Entercom Market Manager Grilled

September 29, 2009

John Geary, market manager of Entercom Sacramento, answered questions today about his role or lack thereof in the water drinking death of Jennifer Strange at KDND, one of six stations he was managing for Entercom Communications in Sacramento at the time of the contest in 2007.

Plaintiff attorney Roger Dreyer went over the Contest Guidelines provided by Entercom, and established that station managers could give the rules to their on air talent, but were not required to do so.    Regarding implementation of the rules, Geary stated regarding his employees, station manager Steve Weed and Promotions Director Robin Pechota, "Both of them failed."  

While the guidelines stated that anything beyond a simple contest must be okayed by the legal department, and Geary said he would expect his people to evaluate the danger of a contest before going to Legal, Dreyer established that there were no requirements in writing that staff should do any such research.   In fact, producer Liz Diaz's testimony was that the day after the water drinking death, she googled drinking too much water and instantly learned about the danger of water intoxication.    Dreyer further established from Legal Department Attorney Carmela Masi's testimony that while Masi said she had a rule that any contest involving ingestion or physicality should employ medical personnel, she had not put that in the written training provided to Entercom employees.  Geary said he was unaware such a rule existed.   He admitted they had every opportunity to put that rule into writing.

Questioning then focused on Promotion Manager Robin Pechota's testimony that she had gone to Geary on numerous occasions, complaining that the Morning Rave staff was not complying with rules.  Geary responded that she had complained about rules that had to do with which giveaways to do on certain days, not contests.  Geary said he asked station manager Steve Weed to have meetings to control the Morning Rave staff.  Pechota testfied the meetings did nothing to get them to follow rules.   Dreyer asked Geary whether he had ever asked Weed to give contest rules to the Morning Rave staff, given Pechota's frustration with them;  he said he had not.    

Geary said Masi was very busy, and that he would intervene should the promotions director not get a call back from Masi, as happened on occasion.  

Geary testified he had been in radio before deregulation, and that prior to 1997, he had been called a VP, and was in charge of two stations.  In 1997, his title shifted to market manager, and he was in charge of running six radio stations.  As a result, his duties were expanded, and he could no longer keep up with day to day detailed management of staff.  He is no longer in charge of contests, and has no knowledge of them.  Dreyer established that Geary oversaw eight different departments and that Masi in Boston oversaw contests. 

Geary then restated that Masi had not communicated the ingestion/physicality rule to him, that he did not know of it nor did he ask.

Geary's attorney Doug Sullivan took over the questioning.   When asked whether Geary peronally gets involved in the planning of contests, Geary stated, "That's not what the company wants me to be doing in my position."  Sullivan detailed for the jury the eight departments that Geary oversaw, as well as the 130 employees he was supervising, and painted a picture of a very busy business manager who could not personally oversee all aspects of six radio stations.  The overarching theme was that contest production was delegated to the station manager and the promotions director, not to the market manager.

Geary testified he had never seen the written rules for the Wii contest, and that it was the responsibility of Weed and Pechota to clear contests though Legal.  He testified as to Weed's 40 years radio experience, and Pechota's decade of experience, and said he'd never had a complaint about either of them creating a dangerous contest before the January 12 Wii contest.

He testified that on the two occasions he had heard about contests, he had heard from the parent company attorney Masi, not from Weed or Pechota.  He said that was part of the process at Entercom, that any contest that was not a "simple contest" be approved by legal.  He said Pechota and Weed had been trained in contest guidlelines by Masi.

Geary told Dreyer, on redirect, that it was clear to him that the Wii contest was not a simple contest, and that statin manager Steve Weed failed becasue he had not supervised Pechota.  Yet producer Liz Diaz was also fired, although she was not responsible for putting together contests and had no training in that area.  Dreyer established that none of the on air staff ever received any training on contests, and that Geary did not mandate they get training, although he could have mandated that.

Geary said he did not know who oversaw the Wii Contest, that he trusted Weed and Pechota, his experienced managers.  Dreyer asked if it were clear to Geary that the Wii contest was not a "simple contest," and Geary said clearly it was not.  

Dreyer asked about Pechota's testimony that she had complained the Morning Rave staff lacked judgment and were juvenile, Geary did remember those complaints.  When asked if he'd asked Masi to do training with the Morning Rave staff as a result, he said he had not.

When asked if there was a breakdown of communication between Entercom Corporation and his staff regarding contests, Geary stated, "I know the message was given, but their ability to understand that message didn't happen."  But Geary said he did not know why.

Plaintiff Attorney Harvey Levine then established that there was no training whatever on what to do should a contestant become ill, not from Masi at the corporate level or anyone else.

Wii Winner Testifies

September 28, 2009

The woman who edged out Jennifer Strange to win a Nintendo Wii testified at the civil trial brought by Strange's husband against Entercom today.

Lucy Davidson talked about the way the contest rules had been described to her in the kitchen of the radio station that January 12, 2007 morning.  She said the contestants were told they'd be drinking water every few minutes, but that they didn't specify the amounts they would be drinking or the time sequences.  When plaintiff attorney Roger Dreyer showed her the written rules specifying they would drink one eight ouce glass of water every fifteen minutes, she said she'd never seen them.  She also said that although she had signed the release form, no one had notified any of the contestants that the contest could be hazardous.

Dreyer asked whether she'd ever heard about hyponatremia or water intoxication prior to the contest, she said she had not.  When asked whether she had heard about the Chico water drinking death just two years earlier, she said no, and also said that she did not hear any contestants talk about the Chico death during the contest.  She also said she had not heard the "Eva Brooks" call, where a woman called in and told the DJ's people could die from water intoxication.

She talked about her bravado at winning the contest, even though she was in great pain from drinking so much water and holding her urine so long.  Even after the contest was over, she said, the DJ's would not let her use the bathroom.  When she finally did, she heard someone in the next stall peeing, gagging, and vomiting, and she said she did the same.  When she finally stood up, she became lightheaded and fell to her knees, with a headache she described as "the worst hangover ever."  When she came out of the stall, she realized the sounds she'd heard in the neighboring stall had come from Jennifer Strange.  Davidson testified that the two did not talk, because they were unable to talk.

