The word schadenfreude, defined as deriving pleasure from the misfortunes of others,” may be unfamiliar to you unless you speak German or have seen the Broadway Musical Avenue Q. But if you are a fan of shock-jock morning radio, you are probably familiar with the concept.
The syndicated “Elvis Duran and the Morning Show” beamed from New York’s Z-100 features a regular segment called Phone Taps where a friend or relative of a listener pranks the unsuspecting ex-friend and current relative-in-exile. In a segment broadcast today on Miami’s Y-100 WHYI, a man called his fiancee at work to tell her that her new car, left running with the keys in it, had been stolen while he stopped off to grab a power shake. She freaked. Her panic was exacerbated when the morning show host, masquerading as the thief, dialed in from her boyfriend’s stolen Blackberry and asked how much she was willing to pay to get her car back.
She wasn’t happy. “Why would you do this to me?” she asked the boyfriend after the prank was revealed.
Throughout the five minute segment I kept thinking, “ok, what’s funny about this?” until I realized it wasn’t supposed to be funny. It was supposed to be schadenfreude.
Elvis Duran’s winning formula in morning drive has won him fans and ratings in 27 markets. The Phone Tap segment even spawned a short-lived four-episode reality show called Phowned on Spike TV last December. WHTZ-FM (aka Z-100) consistently ranks in the top New York radio stations on the strength on the Elvis Duran show.
Having spent the beginning of my career working in radio, I have some appreciation for the accomplishments of Mr. Duran. Top of the ratings heap in New York with clearances in major markets is no mean feat. I also realize the golden age of radio has long since passed — it was long ago dead and buried by the time I spent five years in the business 35 years ago. (Eight months was spent as Producton Manager of America’s first disco radio station. Yes, that was a long time ago) But after hearing the stolen car/not really stolen phony phone call, I have to ask: “That’s Entertainment?”
It’s pretty clear that this Phone Tap did irreparable harm to this relationship. I’m no marriage counselor, but when your fiancee screams into the phone “why would you do this to me?” across 27 markets during morning drive, it’s likely that there are some rough times ahead for you and the missus. (although you could argue that this Phone Tap was The WTF Intervention this relationship really needed, and without it these guys were going to implode sooner or later).
What I’m not sure of is why people enjoy this. Are there really enough Germans listening to radio in morning drive to make Elvis a winner?
Don’t blame the Germans. They might get credit for creating the word. But it takes American ingenuity to turn other people’s pain into morning drive gain.