Wednesday, November 29, 2000

WEBN admits hoax

No one willed cash to station; boss got fooled, too

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Now we know why nobody at WEBN-FM (102.7) could remember Gary Willis, the former listener who willed $10,834.70 for the station to give away.

        He never existed. WEBN staffers made him up to give away $11,000 in a contest patterned off an Atlanta radio giveaway last month.

        “The money is real, but they made up Gary Willis,” admitted Mike Kinney, market manager for Clear Channel's eight stations here, including WEBN and WLW-AM (700). “I told them to change the promos (promotional announcements) immediately, but to continue giving away the money,” he said.

The fictional Gary Willis
        Many people — including Mr. Kinney and The Enquirer — were fooled by the scam, which included a letter from the widow and Mr. Willis' high school photo on WEBN's Internet site.

        The Enquirer became suspicious after publishing the story Monday about the giveaway of 11 installments of $1,000. A caller told the paper that Atlanta's WNNX-FM (“99X”) had given away $60,000 supposedly willed to that station in October. WNNX and WEBN used the same audio clue to solicit contestants — the sound of the deceased “coughing up the cash.”

        Mr. Kinney said Tuesday he thought the will story was legitimate, until asked about the similarities with Atlanta. He called back to confirm that the story had been fabricated by program director Michael Walter and operations director Scott Reinhart to disperse money in the station's contest budget.

        “They took the premise from 99X,” Mr. Kinney said. The two WEBN staffers went to great lengths to perpetuate the scheme. They created a story about how Mr. Willis had used a $1,000 prize from WEBN in 1975 to move to San Francisco and start a software company. They had a woman call an Enquirer reporter's voice mail, identifying herself as the San Francisco widow.

        The ruse continued through Tuesday morning, when Mr. Walter insisted the audio of Mr. Willis “coughing up the cash” came from the deceased man's San Francisco attorney. He refused to provide the name or phone number of the lawyer.

        Even former WEBN general manager Alene Grevey, who transferred to a South Carolina station two weeks ago, believed the will story, Mr. Kinney said.

        “... I told her it sounded like something that would happen at WEBN-FM, with the heritage of this station here,” Mr. Kinney said. “It turned out to be like the WWF (World Wrestling Federation). We'll correct the promos.”


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