“We’ve got hazardous material,” the conductor told dispatch. “I can smell stuff now.”
Among the train’s cargo was 250,000 gallons of anhydrous ammonia, a component of fertilizer that’s transported as a liquid but turns to gas when it makes contact with the air. According to the CDC, breathing in the fumes can cause “eye, nose, and throat irritation” at its most innocuous level, “pink frothy sputum” at one step up, and, at its most destructive, death.
The derailment occurred four and a half hours into the train’s trip. As it slowed to enter a speed-restricted area, it hit a “rough spot,” the automatic braking mechanism was triggered, and a slight crack that’d developed in the rail joint completely fractured. The fourth car derailed, then the fifth, and soon the rest scattered and toppled too. The five cars with anhydrous ammonia tanks ruptured, and the resulting explosion was violent enough to hurtle one car over 1,200 feet away. A 350-foot-high cloud of vapor quickly spread in a 5-by-2.5-mile area across parts of Minot, North Dakota, population 35,618.
Residents of the quaint, secluded town—it started as a tent city in 1886 as the farthest western stop on the Great Northern Railway line—were shaken from sleep by the explosion and quickly began to smell something strange enough to make their own 911 calls. “It smells really bad,” said one resident. “What’s going on out there?” asked another. The dispatcher told residents to tune in to 910 AM, the town’s emergency-broadcast channel, for more information. So they did.
But all they heard, as Eric Klinenberg recounts in Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America, was “a standard menu of canned music, served up by smooth-talking DJs trading in light banter and off-color jokes while the giant toxic cloud floated into town.” Confused, the residents stayed put and braved the fumes, tried to make their escape, and everything in between. The chaos led to more than 300 town residents sustaining injuries, and the death of a 38-year-old man who, with his wife riding shotgun, tried to outrun the plume in his truck. They crashed into a house, and they ran from the toxic cloud by foot. She escaped into a house, but he succumbed to “prolonged exposure” after collapsing in a driveway.
Blame shifts, as always, depending on who’s in trouble. Minot authorities said they couldn’t get in contact with anyone in control of the station, while Clear Channel, the station’s owners, said authorities erred by not properly executing takeover procedures.
Either way, to Sue Wilson, an independent “media watchdog” based in a small town outside of Sacramento, California, the story was the logical end of a trend she’d been tracking since the mid-1990s.
“All of the radio stations were consolidated to one owner in one building,” Wilson tells me. “Nobody had any way to get the information about this deadly spill.”
A veteran of journalism, with two decades working in broadcast TV and radio in the LA and Sacramento markets—during which she won two Emmy awards, one for a feature series on government waste—Wilson had kept an eye on the slow creep of wavelength monopolization since President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Previously, no single commercial owner could lay claim to more than 20 AM and 20 FM frequencies, but after the legislation was signed, those national caps were removed, leading to a predictable corporate fight for the largest portion of the pie.
Bandwidth limitations meant that there was value on the broadcast spectrum that couldn’t compare to what was increasingly available online, in print, or even on cable. On those mediums, anyone with enough startup capital could conjure their own outlet and thus expand the total pie. But in broadcast radio and TV, what’s available is what’s available, and that’s that.
To Wilson, the train derailment outside Minot was a perfect example of what might happen when the airwaves are consumed by neglectful landlords. This story would feature prominently in her documentary on the subject, Broadcast Blues, released in 2009. But it was another, more infamous radio mishap in her own backyard that would land Wilson a conclusive victory against corporate monopolization of the public airwaves.
“Can’t you get water poisoning and, like . . . die?” asked Trish (real name: Patricia Sweet), one of the morning DJs on KDND-FM—dubbed “The End” for onomatopoetic reasons—in the early hours of January 12, 2007.
Trish was one of three hosts of the Morning Rave, one of those hypercaffeinated “morning zoos” that first rose in the 1980s and still barrage morning rush-hour commuters with their three or four or five weirdly amped clowns shouting into a microphone. On that day, the crew had a special contest planned that they’d interweave throughout the rest of their wacky hijinks, bullshit sesh about current events, and “traffic on the :10s.”
