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KROQ Receives a Slap on the Wrist for Hoax

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After a six-month investigation, the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday took limited, largely symbolic action in regard to a phony murder confession broadcast by radio station KROQ-FM (106.7) last year, issuing a four-page letter admonishing the management for its “deliberate distortion of programming.”

The letter of admonition was the least serious punitive action that the regulatory agency could have taken, amounting to little more than a slap on the wrist and essentially clearing KROQ and its parent company, Infinity Broadcasting Corp., of any wrongdoing.

“The commission admonished Infinity for broadcasting the type of false and misleading information which violates its requirement to broadcast in the public interest,” the FCC said in a prepared statement. “The commission said it expected Infinity to assure that such violation is not repeated.”

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The FCC--whose investigation included testimony from many KROQ staffers during a grand jury-like proceeding--concluded that the bogus confession was the work of KROQ morning deejays Kevin Ryder and Gene (Bean) Baxter and a colleague, Doug (the Slug) Roberts, and that station management had no involvement in the scam, as executives had maintained from the time the hoax was uncovered last April.

“The hoax broadcast was a spontaneous, isolated event, orchestrated solely by certain on-air personnel who subsequently engaged in a cover-up,” the commission said. “Neither station management nor the licensee knew, or had any reason to suspect, that the broadcast was actually a hoax.”

The commission cited as mitigating factors the fact that KROQ General Manager Trip Reeb, Ryder and Baxter apologized on the air after the hoax was made public and that the morning duo offered restitution for the cost of a murder investigation that was launched by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Dept.

The incident, which occured on June 13, 1990, involved Roberts calling Ryder and Baxter pretending to be an anonymous caller who confessed on the air to beating his girlfriend to death. Baxter was then a deejay in Mesa, Ariz.; he later was hired at KROQ.

The phony confession, dreamed up by Ryder and Baxter, led to a 10-month search for the killer by sheriff’s detectives and elicited about 400 “leads” when a story about the case was broadcast on the “Unsolved Mysteries” television show.

Acting on a tip, a sheriff’s detective uncovered the truth about the call last April. The three deejays were suspended for five days without pay. In addition, Infinity Broadcasting required Baxter and Ryder to reimburse the sheriff’s department for the $12,170.98 spent on the investigation and to perform 149 hours of community service each.

Sheriff’s Sgt. John Yarbrough, the detective in charge of investigating the case, expressed disappointment over the FCC’s action Tuesday.

“That was it, a letter of reprimand? Their license isn’t jeopardized?” he said in a telephone interview. “It doesn’t really set, in my opinion, much of a precedent to prevent the problem from reappearing.”

KROQ attorney Steve Lerman said that he considered the action an appropriate one.

“This is pretty much what I expected,” Lerman said of the letter of admonition. “It doesn’t appear to conclude that Infinity was guilty of any wrongdoing, which is gratifying. From my point of view, that’s the important thing.”

While the KROQ incident is now closed, its impact may be long-lasting.

Last month, partly in response to the KROQ case, the FCC voted to begin formulating an anti-hoax rule that would give it greater flexibility in administering punishment to stations and individuals who pull off similar stunts in the future. Under current rules, the FCC--which receives about a dozen reports a year of radio hoaxes around the country--has limited options for punishment. Essentially its only choice is to admonish a station or revoke its license.

Commission members are seeking to include some middle-ground penalties, such as monetary fines.

FCC officials said that KROQ’s letter of admonition will go into the station’s file and could be taken into account when its license comes up for renewal.

“A station runs on its record, so anything that takes place during the license term could be considered by the commission, or any petitioners, at renewal time,” said Mary Catherine Kilday, assistant chief of enforcement at the agency.


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