Defense attorney Carlson found some discrepancies between Davidson's testimony and her earlier deposition, on points of when exactly she'd been told of she vomited she would be out of the contest, and that she'd thrown up after the contest.  Davidson said she clearly remembered gagging in the radio station bathroom stall, but didn't recall what exactly had come up.

Carlson also pointed out that Davidson looked fine in pictures, and maintained that she felt great immediately after the contest was over.

Davidson had been a certified medical assistant for several years, and testified that she didn't think Strange required medical attention. 

Defense attorney Sullivan asked whether, when told they would be drinking water every ten minutes, did she or anyone else said they didn't know that, so they would drop out?  She said no.  Sullivan also asked whether Davidson remembered seeing the part on the release form stating, "I have read and understand this agreement."  She said the staff told her to just sign the paper and give it back, and that's what she did.

Strange's co-worker Lindsay Marie Worcester testified that she had helped Jennifer practice the day before by giving her a cup of water to drink and then timed her to see how long she could hold it.  Worcester also testified as to Strange's good character.

Jennifer's mother, Nina Hulst, took the stand and talked about her daughter's relationship with her husband and children.  Too much for Billy Strange, he walked out of the courtroom and waited in the hallway.

Broadcast Blues Sells out in Kansas!

September 27, 2009

Broadcast Blues played to a sell out crowd in the Kansas International Film Festival Wednesday.  The festival staff told the audience that "this is the most important documentary in the festival this year."  (Michael Moore's Capitalism: a Love Story played in KIFF, as did Fowl Play, and House of Numbers, so it was a great compliment.)

And better news still, they paved the way for this media reform film to go to Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival next month, which qualifies it for Academy Award consideration. 

But most important, it shows that the midwest is hungry for information about media reform! 

Kudos to Tom Klammer at Kansas City Community Radio KKFI !  Tom graciously interviewed me on his program "Tell Somebody!" (Tuesdays at 6PM on 90.1 FM,) and I am certain that is why we sold out;  so many people said they heard about it on KKFI. 

Tom also spearheaded a team to distribute promotional postcards of Broadcast Blues.  Our crowd showed how much interest there is in media issues, but Tom Klammer got out the crowd.

Thanks, Tom.

Good news, bad news

September 21, 2009

I am headed to the Kansas International Film Festival tomorrow, and am so happy to take Broadcast Blues to the heartland.  But that means I cannot be present for the rest of this week's testimony.  I will link you to the best coverage I can find until I get back.

Witness testimony in Jennifer Strange Lawsuit

September 21, 2009

The first witness was Steve Maney, one of three on-air hosts of the Morning Rave show which sponsored the water drinking contest which resulted in the death of 28 year old Jennifer Strange,

Plaintiff attorney Roger Dreyer established that Entercom Market Manager John Geary had complete authority over the radio station. 

Maney then talked about a previous contest suggested at KDND, one called Piercing Plinko, and how it involved contestants spinning a wheel with pictures of bady parts on it;  that part would then have to be pierced.  He said station manager Steve Weed and Promotions Director Robin Pechota said they'd have to go to their attorney in Pennsylvania to get it green lighted.  This contest was not approved; Maney said it was nixed above Weed's head, wither by Geary or Masi.

Dreyer asked if there was a written rule that employees should not do anything dangerous;  Maney answered there was an unwritten rule.

Dreyer established several times that it was not Maney's job to vet contests for danger, that that was the duty of Pechota, Weed, or on the Corporate level, attorney Carmela Masi 

Dreyer showed Maney a contest manual from March 2001, written just months prior to Maney's hiring in May.  Maney testified he never saw that contest manual.  Dreyer showed Maney the specific verbage that contests should not be illegal, dangerous, or rigged;  Maney said he never saw the document.  

Dreyer next introduced the email of 8-31-06 from Masi about contest guidleines.  Maney testified he'd never seen that document.  Dreyer showed Maney the subsection in that document that said an on air announcement of contest rules must be run at least once a day in the week preceding the contest, this on air announcer said he had never seen that document either.  He said at times on air talent would be told what to read on the air, but his co-worker Lukas would read that.   Dreyer showed Maney the Power Point Presentation regarding contest guidelines, he had never been trained on that either.  He said he was told verbally what the rules would be.    He said he was never told that material terms of a contest must be read on the air.  Was his co-worker Lukas (real name: Adam Cox) told?  He sadi no.  Did he ever hear Lukas read rules on the air, he said no.

Dreyer showed him another subsection of the Entercom Corporate policy regarding contests that said contest rules must be disclosed in writing and on air;  he said he was never told about that.

Dreyer then moved onto the Release for All Claims Including Personal Injury which all the "Wii" contestants had to sign.  He said he did not create that form.  (The judge later instructed the jury that this document under California law did not constitute a waiver, but that the jury may consider it regarding the state of mind and conduct of the Entercom employees and also of Jennifer Strange.

Maney testified that they came up with the Wii contest idea at a morning brainstorming meeting, and the next thing he knew they were going forward with it.  He believed it had been approved.

Had Maney ever heard of Hyponatremia?  He said no.  Of water intoxication?  No. 

After lunch, Maney again said he'd never seen the written rules.  Was vomiting discussed? He didn't remember.  Were medical personnel ever brought up at the planning meeting?  He did not believe so. 

Dreyer again showed some of the written rules about contests provided by Entercom.  He showed a section which talked about "participants acknowledge participation may be hazardous and involve physical contact,"  language that was not included in the release the contestants signed.  Dreyer asked if Maney was aware that attorney Masi had an unwritten rule that medical personnel must be on hand for any contests involving ingestion or physicality;  Maney said no.   He said he did not remember reading any rules on the air, although his partner Lukas may have done so, he could not recall.   He also could not recall whether on air talent ever said on the air that if you vomit or deficate you would be out of the contest.  Dreyer played several promotions for the contest;  they dealt with getting qualified to participate by telling a story of receiving a bad Christmas gift.

