From the political to manure, radio stations are still running with fake news

A fake quote about Rep. Maxine Waters spread from a Washington Free Beacon reporter to radio hosts and stations across the country

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Radio stations across the United States and Canada continue to spread fake stories both on social media and on the airwaves, despite warnings that this has become a systemic problem for the industry.

In March, Media Matters published a study finding that between late 2016 and February of this year, stations repeatedly shared fake news, and that it impacted all different kinds of stations. The study noted that stations fell for a variety of hoaxes, whether from fake news sites, social media, or message boards, and that stations sometimes shared stories even if the hosts admitted to being unsure they were true.

During the past month, a fake quote has circulated on social media of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) telling CNN host Anderson Cooper that if she was elected president, “I would impeach Donald Trump” (according to Snopes, it likely originated from a Washington Free Beacon reporter making it up “in jest”). Rather than trying to verify the quote, The Morning Line with Larry & Janet on Virginia talk station WLNI-FM shared it as real, as did conservative radio host Charlie James of South Carolina talk station WTMA-AM, even though he admitted, “I don’t know if Maxine actually said this” and noted that it might be fake. It was also shared by Fox & Friends and Fox News Radio host Brian Kilmeade on Twitter.

On May 14, World News Daily Report, a “satire” site that many stations have previously fallen for, published one of its most viral stories yet, claiming that a lottery winner dumped manure on his ex-boss’s lawn. Even though there was a satire disclaimer at the bottom of the article, many stations shared it on their websites or social media accounts as at least potentially real: Iowa music station KXKT-FM, Illinois talk station WCKG-AM, Virginia music station WROX-FM, Louisiana music station WKBU-FM, Ohio music station WONE-FM, North Carolina music station WGNI-FM, Maryland music station WZBH-FM, Oklahoma music station KJSR-FM, Kansas music station KEYN-FM, West Virginia music station WQBE-FM, California music station KUFX-FM, Indiana music station WLJE-FM, Utah music station KBEE-FM, Vermont music station WMOO-FM, Florida music stations WYCT-FM and WPOW-FM, and by multiple Canadian music stations.

Additionally, more than a dozen stations and shows shared the hoax on air (with several calling the fictional man a “hero” or a “good man”), including the syndicated show The Howie Carr Show (the hosts later mentioned it was fake news): Florida sports station WDAE-AM, North Carolina music station WEND-FM, Pennsylvania music station WILK-AM, Illinois music station WTMX-FM, Louisiana music station WEZB-FM, Oklahoma sports station KRXO-FM, Massachusetts music stations WMJX-FM and WJMN-FM, Ohio music station WCOL-FM, Maryland music station WIYY-FM, Colorado music station KALC-FM, Tennessee talk station KWAM-AM, Texas sports station KRLD-FM (whose hosts admitted they might be spreading fake news), and Texas talk stations KLIF-AM (whose hosts discussed that the man could get sued) and KNTH-AM.

These are not unique cases, but rather higher profile instances of a repeated pattern. Since early March, stations have also pushed the following:

  • Another World News Daily Report hoax about a scuba diver being hospitalized after getting his penis stuck in a giant clam was pushed on air as real by the syndicated show Walton & Johnson (which called the fictional person a “dumbass”) and Texas music station KZPS-FM.

  • At least five hoaxes that originated from or were posted on YourNewsWire, one of the most popular fake news sites, have been pushed by stations as real. Ohio talk station WNIR-FM entertained as possibly real a hoax that a dead Centers for Disease Control official was killed because he shared warnings about the flu shot (saying, “There might be a kernel of truth to that”); Walton & Johnson shared on air a hoax that California’s governor outlawed homelessness; Pennsylvania talk station WAEB-AM pushed on air a false story that California’s governor banned the Bible; conservative radio host Dennis Lindahl on North Dakota’s KTGO-AM pushed on air a hoax that a video of Hillary Clinton committing violent acts was available on the “dark web”; and Rhode Island Christian station WARV-AM shared on social media a false story that London closed 500 churches and opened 423 new mosques.

  • A hoax from the far-right message board 4chan /pol/ that people were licking toilets to protest President Donald Trump was pushed on air by WTMA-AM’s Charlie James (who said these supposed protesters “require medication” and that they should be put “on some type of a database”) and Missouri talk station KZIM-AM (who called the supposed protesters “idiots”).

  • At least seven stations shared on social media an extremely viral premature-death hoax about former first lady Barbara Bush from a site connected to an African-based fake news network.

  • Radio host Greg Knapp on Missouri talk station KCMO-AM and the radio show Morning Show With Sean and Frank on Maryland talk station WCBM-AM pushed a false story that Parkland, FL, mass shooting survivor David Hogg was not at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School during the shooting. Dennis Lindahl also entertained the idea on North Dakota’s KTGO-AM.

  • Oregon sports station KFXX-AM, Kansas music station KCHZ-FM, Ohio music station WMMS-FM host Alan Cox, Kansas sports station KCSP-AM host Bob Fescoe, and California sports station KNBR-AM host John Lund all shared on social media a fake image of a Kansas City sign saying the city welcomes 25 million visitors “anally.” Missouri talk station KTRS-AM pushed it on air, as did the syndicated show The Men’s Room (which admitted it was not sure if the image was real).

  • A fake tweet from actor Samuel L. Jackson about “modern mumble rappers” and teachers’ pay was shared on air by New York music station WQHT-FM, Michigan music stations WDMK-FM (whose host said it was “trending like crazy”) and WMGC-FM, and the nationally syndicated show Rickey Smiley Morning Show.

  • An illness hoax about singer Willie Nelson and his son “Eddie Nelson” (who does not exist) was pushed on air by Walton & Johnson (which admitted it came from a “sketchy Facebook page”) and California music station KKCY-FM. Georgia music station WRDA-FM also pushed a death hoax about actress Pamela Anderson from a fake ABC News site on air, and Mississippi talk station WPBQ-FM shared it on social media.

  • The Vermont music station WMOO-FM shared on social media a false story from a Kosovo-based site that there was an ongoing massive Easter egg recall that was leaving millions of children in danger.

All of this occurred within a little over two months. Though many of these fake news stories were not political, they are indicative of how easy it is for radio stations to get duped into sharing hoaxes and false information. And with mid-term elections less than six months away, fake stories about politics are likely to increase. If radio stations cannot kick their habit of sharing unverified stories, what is becoming an institutional failure for radio could -- based on technological developments in fake audio and video -- grow into a full-blown crisis for a platform that’s a major avenue for the public to consume information.