Showing our sense of humor

by Russ Hill on April 2, 2010

April 1st used to mean nothing to me.  But, after I joined the team at KTAR that changed.

Long ago the station started a tradition of pulling a prank on its listeners on April Fools Day.  It went away during KTAR’s stormy period.  And, two years ago, we brought the tradition back.

Each year I get a little uneasy the day before our “stunt.”  That’s what happens to a journalism graduate who spent several years in the reporting corps.  Inserting fiction into our newscasts and purposely deceiving our audience feels so counter to everything I’ve been ever done.

And, for the third year in a row I felt proud yesterday for what we had done.

And, for the third year in a row I got emails and phone calls from listeners swearing off KTAR.  They informed me that their family, staff, spouse, or friend had been devastated by our cruel joke.  They told me that news organizations have a sacred trust with their audience and that we had completely destroyed ours.  One even told me she would use Facebook, Twitter, etc to destroy us.

Lovely.

But, these are the minority.  And, frankly, they are the humorless.  These are the people who can’t laugh at anything in life.  I don’t know about you, but I can’t spend my career trying to satisfy them.

Yesterday, we also heard from thousands of other people.  These are the ones who are able to laugh at themselves.  In fact, for the second year in a row they called our switchboard in such droves that they brought down our phone system.  More than 1,000 of them left us voicemails.  And, using our new two-way texting platform, more than 2,000 of them sent us texts.

They were moms, school teachers, business owners, teenagers, office managers, and couriers.  Each of them went out of their way to tell us thanks for taking them for a wild ride as they first believed our prank and then realized we had pulled a fast one over on them.  Like someone stepping off a great roller coaster, they made sure everyone (including us) knew how much they enjoyed the ride.

This year’s joke was a report that Arizona lawmakers had voted to put all schools on year round schedules, end summer vacation, and send kids to school 3 days a week for 10 hours a day.  The story even claimed students would attend classes Monday, Wednesday, and Friday or Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday depending on the first letter of their last name.  We had a former state school superintendent and prominent Arizona rabbi play along with our story.  The story breaks at 5am and develops in our newscasts and talk shows all day long.  At 5:30pm we finally reveal the joke after

I’m sure our “false reporting” once again caused news establishments throughout Arizona to roll their eyes at us.  I’m confident a handful of listeners will never tune to us again because of our new credibility gap.  And, I’m confident that once again this year thousands of Arizonans will now be more loyal than ever before to KTAR because we showed we’re human.  We showed those reporting the news can have a sense of humor.  And, we took a great risk by going outside the lines.

Yesterday reminded me again that those of us in the news business really do live in a very serious world.  I think we lose track of how dark and heavy what we talk about to our audiences is everyday.  Especially during times like these.

I was reminded on April Fools Day that many of us are also so good at humor.  We have staffs filled with great personalities.  We need to do a better job getting out of the funk.  Yes, I know we have serious things to talk about.  But, we also could make life so much better for so many by taking more time to distract our audiences with things that make them laugh.

They need it.

We need it.

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