would close entirely for a month for nonstop repairs. The state transportation department, unamused by the storm of calls from worried citizens, demanded that the station pull the bogus story, which it did after a few hours.

The BBC gave April 1 airtime to a postal workers union leader, who was riled about a proposal that Britain adopt Germany's way of addressing envelopes -- putting the house number after the street name instead of before. The more the union man went on about this appalling alteration and the mess it would cause as postal workers tried to relearn their jobs, the more listeners called the station to express outrage over the imposition of foreign and inferior methods.

In 1993, German radio reported on a new regulation in Cologne, where joggers in city parks henceforth would be limited to a speed of 6 mph. The rule was passed on behalf of the park's squirrels, whose mating might otherwise be disturbed.

NPR's gags tend to take listeners to remote corners to visit unusual characters. But in 1992, "Talk of the Nation" host John Hockenberry reported that Richard Nixon was coming out of retirement to run for president. The report included audio of Nixon defiantly averring that "I didn't do anything wrong, and I won't do it again." NPR included comments on the surprise announcement by Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe and Newsweek reporter Howard Fineman. Callers jammed the show's phone lines to deliver themselves of their outrage that the disgraced ex-president would consider such a comeback. Hockenberry waited until the show's second hour to reveal that what the Nixon listeners had heard was actually impressionist Rich Little.

Only rarely have radio April Fools' gags turned the tables on the medium itself. In 2001, on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. morning newscast, anchor Michael Enright asked former president Jimmy Carter about Canada's lumber industry. But as Carter tried to respond, the anchorman rudely interrupted with entreaties for the president to speed up his answers. Enright broke in again to ask: "How did a washed-up peanut farmer from Hicksville such as yourself get involved in such a sophisticated bilateral trade argument?" Carter and Enright exchanged unseemly insults before the president finally hung up on the interviewer.

Although Enright quickly revealed that a comedian had been impersonating Carter, the segment sparked calls from more than 600 listeners appalled that the interviewer would be so rude. And Toronto's Globe and Mail reported the interview on its front page in all seriousness, demonstrating once again why newspapers should probably stay out of the April Fools' business.

By Marc Fisher |  April 1, 2007; 5:51 AM ET
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The British seem to have a particular flair for this kind of April Fool's hoaxing. Back in mid 1950s, BBC television aired a documentary about the spaghetti harvest in Italy, showing happy Italians plucking limp strands of pasta from trees and drying them in the sun prior to boxing and shipping. What made the whole joke really work was that the voiceover for the documentary was done by Richard Dimbleby, then the BBC's leading news voice. Imagine CBS doing something similar with Walter Cronkite and you can imagine the impact this had--but at least it was benign. No "pranks" about floods, explosions, or imminent catastrophe.

Posted by: Jack | April 2, 2007 9:11 AM

No recitation of radio hoaxes is complete without mention of the granddaddy of all broadcast hoaxes - Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds."

To be sure it aired on Halloween, not April 1, but it had all the elements of the genre: just enough authenticity to be believable, but in the end laughably transparent.

For those who've never heard it, Orson Welles' adaptation of the H.G. Wells story re-located the narrative to New Jersey, lacing the script with references to real places - Plainsboro, Raymond Boulevard - even if CBS censors insisted that the announcement by President Roosevelt be changed to the "Secretary of the Interior." (They got around that by having actor Kenny Kelmar put on his best FDR voice anyway.) Also, many listeners joined the program a few minutes late and missed the opening announcement. Add the fact that the news was full of pre-war jitters from Europe, and you get a awful lot of people who honestly thought we were on the losing end of an invading army from Mars.

Posted by: ArtC | April 2, 2007 9:56 PM

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