When asked whether the Chico water drinking death was ever raised at the planning meeting, Maney testified he did not think so. He said he had no knowledge that someone in the competition could die, or get violently ill. 

Dreyer played the clip from the contest where on air talent Trish said, "Can't you get water poisoning and like die?"  When asked if he'd ever heard of water intoxication, Maney said no.  When asked about the Chico incident, Maney said he knew it was a hazing, but no details.

Gag guy Fester said in the clip he wanted to see the rules, and Dreyer asked whether Maney knew specifically what the rules were;  Maney did not recall.

Dreyer asked about producer Liz Diaz saying she had been getting a lot of calls about the dangers of the contest, Maney said she told him people were calling, but said he did not remember if she said someone could die.

They discussed the change in the rules midway through the program, going from eight ounce bottles to 16.9 ounce bottles.  That decision Maney said, had to come from the promotions office.

Then something which undercut the defense opening statement, that contestants in the kitchen could hear the "Eva" call, where she specifically warned that people could die from water intoxication.  Maney explained why people are asked to turn off their radios when they call a radio show, as they have a seven second delay, and that it creates unwanted feedback.  Dreyer replayed the Eva call, and Carter, who was in the kitchen with the contestants, was on the phone with the hosts in the booth.  Maney said if Carter was on the phone, the radio would have been turned off.

Dreyer played more clips of contestants becoming ill, and asked Maney whether he had any training in psychology about behavior in a competition of this nature?  Maney said he had not.

Maney said he escorted Jennifer out to the lobby after the contest was over, and that she felt ill, and her stomach was distended.  He told her she could stay there until she felt better.  No medical personnel were called, and Maney said he did not know that headaches, lightheadedness and bloating were classic symptoms of hyponatremia.

Several questions were posed about Market Manager John Geary's involvement or knowledge of the contest.  Maney said Geary never asked what the noisy contest was about.

Defense attorney Doug Sullivan then asked Maney whether he believe Jennifer could be harmed; Maney said no.  With regard to contest guidelines, Maney said he was aware that they could not do contests which are illegal.  Was he aware that Entercom had a policy not to put people at risk?  Maney said not written policy but general policy.

He reminded Maney about his deposition where he said Weed and Pechota had communicated to him there was a culture of safety at KDND.   And he noted that market manager Geary had not ben copied on the emails directly concerning the contest.

Defense attorney Don Carlson asked about Maney having put the rules on the website.  He did remember putting something up, which he took down after the contest was over.

Carlson elicited that Maney had no expectation of being trained in Weed or Pechota's job concerning contest rules. 

Maney said that even when contestant Victoria Myers became ill, he did not think the contest was dangerous.

And he said he had no memory of a Morning Rave show where they talked about the Chico water drinking death of Matthew Carrington.

Peter Inzerillo was the next witness.  He said he specifically remembered the December 2006 program where he and the on air talent joked about the Chico water drinking death of Matthew Carrington.  He further said he was referrring back to that show in a clip from the Wii contest, where he said in repsonse to Trish's comment, "Can't you get water poisioning and like, die?"  He remarked,  "that poor kid who died," only to be cut off by the other on air hosts. 

Inzerillo further said he had participated in other contests where there were no rules, and he had been given none for the Wii contest.    

The day ended with Inzerillos' testimony that drinking a lot of water would have ill effects, which he learned first hand during that 12-06 show when they made fun of the Chico death, and he drank about two gallons of water himself and felt ill.

Personal Reflections on Opening Statements

September 20, 2009

Just a couple of personal observations: 

First, I had a bottle of water tucked into my bag, but found myself hiding it from Billy Strange,  I just didn't want him to see me drinking it.

Next, as we would wait for the judge to release the jury for each break, I became aware that I was getting uncomfortable, waiting for the chance to use tha bathroom, and that the jury must feel the same way.  And that every time we felt that way, we were reminded of the discomfort felt bt the contestants. 

I also could sympathize with Market Manager John Geary; I've worked in radio stations, and surely the top man is not apprised of every detail.  But the more the defense stressed the burdens of running six radio stations is the same market, the more I thought of we media reformers who would like to diversify media ownership.  One more argument in that favor, I would say.

Lastly, there was Billy Strange.  There is a gag order on this case, and reporters are not allowed to talk with him or the attorneys or witnesses.  But after the defense opening, I just wanted to give him a hug.  He looked as though he had lost his best friend.

And so he had.

Opening Statement - Defense in Jennifer Strange Trial

September 20, 2009

Attorney Don Carlson, who represents Entercom Sacramento LLC and Entercom Communications LLC, began his opening statement by telling the jury that no one ever thought anyone could die from voluntarily drinking water.  He said expert testimony would reveal that only 18 people have ever died from Hyponatrema (water intoxication,) and of those, three had died while engaging in physical exertion while drinking too much water (as in marathon running,) while the other fifteen suffered from psychotic disorders.  Carlson told the jury he was not suggesting Jennifer Strange was psychotic, just that that is what experts were expected to testify to on the trial.

(editors note:  A quick Google search revealed a water intoxication death which occurred in March, 2003, in Broward County, Florida, where a babysitter forced a child to drink so much water it killed her.  The babysitter was found not competent to stand trial.)

Carlson said Sacramento's Deputy Coroner would testify she had never heard of hyponatrema before the Strange death, and that the Sacramento Forensic Pathologist said it was so rare she had to conduct her own research about it.  Carlson said the Plaintiff's own expert witness, Dr. George Kayser, would testify that he had never treated an emotionally healthy patient for drinking too much water, and before this case had been unaware of a water intoxication death that did not involve a marathon or someone with psychological problems.

Carlson's quote, which he repeated: "No one has ever died from voluntarily participating in a water drinking contest."

Carlson then told the jury that people at KDND had made mistakes.  They failed to see the danger, and that was a mistake.  They didn;t get approval from Legal, and that was a mistake.  And also that employees should not have created or performed a contest involving urinating or vomiting.

He said all ten employees involved in the contest were fired, and that eight of them (all but two interns) were sued as individuals.  Those case have been resolved, but he told the jury to bear in mind while watching their videotaped depositions that they were being sued at the time.