It began at 6:45 a.m., with 20 contestants in the station’s community kitchen, each drinking an eight-ounce bottle of water. After 10 minutes, they all drank another eight-ounce bottle and then rested for another 10 before guzzling another. As this continued, contestants dropped out, either to use the bathroom or just to get on with their lives. It was to be a funnier version of Hands on a Hard Body, definitely not as grotesque as those Depression-era dance marathons, but the show producers made sure the contestants signed waivers anyway.
“Your body is 98 percent water,” scoffed Steve Maney, another DJ, in response to Trish’s concern. “Why can’t you take in as much water as you want?”
“I don’t think so, there was that poor kid in college,” said Lukas, the third DJ in the zoo crew, trailing off in the background.
“That’s what I was thinking!” Trish said. “Maybe we should’ve researched this before.”
Whoever held out the longest without bowing out to go to the bathroom to pee or vomit would win a Nintendo Wii, hence the name of the contest: “Hold Your Wee for a Wii.”
While the video game console had a retail asking price between $250 and $300, the overwhelming hype surrounding its release made it nearly impossible to find, more a rarity than a game-playing device.
This was likely by design; it was rumored that Nintendo deliberately created a false scarcity for the Wii simply to drum up publicity. As GameStop COO Dan DeMatteo told investors at the time: “I think [Nintendo] intentionally dried up supply because they made their numbers for the year.”
So the KDND programmers could ask people to do silly things for the prize, and so they asked contestants to drink as much water as they could.
As the contest continued, fans of the show called in to express their concerns. “I want to say that those people that are drinking all of that water can get sick and possibly die from water intoxication,” said one of the callers. But the contestants, sequestered in the kitchen, couldn’t hear the show’s live feed. And anyway, it was a fun environment. So they kept on drinking the morning zoo’s water.
After eight bottles came and went, the producers felt they had to up the ante. There were too many contestants left and only two hours to go before the strike of 10 a.m. shifted programming to the next show. They doubled the amount of water contestants had to consume, from 8 ounces to 16, and then the contestants began dropping quickly. Soon enough, only two remained: Lucy Davidson and Jennifer Strange.
Davidson had gotten in to the contest after calling in to the morning show on her way to work. They asked her the “wackiest” thing she ever got for Christmas and evidently liked her response enough to welcome her into the contest. “I didn’t desperately want [a Wii],” Davidson said. “I thought it would be kind of fun.”
Strange, meanwhile, just wanted to win the console for her three kids at home.
“I don’t have to pee, but my stomach is like really, really full,” Strange said during one of the contest’s last check-ins, at which point they’d each consumed about 1.5 gallons of water. One of the DJs asked how long she could continue going on. “As long as my stomach will continue to let me,” Strange said. “Maybe a couple more.”
The producers, desperate to end the contest, began to bargain. If they quit, they could get movie tickets. No? Okay, tickets to the Harlem Globetrotters, then. No? Okay, how about tickets to that night’s sold-out Justin Timberlake concert, the fourth night of his blockbuster FutureSex/LoveShow tour. Both contestants refused those too.
“My head hurts,” Strange later said. “They keep telling me it’s the water, that it will tell my head to hurt, and it’ll make me puke.”
“Who told you that, the intern?” Maney, the lead DJ, asked.
“Yeah,” Strange answered. They all laughed.
The crew offered the Timberlake tickets again, and this time, Strange accepted. The DJs finally brought them into the booth to award the prizes.
“She looks sick,” Maney said, of Strange. “Oh, look at that belly, she looks three months pregnant!”
According to testimony after the fact, both contestants quickly went to the bathroom to vomit. Davidson described being barely able to move, her head “as big as probably three basketballs,” leaving her with no equilibrium, unable to move except by crawling on the floor. Strange felt bad enough that she called off work for the day, deciding to stay home and recover in bed for that night’s concert.
Five hours later, Strange’s mother discovered her body. She had died of water intoxication.
