Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The family of Jennifer Lea Strange, the California mother of three who apparently died of water intoxication after participating in a Sacramento radio contest, wants the Federal Communications Commission to revoke the station’s license.

In a letter to FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, the family’s attorney said KDND-FM showed “wanton disregard of the safety of the participants” in the contest for a Nintendo Wii game console. The station’s “Hold Your Wee for a Wii” contest awarded the prize to the contestant who could drink the most water without going to the bathroom.

Mrs. Strange, who placed second in the Jan. 12 contest, was found dead in her home later that day after drinking nearly two gallons of water. A preliminary autopsy by the county coroner showed Mrs. Strange died of water intoxication, a condition that can lead to cardiac arrest and cause the brain to swell.

During the on-air contest, disc jockeys from the station’s “Morning Rave” show interviewed participants and joked about potential negative consequences.

“We believe that an investigation by the FCC will discover that management was involved in the promotional decision to run this contest and pressured their staff to cajole, intimidate and compel contestants to continue drinking large volumes of water despite complaints of physical pain,” wrote Roger A. Dreyer, the Strange family’s attorney.

Mr. Dreyer has said he plans to file a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Top-40 station, which is owned by Entercom Communications Corp. Entercom has fired 10 employees in connection with the incident.

“We take allegations of violations of our rules very seriously, and we look into them,” said FCC spokesman Clyde Ensslin.

If the commission determined, upon closer examination, that the station violated FCC rules or licensing terms, it could take a number of actions, including levying a fine, issuing a cease-and-desist order or revoking KDND’s license altogether.

“The FCC is not a court. It only deals with its own regulations,” noted Harry C. Martin, a media lawyer with Arlington law firm Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth PLC, who said the case appears to be more of a civil matter.

Commission rules on radio contests focus on deceptive practices, he said.

Because the case involves a death, the legal releases signed by contest participants may not protect KDND from liability, said Mr. Martin, who is not involved in the case and was speculating based on press coverage of the incident.

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department is investigating the case. The FCC might be more likely to intervene if criminal charges are filed against a station owner, Mr. Martin said.

CBS Radio Inc. and ABC Radio Network Inc. declined to discuss their contest policies, and calls to Clear Channel Communications Inc. were not returned yesterday. The three companies own Top-40, urban and classic-rock stations in the Washington area.

The Victorville, Calif., Daily Press reported Saturday that a Victorville resident, Dave Gross, suffered water intoxication in a similar radio contest in August sponsored by Clear Channel outlet KZXY-FM. Mr. Gross survived, but was hospitalized for two weeks, the paper reported. He won a pool table.

Channel Surfing runs on Wednesdays. Call 202/636-3139 or e-mail krowland@washingtontimes.com.

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