Carlson said the question in this case isn't whether the contest was in bad taste, he said it was and they have no defense for that.  That there was no defense for promotions director Pechota and station manager Weed not following company guidelines. He said what this case is about is whether Entercom Sacramento and Entercom Communications are legally reponsible for the death of Jennifer Strange.

He emphasized that no one at the parent company was involved in putting on the contest, and said there would be no testimony that their contest guidelines were inadequate, or that their training was inadequate.  He reminded the jury that Attorney Carmela Masi had provided training just months prior to the contest to Pechota and Weed.  And he said there would be no testimony that there was any job undone by Masi.

Carlson told the jury that Steve Weed had forty years experience in radio, and that Robin Pechota had 20 years of broadcast experience, and that it was Pechota's responsibility to vet contests, and that she always contacted Legal if there were any potential risks.

He said the idea for the contest arose at a Monday morning meeting, and that it had come from a trade website.

he then talked about the contest itself, and how producer Liz Diaz explained the rules to the contestants.  When she told them they would be drinking eight ounces of water every ten minutes, and if they vomited they would be out, not one contestant left.  He said they did sign a release, which could be considered in a limited way.

He talked about expected testimony from several contestants who would say they knew about the Chico incident, that they knew this was different, and they also knew they could quit at any time.  He also said a couple of the contestants worked as medical assistants, and in their view there was no need for medical assistance at the contest.

He then talked about the Eva call, where she calls in and says "Those people who are drinking all that water can get sick and possibly die from water intoxication."  He showed pictures of a radio in the break room, and said that contestants heard that call, but laughed and joked about it.  They thought it was different than the Chico incident and that they knew they could quit at any time.

He showed pictures of family members who accompanied the contestants, and commented on the jovial fun time they all were having. He note that Jennifer had nade several calls to family and friends throughout the course of the contest.

Carlson said everyone agreed to drinking larger bottles of water to get the contest over with, as nobody had dropped out.  He said the OnAir hosts tried to get people to quit, with offers of movie tickets if they would drop out.  On Air talent Trish Sweet in a video deposition agreed that "if anyone wasn't feeling well, they should drop out, right?  Right."

Carlson said Sweet offered the final two contestants tickets to that nights sold out Justin Timberlake concert, which Jennifer eventually took.  She made plans to see Jennifer that night at the concert, and said Jennifer never said she felt too sick to attend.

Carlson said Jennifer left on her own and did not ask for assistance.

He ended by asking whether Entercom was legally responsible for Jennifer's death, and said "If my clients do have legal responsibility, does Jennifer Strange have any?

Attorney Doug Sullivan who represents Entercom Market Manager John Geary, said this was a sad tragedy, but the evidence would show that that Geary had virtually nothing to do with this conduct.  He said he's hired good experienced people, Pechota and Weed, and that they were aware of contest guidelines.   He said Geary did not know about the contest because he had six radio stations to run, six different businesses, and was not responsible for day to day supervision of contests.  He said that Geary only hears about a contest after it has gone through Legal, which in this case, it did not.

He spent some time shwoing the various facets of running six stations, with 25 different programs, 13 studios, and 130 employees.  He talked about the various departments involved in each one, including human resources, engineering, Information Technology, and more.

He talked about how Geary went into the contest room to get them to quiet down, and showed videotape taken from a security camera that no one was drinking water at that moment.

Sullivan said Geary could ot be personally liable, as he was not involved in the planning of the contest, and had no interactions with contestants.

In a videotaped deposition, Geary stated, "with one person overseeing six radio stations, I cannot go deep into the management of each one."

Louise Kramer, Geary's superior at Entercom, said the Market Manager functions as CEO of their market, with six radio stations, multiple transmitters, marketing departments, engineers, business... that they have to be macro managers, not micro.

Entercom CEO David Fields in a videotaped deposition said he would not expect John Geary to have first hand knowledge of a contest on their radio stations.

Sullivan said your would not hear evidence that Masi could not have handled the request about the contest, but that employees at the station just didn't try.

Motion for Mistrial is Strange Case

September 20, 2009

After the Plaintiff's opening statement had concluded, Defense attorney Don Carlson made a motion for mistrial in the case based on comments made by Plaintiff attorney Harvey Levine.

Carlson said remarks concerning Geary being more interested in advertising sales than contestants were intended to bias the jury.  He also said remarks raising the issue of abortion could automatically make the jury sympathize with the family, and there had been no voir dire of that issue with the jury.

Judge Lloyd A. Phillips noted no objections had been made, and turned down the motion, but did admonish Levine for making irresponsible statements.  Phillips offered the defense an opportunity to draft an instruction to the jury regarding those statements.

Opening Statement - Plaintiffs in Jennifer Strange Trial

September 19, 2009

Opening arguments continued Friday in trial of the Wm. A, Strange et al  vs. Entercom Sacramento LLC et al. 

Attorney Roger Dreyer, who represents plaintiff Billy Strange and his children Ryland, 5, and Jorie, 3, laid out his case in detail against Entercom Sacramento, LLC, Market Manager John Geary, and Entercom Communications LLC.

Dreyer began the morning with an exhibit of Entercom's Contest Guidelines, sent to Market Manager John Geary, Station Manager Steve Weed, and Promotions Director Robin Pechota 8-31-06, four months prior to the "Hold Your Wee for a Nintendo Wii" contest which resulted in Jennifer Strange's death.  Entercom Communications attorney Carmela Masi also conducted a training session on the guidelines with Weed and Pechota in October 2006..

The Guidelines read, "Contests which are illegal, dangerous, misleading or rigged or in bad taste must be avoided."   "Last minute contest rules may be escalated to the Market Manager."  Then under the heading, "Review by Legal,"   "Written rules should be reviewed by your primary legal contact for the following:  any high risk, dangerous, or borderline acceptable contests."  (Dreyer emphasized the document said written rules should be reviewed, not must be reviewed.)   Importantly, the document also stated that material terms must be disclosed in both writing and in on-air announcements prior to the contest.  (This is so everyone understands all the rules before any contest begins.)