The fallout from the death was swift and broad.
Ten workers at the station, including all three of the DJs, were quickly fired. Shortly thereafter, the Strange family filed a lawsuit against Entercom Communications Corporation, the radio chain based in Philadelphia that, in addition to KDND, owned three other FM stations and one AM station in the Sacramento area. In 2009, a jury trial awarded the Strange family $16.5 million.
“Our hearts go out to all of her loved ones, including, in particular, her husband and children,” said Charles Sipkins, an Entercom spokesman, after the verdict. “While legal restrictions preclude us from commenting further on the verdict, we respect the jury’s decision and hope that it will assist the Strange family in coping with its loss.”
For Entercom it was a financial hit, but one that could be mitigated.
Founded in 1968 by lawyer Joseph M. Field, the company started with three stations on the East Coast. In 1973, they expanded to Seattle with KMTT-FM and spent the next decade-plus chiseling those stations into idealized mainstream programming with the broadest possible audience appeal. When deregulation hit the industry in the 1990s, they were ready to pounce. In 1995, they purchased a trio of stations in Portland, and when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 opened the floodgates, they got to work.
Entercom purchased the Sacramento-based 107.9 FM signal from Brown Broadcasting in 1996 and rebranded it to its Top 40 format, now known as KDND-FM The End, in 1998. The next year, they’d continue their bandwidth buy-up by purchasing 43 more radio stations from Sinclair Broadcasting, for a grand total of $825.4 million. By 2009, they owned 112 radio stations, good enough for seventh most in the US and a gross income of $118 million. It all meant that despite the Strange family lawsuit, there was no real risk of KDND-FM going off the air or Entercom losing its license.
To Sue Wilson, this was a problem.
While she’d since left the world of broadcast journalism to pursue her own longer-form independent projects, the newshound in her couldn’t resist this story in her own backyard. Every day of the trial, she’d make the 40-mile drive from her home in Fiddletown to downtown Sacramento and then write up dispatches to be posted on her website.
“The first day I posted something on my blog about it, nobody read it,” Wilson says. But she kept covering the case. A few days into the trial, she noticed that the Sacramento Bee had sent a reporter to cover it, then the Sacramento Press, then other outlets as well. “Which was great, because my little reporting just would not have had the same impact as [a major newspaper] coming out,” she says.
But every day of the trial, it became clearer and clearer how outrageous this contest was: The DJs had clearly known and audibly mentioned the story of Matthew Carrington, a Chico State University student who’d recently died from water intoxication during a frat ritual. People were calling in with warnings about the dangers of the stunt. There was no nurse present to make sure everything was safe. “The inmates were running the asylum,” she says.
Despite the $16.5 million awarded to the Strange family, Wilson felt it wasn’t enough. This wasn’t simply a case of morning-zoo idiots acting dumb, but a complete misuse of the public airwaves. With only so many to go around, wasting them on a deadly stunt should be punished more ferociously. And so, on Halloween of 2013, the final day to publicly challenge Entercom’s license for 107.9 FM, Wilson submitted her challenge with the help of Art Belendiuk, a sympathetic attorney from Washington, DC, who helped make it “look pretty, like it was actually done by a lawyer.”
“The question is not whether Entercom deserves to lose its license to broadcast, but rather will the Federal Communications Commission act?” Wilson said at the time, in an official press release through her more official Media Action Center guise.
She wasn’t expecting much from the filing. If the past decades of FCC history held true, they’d turn down her request, and maybe she’d get a good blog post out of it. “[I thought] I’m just going to have to write a snarky article,” she says, one that she expected would, as usual, be completely ignored.
But instead, while in the foyer of her niece’s house in North Dakota, Wilson got a phone call.
“You’re not going to believe this,” Belendiuk told her, “but this is going to trial.”
