Let’s start with the health warning, this piece has the potential to offend, I will be making light of prank phone calls and death. Although writing this was inspired by the recent tragic circumstances of nurse Jacintha Saldanha following the 2Day Fm prank call, I’m actually going to take a sideways look at the topic of prank calls.

There has been much written about the incident, a particularly interesting one from local radio jurno, turned academic, Richard Horsman. He takes the view that the the Prank Call is Not Big, Not Clever, Not Funny.  In the hoo-ha that followed the events after the call, it seems that the default position any right thinking person should take is to denounce Wind-Up phone calls as being beyond the pale and anyone who has ever taken part in one, or listened and enjoyed should be summarily shot for being morally corrupt.

Well I’m going to defend the prank call, I’ll side step the argument as to if they are “out of date”, after all fashions do tend to be cyclic in nature, but I do think there is a place for the wind-up call. Or at least I’m defending ‘some’ prank calls.

I’ve not too much of an issue where there is prank calling going on between consenting adults. Take the classic scenario when the radio jock solicits nominations for ‘victims’ from their listeners. So some punter nominates his ‘mate down the pub’ for a wind up call. Call is recorded with the reveal at the end of the call followed by getting required ‘permissions’ to broadcast. It might not be the most high brow form of entertainment and of course there is room for things to go wrong in this set-up, but on balance the end result is everyone is “in on the joke” and little harm is done.

Here’s a nice example with a twist of such a wind up call, in this recording from 1993 of North West wind-up merchant Mike Toolan on Red Rose Rock FM, where the audience turned the tables on Toolan:


There are some prank calls which I won’t defend. These are the ones where the prankster targets ‘innocent’ people for the sake of a cheap laugh. This is not their mate playing a good humoured practical joke.

I see the 2Day FM prank kinda falling into this camp. A bit like the old Steve Penk wind-up phone calls to American hotels, but with a lot less justification. Sure Penk taking the proverbial out of an unsuspecting state side receptionist, whose job it is to handle the weirdos, is one thing, but the royal Hospital prank is stooping even lower.

What broadcaster in their right mind would take a hospital as a location for a wind-up phone call? It sounds right up the street of caricature hospital radio DJ Ivan Brackenberry:


For the impatient the section in question is nine minutes into this recording of Tom Binns’ comic creation from 2006. The genius of the Brackenberry character is the classic comic technique of exaggeration to the nth degree the mannerisms of real people. Anyone who has worked in radio will recognise parts of Ivan in people they’ve met. The comedy works on multiple levels, there’s all sorts of ‘Dave double decks’ clichés the radio bods get, plus the universal language of inappropriateness.

When I first downloaded this audio six years ago I thought that a hospital as target for a prank call could only happen in the surreal comic world of a fictional character.

Down the line I now find myself comparing the actions of “radio professionals” to an outrageous fictional character, does fiction reflect reality or reality mirror fiction?

Is Ivan Brackenberry in bad taste? Is the 2DayFM prank call bad taste? Is it just me in bad taste comparing the two?

I’ll leave you with link to a blog post from Sam Ikin that’s on a related subject, but somewhat more sobering, Let’s all take a deep breath.


Photo Credits: “Something in the wind has learned my name” by Daniel Oines