Dreyer said the evidence will show there was a set of written rules for the "Wii" contest, that it had been drafted by promotions Director Robin Pechota, using language from a different contest, "My Right Arm," which had been approved by the Legal department ("Legal.").  But he said the rules were never posted online in advance of the contest, nor were they read on the air, as required by Entercom Communications.    Dreyer said Jennifer Strange practiced the day before by drinking one 8-ounce glass of water, then timing how long she could hold it; as she thought that was what the contest required.

The rules stated that participants would drink one eight ounce glass of water every 15 minutes until the end.  The document further stated that participation may be hazardous, and particpants had to represent they were physically, psychologically, and medicall able to participate.  Also that Finalists assumed all risks associated with participating in the contest.  However, the written rules were never given to the particpants.

Instead, as contestants came into the studio on the morning of January 12, 2007, they were given a release form titled, "Release for All Claims Including Personal Injury," which did not detail any potential hazards that could arise from participating in a water drinking contest.  Dreyer noted that no one at Entercom has taken responsibility for drafting that release, and the Court has already ruled it is not a waiver.

They were subsequently advised by the Morning Rave hosts that they would have to drink one eight ounce glass of water every ten minutes, not fifteen, as their own rules stated, and that anyone who threw up or urinated would be out.  About midway through the contest, the Rave Hosts again changed the rules on the fly, saying contestants must now drink 16.9 ounce bottles of water instead, to speed up the contest.

Dreyer also cited a deposition which revealed that in December 2006, just weeks before the "Wii" contest, the on-air team joked about the 2005 water drinking death of Chico State student Matthew Carrington in a fraternity hazing incident.     During that 12-2006 Morning Rave show, on air hosts encouraged their "gag guy Fester" to drink several vases of water from a tulip vase.  "Fester" complained of being lightheaded at the time."

(Editor note: That incident, which also included having cold water thrown on Carrington and his having to perform pushups after drinking massive amounts of water, was widely publicized in the Sacramento area in 2005.  A search of the Sacramento Bee archives show 15 stories appeared on this case of water intoxication before the 2007 Jennifer Strange death.  The incident resulted in anti-hazing legislation known as Matt's Law.)

Dreyer noted contestants were not told about the Carrington death, nor were they told that the "Gag Guy Fester" had felt ill after consuming so much water.

Dreyer played audio clips of the "Wii" contest to a rapt jury, who heard the same on-air team say before the contest began, "Can't you get water poisoning and die?" 

(Editor note:  most of the audio played in opening statements can also be heard in the Broadcast Blues story on Jennifer Strange.)

Dreyer said that before the contest began, a nurse called the station, telling the On Air team that water intoxication was dangerous. That call did not go on the air. He said the show producer Liz Diaz received several calls about the dangers, but she was rebuffed by the on-air team, saying, "we've got releases, so we are not responsible," and when she tried to bring her concerns to Market Manager John Geary, he was too busy.

Dreyer also said former lifeguard from Chico called into the show to warn them of the Chico incident.  He also played the "Eva Brooks" call,  in which she says "Those people who are drinking all that water can get sick and possibly die from water intoxication."  The DJ's say they've signed releases so they are not responsible.

This call did go on the air, the attorney for Entercom, Don Carlson, said in his opening argument that contestants heard that call on the radio as the contest was going on. (More on the Defense Opening Statement later.)

Dreyer showed pictures of contestants during the contest, including one of a woman who just before she vomited.  He said other contestants had headaches, nausea, were lightheaded and vomiting.

Then he played the audio of Jennifer Strange, telling the Morning Rave Hosts, "My head hurts.  They told me it's from the water. "  "This is what it feels like when you're drowning," the DJ told her.   A grim looking jury glanced at Jennifer's widower, Billy Strange, during this audio clip.

Dreyer said after the contest, Jennifer told on air host Steve Maney that she didn’t think she could drive; he asked her  to wait in the lobby until she felt better. No medical attention was offered.

Jennifer called her husband, Billy, and told him she felt sick and was going to go home to go to bed.  When her Mother Nina could not reach her by phone, she went to Jennifer's house, where she found Jennifer dead at 2 PM.

Dreyer played a video deposition of Market Manager John Geary, who said the Market Manager is responsible for programming in bad taste, but agreed that if staff didn't tell him, he would not be able to give input."  He then played a deposition clip of Entercom Communications CEO David Fields who said he had no idea someone could die from this, but also a contest with potential for vomiting and urinating oneself was not a contest they would have done.  Dreyer said it was clear the contest had never gone to "Legal."

He also said expert testimony would show the psychology of a contest like this, an environment of competition where contestants trusted the radio station.

Dreyer concluded by saying that Jennifer Strange was given no notice of hazards, and while both sides stipulated that the contest did cause Jennifer's death, the question would be ,"Is it their conduct that caused her death, or her conduct that caused her death?"

Attorney Harvey Levine, who represents Jennifer's elder son, Keegan Sims, then began his own opening statement.  He showed a floorplan of KDND's offices and studios, and showed the proximity of the break room, where the contest was held, and the conference room, where a sales meeting was being held, and said Market Manager John Geary came into the room at one point telling them to hold down the noise.

He also played another audio clip of the contest, where people are vomiting in "chain reaction. "

Levine turned his attention to Entercom attorney Carmela Masi, who was the primary legal contact for KDND.   Masi testified in a videotaped deposition that it was an ironclad rule that anytime a contest required ingestion or elements of physicality, a medical person must be present.  However, this ironclad statement was not included in writing in Entercom's Contest Guidelines.  No medical personnel were present for the "Wii" contest.

Levine said a witness will liken doing a radio contest like "Wii" to the fascination in watching a car wreck, and that once you get the audience in that zone, you don’t want them to push another button on the radio dial.  He said as the program began, the hosts knew what they wer doing, that comments about dying from water intoxication and references to the hazing incident were meant to excite the audience.