The FCC had announced why the hearing would take place with 36 full pages of reasons for Entercom’s negligence, ultimately concluding:
[T]he record suggests that Entercom may have abdicated its responsibility to ensure contest safety by deferring to an organizational environment that: (1) promoted station reliance on remote and overburdened corporate managers; (2) failed to adequately train and supervise front-line employees; (3) failed to assign clear responsibility to any individual for ensuring compliance with contest policies; and (4) prioritized minimizing legal liability over listener health and safety. Possible deficiencies in that corporate system do not excuse any failure on the part of Entercom, as licensee of KDND, to have operated the Station in the public interest.
That’s a lot of legalese to essentially tell Entercom they were fucked.
Wilson remembers trying to tell her family about the importance of this decision, but they weren’t really getting it. “That reaction is typical for this topic,” she says. In any case, she now had 30 days to get her act together before the hearing. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says. She enlisted the help of Michael Couzens, a lawyer and community-radio activist from Oakland, California, but the FCC had already put their case in a pretty strong position.
“This was so egregious,” Wilson says. “How do you turn your back on this story?”
With all signs pointing to an embarrassment, Entercom folded, but not without some showmanship. On Thursday, February 2, 2017, Entercom announced to the world that it was merging with CBS Radio. The next day, as part of what Wilson, always the broadcaster, calls “the Friday doc dump,” Entercom said it was surrendering the license to KDND. Not because they were about to get their asses handed to them in court, but because, with the merger, they’d have too many stations in Sacramento.
“We’re just going to be nice guys here and surrender, because we’re going to have too many [stations],” Wilson mocks them.
The legal battle ended with a whimper, but the FCC still forced Entercom to pay Wilson’s legal fees, covering $35,000. Beyond that, Wilson didn’t get a penny, as laws prohibit financial gain from such public challenges.
I asked her if this still felt like victory, though she didn’t get her day in court.
“Oh, absolutely! The airwaves belong to the public, [and] we really proved that all those concepts which were left behind in the thirties are still law today. It would’ve have been good to take them to court and flog them and get them, but this is a seminal case that people will go back to and see that the FCC [. . .] has a public interest standard.”
But will they do so quickly enough? A look at the current broadcast media landscape, with the power of the FCC now in the hands of the Republican Party (the five-member panel is always 3–2, with the political party of the sitting president dictating the lead), shows us no signs of anyone fretting about broadcast-media consolidation. This is troubling, as those insidious bandwidth buy-ups have allowed ideological propaganda to proliferate like mad.
There’s a viral supercut going around of local news anchors around the US reading from a script spouting Donald Trump’s “fake news” talking points. The script could be read by so many broadcasts covering such a wide geographical swath only because the stations are all owned by Sinclair Broadcasting, which, as Motherboard reports, is planning to merge with Tribune Media, giving them access to 230 broadcast stations, or 72 percent of the American public. This is well above the FCC cap of 39 percent, but easily exploitable loopholes are far and wide.
I asked Wilson if the hubbub around the Sinclair news-anchor video makes her feel partially vindicated after a crusade that has long fallen on deaf ears. “It’s nice, because I have been trying to say this for a while,” she said. “But radio is invisible, so it doesn’t capture people’s imaginations like this. I’m glad that finally people are waking up.”
I asked Wilson why she spent so much of her time, essentially volunteering, to prove this point. “It was really a labor of love, and of patriotism,” Wilson said. When I pressed her on that last word, she recalled watching a TV station manipulate their news broadcast in an attempt to affect the outcome of a trial.
“It got my dander up, and I saw the danger in that moment of what a single TV station could do, and if you could multiply it by hundreds of TV stations, what they could do,” she said. “It could really damage our democracy, and we have to stand up for our country.” But she knows she can’t keep up this unpaid pace forever. “I’m going to be sixty years old and spent the last twenty not making any money. I probably need to do that now.”
I called back a few weeks later to ask if she’s serious about retirement, of moving on to other pursuits and ceasing her lifelong battle against media consolidation. “Well.” She paused. “Yesterday, I posted on Facebook for the first time in a long time. And I’ll probably write an article.”
Wilson told me the FCC still has to approve this Sinclair/Tribune merger, and maybe now people have a clearer idea of what’s at stake.
“It’s a good time to fight,” she said.