To "Air" is Human, But Former Employees Will
A radio station's most avid and litigious listeners are
often former employees. These individuals, who often have an axe
to grind, are quick to sue if the circumstances regarding their
departures are discussed on-air.
Because former employees are often disgruntled, their emotions
can make them extremely difficult adversaries. Likewise, their
knowledge of the inner workings of their former employer's operations
and the personalities involved make them knowledgeable and dangerous
litigants. As a result, it is important to educate station employees
about the risks of claims brought by former employees.
An increasing number of lawsuits are being made against radio
stations by former employees as a result of on-air comments made
by colleagues or successor disc jockeys. These off-the-cuff comments,
which often regard the circumstances of employment termination,
are not only embarrassing to the former employee, but may violate
confidentiality agreements made by the employer.
Statistics compiled by the Liberal Defense Resource Center in
New York indicate that one out of every six lawsuits filed against
radio stations in 1996 was brought by former employees. More than
half of these claims were premised upon either libel or civil
rights violations. The remaining claims were based upon invasion
of privacy, breach of contract, tortuous interference, assault
and battery and wrongful termination.
Most of the cases arise from flippant comments made on-air by
disc jockeys about a colleague's sudden departure. In the usual
case, a disc jockey will make creative and rarely flattering speculations
that the former employee "got caught stealing, drinking,
using drugs, etc." while at the station or on the air. In
one case, a disc jockey said that a former employee had stolen
a number of compact discs from the station and had even stolen
food from the lunchroom, "and anyone who would steal food
from co-workers obviously has mental problems." The former
employee contended that he had been libeled twice -- as a thief
and as being mentally unstable.
Offending statements that are made about an on-air personality
with his or her consent may come back to haunt the station if
this individual's employment Is later terminated. This is especially
true if a former employee was part of a morning show team whose
banter included the trading of insults. Statements such as "John
is older than dirt" or "John was caught having sex in
the control booth" may in fact be encouraged by the employee
himself or by the management as publicizing or embellishing the
on-air "personality." These comments, however, cease
to be funny when the individual is no longer employed by the station
and may serve as the basis for an age or sexual discrimination
When offending statements are made about former employees who
have subsequently been hired by rival stations, additional problems
may arise. In one case, a disc jockey stated that a former employee,
now employed by a competing station, "had a drug problem."
In this case, not only did the former employee have a cause of
action for defamation, but so did the rival station. Claims made
by competitors are always very contentious and expensive to defend.
While most claims arise because disc jockeys love to engage in
on-air speculation about the recent, sudden and mysterious departures
of colleagues, comments are sometimes made about employees who
left the station years ago. In one particular case, a talk show
host left the station as part of a mutual agreement under confidential
terms. Several years later, a disc jockey wished a happy birthday
to Jane Doe, "who used to work here until she got fired a
couple of years ago." The former employee sued for libel
and breach of contract because the statement was untrue, and the
circumstances concerning her departure were confidential.
Other claims arise because of management's failure to communicate
a talk show host's departure with the marketing department. In
one such example, a former employee made a claim for misappropriation
of his name because the station continued to promote him and his
talk show after his employment had ended. Such promotions may
take the form of recorded advertisements or may be literature
or billboards promoting the station that include the former employee's
name or photograph.
Station managers and on-air personalities need to exercise caution
when making comments about a former employee and the circumstances
surrounding his or her departure. While such comments are usually
intended to be humorous, former employees rarely think so, particularly
if the comments relate to criminal or embarrassing activities
or questions regarding the individual's occupational competence.
Accordingly, management should never condone comments that might
be perceived as racial, sexual or age discrimination or that accuse
the employee of criminal, unethical or incompetent conduct. Similarly,
station managers should be especially wary of any recurrent comments
or themes that are broadcast concerning on-air personalities if
they believe these individuals might later complain about such
behavior if the employment relationship ends.
Reprinted by permission of NAB Quarterly