He reiterated that the release form contestants had signed was invalid under California law, as it did not mention the contest was potentially hazardous.  He noted that Promotions Director Robin Pechota testified that she had received no training on running contests, and that she "trusted her gut" as to whether something might be dangerous.

Pechota was to clear the contest rules with Masi;  but Levine showed that Masi, who works out of the Boston office, is reponsible for a myriad of legal responsibities for 30 of Entercom's 110 stations, and painted a picture of a lawyer too busy to attend to all her tasks, too busy to vet contests, and who testified that Legal was overloaded.   He also said the attitiude from employees was, "If I don't know if it's dangerous, I don't go to Legal because it might be."

Levine also made some comments which did not draw objections. He talked about John Geary being more interested in advertising sales than the contestants, and told the jury that then 17 year old Jennifer refused to have an abortion, but chose to raise her son Keegan alone,

Levine concluded with a picture of Jennifer in her wedding dress, with her smiling som Keegan hugging her.  When asked what he missed about her most, Keegan simply replied, "Her."

(Editor's Note:  I will post the Defense Opening Statement tomorrow.)

Opening arguments in Strange trial

September 17, 2009

Opening arguments started this afternoon in the trial of Jennifer Strange. (scroll below for video of the Strange story from Broadcast Blues.)   The attorney for the William Strange family, Roger Dreyer, began in the late afternoon to lay out his case against 1) Entercom Sacramento, 2) John Geary, market manager for Entercom Sacramento, and 3) the parent company, Entercom LLC, based in Bala Cynwyd, PA.

Dreyer showed the corporate structure of Entercom to the jury, half men, half women. He pointed out that there were specific guidelines provided by the parent company to subsidiaries regarding contests. One guideline specifically banned contests that were dangerous. Entercom CEO David Field, in a videotaped deposition, admitted that, "Ms. Strange would not have died had this contest not occurred." But, foreshadowing the defense argument, he also said that the people working at the local affiliate KDND had not brought the contest to the parent company's legal division."

But Dreyer already is making the argument that KDND promotion manager Robin Pechota and Entercom parent company attorney Camela Masi had a working relationship which permitted Pechota to use her own judgment about contests.

Opening arguments continue 9:00 AM Friday.

Save Talk Radio! Really?

September 15, 2009

I was strolling through my local county fair this summer, a small fair, a friendly fair, where cows, sheep and pigs outnumber food vendors. The Republican booth caught my eye, but not because of the red white and blue decorations. What caught my eye was the sign they'd posted, the sign that summed up the one key issue of importance to local Republicans.

What would it be, in this raucous political summer of 2009? Anger over bailouts, fear over death panels? No. The number one issue for Amador County Republicans: "Save Talk Radio."

I hadn't realized that the industry that just signed a $400 million contract with Rush Limbaugh needed saving, but they thought so; they even had a petition to save it. Sponsored by a group called "First Amendment Now," the petition read,

      "We hold dearly our right to freedom of speech and the right for others to express their views. We believe that Government should stand aside rather than stand in the way of the discussion of ideas. We believe that because the First Amendment should be about freedom of choice.
      "Therefore, we the undersigned oppose all efforts of any Government to limit, censor, or restrict in any way our unfettered right to free speech on our radios, televisions, the Internet or any other medium."

Wow, I thought, a Republican petition that I can really get behind! Then I read on:
     "We reject any effort to institute (1) the "Fairness Doctrine" or (2) "localism", which in its various forms seeks to establish local committees of "community leaders" to determine if talk radio is "reflecting" the views of the community, or (3) a quota system for ownership of radio stations – or any variance of any of those."

In other words, they advocate free speech for giant corporations, but not for local people. Hmmn.

I wondered how pervasive petitions like this might be. It turns out there are many such petitions on line, promoted by groups much more familiar than "First Amendment Now." So many, in fact, that they have amassed an army of more than a half a million to silence local views.

The Christian Coalition: "They want to pass what is known as the "Fairness Doctrine", which is nothing more than a way for the federal government to demand that all broadcasters must give "equal time" to all points of view."

Equal time to all points of view? What a radical concept.

The Family Research Council: "We need to be aware, however, that liberals may achieve their ends without passing legislation, or even without a new FCC “fairness” rule. They could do it by requiring a fixed amount of local content for radio."

Local content on local airwaves? It must be a Communist plot.

It is easy to dismiss these petitions as fringe. But postings from the Free Speech Alliance reveal something greater:

     1. Obama's FCC will use "localism," "diversity of media ownership" and serving the "public interest" as a backdoor "Fairness" Doctrine. 2. We must make any attempt by Obama's FCC to silence talk radio a political third rail, one that the Administration or Congress dare not touch. 3. We will defend talk radio from these governmental assaults on their industry, and build further the case for free speech in all things.

     "The Left dominates every medium of news delivery, save for talk radio. And they can't stand it, so they want to wipe it off the media map."

The Free Speech Alliance is an arm of Brent Bozell's Media Research Center, which for years has been claiming liberal bias in the media with little evidence to back up the claim. This group has been quietly building an army to support corporate owned media and to squelch local voices.

     "MRC’s Free Speech Alliance -- with 69 organizations now involved -- seeks to build the largest possible grassroots Alliance army. So far, we have over 550,000 members, but we need the maximum number possible to go to war when free speech is threatened."

Among the 69 groups in support are: Accuracy in Media, American Conservative Union, National Taxpayers Union, National Religious Broadcasters, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, World Net Daily, Salem Communications, and Clear Channel.

The creator of the Free Speech Alliance is Seton Motley, the same Seton Motley who is appearing on Glenn Beck's show to target FCC Chief Diversity Officer Mark Lloyd with fabrications about his suggestions in the Center for American Progress/ Free Press study "The Structural Imbalance of Talk Radio"to give local people more control over what they get on their radio stations. (To see an interview with Mark Lloyd on that report, see the film Broadcast Blues, or see a clip of the conversation at www.broadcastblues.tv )

It is clear that the "right" has been quietly assembling troops and is now mounting their attack, an attack largely unanticipated by media reformers, an attack now staged on "Conservative" talk radio and TV (not that there is anything conservative about opposing localism.) Their dominance over radio, where "conservatives" outnumber "liberals" by nine to one, means their army is growing every single day, while the other side didn't even know there was going to be a fight.

