On Monday we learned about a curious new venture from Premiere Radio Networks that offers radio shows "voice talent to take/make your on-air calls"—in other words, fake talk-radio callers.
And then we heard from a few folks in the business, and it turns out this is a thing! All of wacky morning drive-time radio, apparently, is populated by voice actors pretending to be jilted lovers—or in at least one instance, an aviation expert talking about a local plane crash. Ryan Seacrest is a major practitioner, and Dick Clark as a major supplier. We talked to some fake radio callers, and here are their stories.
"Any time you hear something surreal on a morning radio show, it's bullshit," one veteran independent radio producer told me. "The great prank phone calls—they're all fake. If it's top 40, and if it has a morning show, then it uses actors."
While Premiere's "On Call" service is relatively new, there are several long-standing services that supply scenarios, story lines, and actors to desperate local morning shows. The problem is obvious: DJs have hours to fill, and if anyone is actually calling into the station, they are in all likelihood boring people with boring problems. Enter United Stations Radio Networks, a radio company co-founded by Dick Clark, who still serves as its chairman emeritus.
United Stations generates wacky characters and scenarios—basically mini-radio plays—and sends them out to shows across the country. "It's, 'Hey, can you pretend to hate black people for the next 15 minutes so we can get people talking?'" said the producer. Here's an e-mail sent by a United Stations executive outlining one such scenario for a radio segment in which the DJs would purport to "fix a fight" among their listeners:
You are the sweet sister who is trying to disinvite your kind of trashy sister to thanksgiving. Basically her husband is a redneck and her children just run wild. You can tell stories of thanksgivings past. Like you can say last year her husband (your brother in law) ordered pay per view porn on your cable and you got the bill a few months later! You can also say that her kids have no manners and that they destroy your house. Your sister herself makes rude comments at the table about your food and how you're still single- etc. You're done! Be creative!
United Stations draws its actors from the New York theater world, and pays them $50 a call—usually for about 45 minutes of work. "Someone came up to me after a play," Annie Leonhart, who made calls for United Stations from 2004 to 2007, told me. "They recruited me."
Leonhart said most of her work consisted of pretending to be a jealous girlfriend, particularly for one recurring segment usually called "War of the Roses" that stations across the country use. The set-up is that a female listener suspects her boyfriend or husband is cheating. While she stays silently on the line, the DJ calls the suspected cheater and pretends to offer a free delivery of roses to the person of his choice. "I'd have to go apeshit if the guy sent roses to the wrong girl," Leonhart says. "The goal is to get listeners to relate and call in. Radio would be pretty boring if they didn't stir the pot a little."
The veteran producer I spoke to assured me that virtually every war of the roses routine is fake—not least because FCC's rules explicitly require broadcasters to obtain permission to air a call from every participant, and it's highly unlikely that a caught-out cheater would consent to broadcast after learning that he'd just been punk'd. One prominent DJ who uses the routine is Ryan Seacrest—he calls it "Ryan's Roses." Here's an example. Does it sound real to you? We've got a call into Seacrest to ask.
The producer also says that Glenn Beck, during his days as a wacky morning DJ, frequently made use of fake calls. "There were repeating characters on his show that would lead him into discussions," the producer said. "It was something he would do before he blew up." Rush Limbaugh vigorously denied yesterday that he had ever employed fake callers (and none of the people I talked to linked fake calls to political talk radio). I've asked a representative for Beck if he can say he's never used fake callers in his career; I haven't heard back yet.
Andy Denemark, a spokesman for United Stations, defended the fake calls, saying his actors are so over the top that any listener would know the calls were staged. "We do wacky comedy," he said. "People who want a drunk Bill Clinton calling in, that sort of thing. Extreme stuff that's obviously radio comedy."
Which makes it tough to explain why United Stations once asked "Burt," an actor who used to do fake call work and asked that his name not be used, to pretend he was a pilot so one station could talk about a recent plane crash. "There was a news story about a small plane that crashed after takeoff," he told me. "I played a pilot saying that problems on takeoff were really common. They needed an 'expert.' It was probably the most questionable thing I did."
Another strange one, he said, was when he was told to pretend to be a little person outraged at the way American culture becomes obsessed with Elves each Christmas. There was no scenario or storyline, just an opinion designed, presumably, to attract mockery. "I was supposed to be angry about the overmarketing of little people during Christmas," he said. "They wanted a 'little guy with a big voice.'" Aside from those cases, Burt said, he mostly played cheating husbands and boyfriends. "It was pretty surreal. I'd get an email with the radio station, the character, the set-up, and the number to call. The hard part was always having to deal with wacky fucking morning DJs. These are the things you do when you need to eat."
Somewhat surprisingly, there's nothing even remotely illegal about populating radio shows with fake characters and passing it off is real. The FCC does have regulations barring "hoaxes," but that only bars stunts that "directly cause substantial public harm." Run of the mill shitty gags, it seems, are OK.