The Lawyers Ruined Radio


(By Mike McVay) Who hasn’t heard the expression “Lawyers ruined radio?” Usually, it is spoken after you’ve been turned down for a promotion that you wanted to execute, the rejection of a talent or seller you wanted to hire, or an appearance that you wanted to execute has been deemed inappropriate for the station. My joke with the corporate attorneys was always “I think that I can handle this. I watch Law & Order, LA Law, The Goodwife and Boston Legal. I got this.” A pun usually answered with a chuckle from the counselor I was meeting with at that moment.

The legal department is there to protect everyone from themselves. Protecting the contestants, the winner, the radio company, the station employees and participating advertisers. Given the litigious nature of our business, you have to think through every possible aspect of what could go wrong and then account for it or prepare for it.

I’ve had my share of radio mishaps over the years. WAKY/Louisville sponsored and presented the Wacky Ramblin’ Raft Race every spring. A race of homemade rafts on the Ohio River. We were surprised when someone drowned. We shouldn’t have been. People were duck taping plastic milk jugs together and using them as rafts. A morning talent at KSFM/Sacramento decided to live on a billboard until a certain pro team won a game to snap a losing streak. They fell off the billboard in the middle of the night and shattered both legs.

Then there are “contests gone bad.” WMYI/Greenville, SC executed the tried and true “Key Song Contest” to giveaway a boat. They didn’t announce that the first key to start the boat won it. They just said “If your key starts the boat, you win it.” All of the keys were cut to start the boat. They gave away more than one boat that day. Similarly, a station that I once consulted in Atlanta gave away 6 Mazda Miata’s. We now make sure the rules say “The first key …”

“Events gone wild” is another favorite of mine. One station that I consulted threw a party to celebrate #1 ratings and #1 sales. A physical fight with punches thrown broke out between sales and programming. So much for esprit de corps. Many remember the Who concert in Cincinnati where 11 people were trampled to death. That was a concert where many stations gave away tickets to contest winners. It’s events like these where an ounce of preparation prevents a pound of problems.

Contests have to be legal. Claims have to be real. Radio most of the way through the 90s was like the AMC Television show Madmen. Saying the word “chance” seemed to be the icing on a burnt cake and emboldened stations that giveaway chances to win while making them sound as if the prize was actually awarded. Radio stations have been fined for falsehoods around promotions and several have lost their licenses in years past. Not to mention the class action suits against major broadcast companies for presenting group contests without checking the variance in state laws.

The first contest rules date back to the Communications act of 1934. The Federal Communications Commission “Contest Rule” still applies to television and radio broadcasters and their sponsors. The Contest Rule provides that it is illegal to “predetermine or prearrange” the outcome of a contest or to broadcast a “predetermined or prearranged” contest. That’s the easy-to-understand part. What comes after that can be challenging to follow and a real chore to explain to the audience.

Contest rules need to be detailed specifically. Should show the odds of winning. Need to be presented on-air, online, and have a copy available to the air-talent and at the front desk … if you have a bricks and mortar location. Contests themselves cannot be a lottery. A lottery is when you have chance, consideration and prize. Consideration means that someone pays or invests a payment or expense to play and potentially win.

The checklist for contest rules contains the following; Eligibility. Contest or sweepstakes period. How to enter. How to win aka winner selection. Verification of the potential winner. Prize/s. Entry conditions and release from claims. Publicity and the right to use the winners name, likeness and voice. Taxes. Prize awarding/pick-up of prize. General Conditions. Limitations of liability. Disputes. The contestant’s personal information. Sweepstakes results. A hold harmless release.

Think about what can go wrong and plan for it to prevent it. Once your promotion or event is set in stone, meet with your staff and share the details with them, so that there is no confusion. Be sure that your team knows the dos and don’ts of every contest, promotion and event. Be sure that your employees know that they and their family is not eligible to play.

The items here are just the tip of the iceberg. We need lawyers, their experience and position, to look out for us and protect us. Their conservative nature is purposeful so that something that was meant to be fun doesn’t turn into something that’s quite the opposite. Please know that I don’t profess to be an attorney. Although as stated, I watch Law & Order, LA Law, The Goodwife and Boston Legal.

Mike McVay is President of McVay Media and can be reached at [email protected]


  1. Sometimes you need a lawyer to protect you from -your boss – or yourself. We once gave away a car. Fair and square. No issues until the winner announced on the air that he was vision-impaired. We never implied in the rules that the winner had to be a licensed driver, free of disabilities so I figured “so what?”. We gave away a car to someone who’d have to find a driver to escort him around. Our GM felt differently. He thought the winner had to be a licensed driver. Oh, did I tell you this was before we had lawyers involved? We ended up giving away a second car to a licensed driver. The PR was good-the impact on my promotional budget? Not so good. Had we run this by a lawyer, we could have avoided this internal strife. Who was right-me or the GM? Well since HE was in the big front office, I guess he was. Most every legal eagle I’ve dealt with since has been fair, smart and kept our behinds out of many problems.

  2. Ah yes: prize, chance, consideration. This was drilled into my head over and over. Ive out of the industry for sometime yet, I still hear stations conduct lottery contact 👍

  3. I was lucky my first job in radio was with ABC. Our legal staff was known for their doggedness. You had to learn how to spar with them. I learned that instead of asking for permission to do something (yes, they often led with “no” or “don’t”), I kicked off conversations with “How can we….” or “What is the best way to….”

    The more I knew, the easier it was to talk with them. And I felt like they respected me more if I displayed a degree of knowledge and preparation. They are paid to protect the license. We are, too.

    • Not to mention that phrasing your question the way you did showed respect for their knowledge and expertise. You were coming to them for advice on how to do what you wanted rather than challenge them to come up with reasons why not. That likely changed their attitude toward you more than anything.

      Fred, I’d rather hear “the lawyers ruined radio” than “the consultants ruined radio” (which you and I — and you too, Mike — have heard from armchair quarterback listeners far too often).

  4. I’ve been thru the “key” contest before in the 80’s. The pad lock on the boat opened for the winner, but then someone else wanted to try their key after it was over and people were leaving. Their key opened the pad lock too. We were lucky everyone didn’t want to try theirs. A sales person reported to me that onfree shopping trip promotion at a local grocery store where the owner drew the winner’s name could have been a huge fine by the FCC when the grocery store owner drew several names and discarded them in front of the sales person until he found a winner that he knew shopped regularly at his store. So many issues, maybe not enough lawyers after all.

  5. Mike…no lawyer ever got in trouble for saying “NO”. It is their nature and good for self-preservation. That’s the frustration we all have felt as we see more and more litigation. Your advice is good and reasonable…not necessarily qualities that create exciting promotions these days however. Thanks for your advice…


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