An army of 550,000 from County Fairs and the internet.  How many more will there be as recruitment shifts to the public airwaves, currently under the private control of those who wish to keep it that way?

And who will stand ready to fight back?

Shortly after Barack Obama was sworn in as President last January, as Brad Friedman reported at the time, the new White House website "Technology" page signaled a hopeful change, and a call to re-examine the oversight of our public airwaves:

Encourage Diversity in Media Ownership: Encourage diversity in the ownership of broadcast media, promote the development of new media outlets for expression of diverse viewpoints, and clarify the public interest obligations of broadcasters who occupy the nation's spectrum.

A few months later, after the campaign from the right had kicked into full gear, charging that liberals were trying to prevent free speech on the radio, the paragraph was quietly removed from the White House website.

So I ask again...who will stand ready to fight back and in favor of real free speech on our public airwaves?nd the internet. How many more will there be now that recruitment has shifted to the airwaves? And who will stand ready to fight back?

Broadcast Blues: The Jennifer Strange Story

In January 2007, Sacramento radio station KDND ran a water drinking contest which went awry and ended in the death of Jennifer Strange, the young mother of three children.
Here is the story about her death from my documentary film "Broadcast Blues." It includes actual audio from the radio show.

In 2009, a jury found Sacramento radio station KDND liable for killing Jennifer Strange. I live blogged the two month trial (and won an award from Sacramento Press for my coverage.)  Find full coverage at SueWilsonReports.com (scroll down the left side for full coverage, and scroll down the right side to see the Media Alliance interview about the case.)
Radio station licenses may be challenged by the public only once every eight years; the last date to challenge licenses in California is November 1, 2013.  In spring of 2013, the Media Action Center will legally petition to deny KDND's license to broadcast.  We believe any station which acts so recklessly as to kill someone should no longer be licensed.  We will ask the community of Sacramento to sign onto the petition, and we will publicize this action nationally to maximize pressure on the FCC to revoke this license.


Radio Speech is not Free Speech

August 17, 2009

August 11, 2009, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, in a unanimous vote, became the first elected body in the United States to stand up to Hate Radio.  Their resolution urges "the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to conduct a comprehensive investigation on hate speech in the media, allowing public participation via public hearings, and asks the NTIA to update its 1993 report on the Role of Telecommunications in Hate Crimes."

For two years, San Francisco's Hispanic/Latino Anti-Defamation Coalition has been trying to get some traction on this issue.  They've staged rallies against Michael Savage worked with the Media Alliance, Common Cause and Broadcast Blues to protest hate radio, and supported the National Hispanic Media Coaltion's campaign to convince the FCC and NTIA to act.   But HLADC leader Aurora Grajedas saw she could better effect national change by working with her own city's board of supervisors.  Acting locally is a good lesson for all activists.    

Still, there is resistance to any such study, as opponents charge these groups are trying to shut down the first amendment.  But let us be clear, Radio Speech is not Free Speech.  I will stand by Glenn Beck's right to stand on the street corner and say illegal immigrants should be made into a new fuel called "Mexinol."  I may not like it, but I stand by his right to say it.  But there is a difference between shouting on the street corner and broadcasting all over the country. 

Broadcasting pioneers witnessed the power of propaganda with radio Tokyo Rose, so they worked with government on two key broadcast regulations.  First, to qualify for a license to broadcast on the public airwaves, stations had to serve the public interest, which became defined as local news, political debates, equal time, and a rule that said no personal attacks.  Second, one person could own just 6 radio stations, nationwide. There were a lot of "street corners" in radio. 

Today there are almost none.  The 1996 Telecommunications Act changed the law so one person can own unlimited numbers of radio stations nationwide, and up to eight in a single town.  It means a handful of businessmen now decide what we all get to hear on our local radio dials.  They decide which few musicians get airplay; even Bruce Springsteen can't stand up to Clear Channel (see that story at www.broadcastblues.tv .)  And this tiny group of older, white, conservative men also decides which political message we get to hear on our radio and which we do not.  They make sure we can hear conservatives in every corner of the country and make sure we do not get to hear moderates or liberals.  (They say only conservative talk gets ratings, but that is not true.  You have to see my film for that story.)  If they want us to hear hate, they have the power to program hate.  Exclusively.)

Plus Ronald Reagan did away with requirements for political debates, equal time, and the personal attack rule; those changes made it so much easier to do Hate Radio.  It is very hard to attack someone with hate speech and then have to give them equal time to respond; you might have to actually look them in the eye.

So today, Rush Limbaugh promotes violence on 600 radio stations, Glenn Beck promotes Mexinol on 400 more,  Michael Savage calls autism a fraud and Latinos criminals on another 400;  the list of conservative hatemongers and their numbers goes on and on.  Hate and lies, broadcast with millions of watts of power into every little town and farm, backed by corporations which have a lock on the market and won't allow any other voice on the air to push back. 

It is Radio Speech, and it is not free; it is owned and managed by just a few people who share a poltical agenda.   It clearly does not serve the public interest. (Reagan couldn't do away with that part of public policy, even though today's broadcasters pretend that he did.) 

And now, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is calling on the FCC, which enforces public interest standards, to at least study what the Leadership Council on Civil Rights sees a correlation between hate radio and violent hate crimes.  They also call on the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which advises the President on telecommunications policy,. to update their last study of 1993, completed long before the media paradigm shift of 1996.

But even if the FCC and NTIA do quantify that which we already innately understand, (that hate and lies on the radio do incite violence,) they have little power to change the situation.  It took an Act of Congress to get us into this media mess, and it will take another to get us out of it.

But it will take many more local actions to get their attention.

Bravo, Aurora.

Blue Dog Showdown

July 23, 2009

    There's a showdown at the House Energy and Commerce Committee corral.  Seven Blue Dog Democrat members are banding together, and if they don't get their way, they can gun down the healthcare bill. 

     The Blue Dog Seven are spooked by pressure from their constituents and recent polls that show American's approval of Obama's healthcare initiative has dropped below 50 percent for the first time.  

    Drive across the seven states they represent: Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, Tennessee, and Utah, turn on your car radio, and you'll know why public opinion has changed.  According to Pew research, 22 percent of Americans get their news from talk radio.  And conservative talkers have been lying to their listeners about what's in the healthcare bill.

    Lies from Sean Hannity like, "If you don't have private insurance the year that this bill is passed, you can't get that later on from your employer."  Lies from Rush Limbaugh that the bill would "outlaw individual private coverage."  Lies provided in talking points from the Republican National Committee like "Democrats are proposing a government controlled health insurance system, which will control care, treatments, medicines and even what doctors a patient may see."

Tell a lie often enough, and people will believe it. 

And there is nobody there to call them on their lies.  Nobody there to set the record straight.  Nobody to push back against the propaganda that corporate radio promotes in its own political self interest.  In the Blue Dog Seven states, just three stations broadcast any kind of progressive talk. Three progressive radio stations in seven entire states.  But Sean Hannity "freely" prevaricates on dozens of radio stations; Rush Limbaugh deceives people on 98 in those seven states alone.  98 publicly owned frequencies where public debate comes second to selling ads for Snapple.  

Special assistant to the President for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy, Susan Crawford told Broadcasting and Cable magazine, "The administration understands the important role traditional terrestrial broadcasting continues to play." 

Maybe they should be listening to FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, who says in "Broadcast Blues," "If you're concerned about health care or you're concerned about the environment as your number one issue, fine, but a piece of advice from me, is you better make media reform your number two issue, because you won't get anywhere on number one without media reform." 

Former Republican Senator Trent Lott had it right when he said Conservative Talk Radio is running the country.   There needs to be a showdown, but it's the 1996 Telecommunications Act that should be gunned down.

It's War. Media War.

August 10, 2009

It's war.

Hundreds of protesters are turning Democratic Town Hall meetings into combat zones in a battle over health care. They are angry, really angry. Barack Obama's healthcare plan, they believe, is going to euthanize Grandma.

I would be angry, too, if they were going to kill my grandmother, wouldn't you? Except, of course, the government is not going to euthanize anybody; the Obama adminstration, like most family doctors, just want people to prepare advance directives, statements which give people control over their own end of life issues.

But the protesters don't know that. They really believe that the government is going to kill their grandparents.

So mad as hell, they soldier into town halls ready to fight, into forums like the one Rep. Lloyd Doggett held in South Austin, Texas. Elise Hu of KVUE News reported that Doggett's "opponents have become a vocal, viral army."

They are vocal, and they are an army. But their "viral" campaign is aided by a giant radio and TV cheerleading squad. As with the "Tea Parties," Fox News and AM Radio are promoting both the town halls and the lies to tens of millions of unwitting people. No wonder people are upset; trusted voices are scaring them to death. Voices like Rush Limbaugh, on 600 radio outlets, telling them, "as Obama said, they'll give 'em some pain killers, and let 'em loop out until they die." Laura Ingraham, on 300 stations, "Some will call them death camps." Glenn Beck, on 400 more, "Why is there no more discussion than there is on Sarah Palin, and what she said over the weekend that there would be a death panel for her son, Trig? That’s quite a statement. I believe it to be true..."

So, average people, shut out of the facts and terrified of the Obama plan, storm into town halls to shout down their elected representatives.

Here's where it gets good: this irate army creates just the kind of spectacle news loves to cover, so the "real" news amplifies the falsehoods way beyond the walls of the hall. The mainstream news no longer takes the time to clarify the facts, but instead becomes an effective PR machine for the right wing war of words. (See more on this phenomena in my Tea Party Story here at suewilsonreports.com.)

Meanwhile, President Obama starts a new website, www.whitehouse.gov/RealityCheck to counter the propaganda. But does he really think a website, any website, can stand up to the daily barrage on the battlefield of Talk Radio, an attack mounted on thousands of different fronts in every corner of the country? An arena where right wing mouthpieces dominate their opponents by ten to one? Can any internet action combat the giant corporate-financed microphones which, 24-7, since 1996, have been using Democrats as target practice, and which now martial hate and lies to attack Obama's plan, presidency, and even his citizenship? Where true believers number in the tens of millions, and warriors can be influenced and recruited simply by people turning on their radios?

(Think it's a coincidence that places where we've seen the most anger, like Michigan, Arkansas, Missouri, Philladelphia, and Austin also get zero progressive talk radio?)

There's a war, that much is certain. But the "healthscare" debate is just a skirmish. The real war Conservatives have been waging and winning is over facts and truth. It is a war they have been fighting for decades, and the Democrats have not yet figured out there's even a battle, so they keep losing.

Pew Research shows fewer than half of Americans believe news organizations get their facts right. That's way fewer than in 1985.

Maybe that's because the war on truth and truth tellers started much earlier. David Brock, former Conservative writer and founder of Media Matters, in an interview for Broadcast Blues, told me "the conservative movement going back to 1969, has had a coordinated and well financed attack on journalism in this country. …While they claim that the complaint is one of liberal bias… the real goal is to disable journalism from being able to do its job independently and neutrally." Worse, he says, "A lot of the falsehood and misinformation that's coming out of the conservative media is coming out intentionally . In other words, they know they're misinforming people, and that's a significant problem."

The Right has been piling up major victories in this war over the control of information for dozens of years. Dateline 1987: Ronald Reagan dismantles the Fairness Doctrine. 1996: Conservatives rewrite Telecommunications law so they can control the message on almost all the nation's radio stations. 2003: Fox News gets a court ruling in the "Akre/Wilson vs. WTVT" case that stations can legally lie to the public.

In USA TODAY, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-CA and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD write, “Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American. Drowning out the facts is how we failed at this task for decades.”

Wake up, Democratic Leadership, we have been at war over facts for decades, and our democracy is suffering because of it. Thomas Jefferson said, "A democracy cannot be both ignorant and free." Only you can save us, and it's about time you get into the fight.