Key 103’s Heartless Hotline broke Ofcom rules

Key 103 has been found in breach of two Ofcom rules after three complaints about its recent Heartless Hotline competition.

A listener described the treatment of the competition entrant on 27th April as “disgusting”, whilst Ofcom received two complaints about the 29th April edition from listeners who considered the competition had not been conducted fairly.

The nature of the competition, which we featured on RadioToday during its first round, puts a listener on-air to ask for a dream prize but then allows it to be stolen by anyone who rings the studio in a 30 second slot after the first caller has explained why they need the prize.

The first complaint was made after caller Sarah asked for £2,000 to pay for a divorce to get money from her husband to pay for household and solicitor bills. A second caller, Leigh, then stole the money for a holiday after the two had a conversation on-air about who deserves the money most.

Sarah pleaded with breakfast presenter Mike Toolan and guest host Brooke Vincent, and said “Please Manchester. I need this more than anything.” (See more of the transcript here.)

Ofcom said: “Sarah and Leigh were allowed to confront one another on air and argue about the extent to which each deserved the prize. At one point, this confrontation continued for over 30 seconds without any form of intervention from the presenters. We considered that it was likely that this would have increased the level of offence caused to listeners, because the station allowed this confrontation to occur in the first place and then let it continue uninterrupted.”

Ofcom said listeners were likely to have concluded this competition had caused unnecessary distress or anxiety to Sarah, but Bauer argued that it did not believe that the average listener felt this content would “cause offence”, a view which it considered was supported by the fact that only one person complained to either the station or Ofcom.

The Licensee considered “It is vitally important that commercial radio creates interesting, emotive content, including competitions, that engages listeners with not only [this] station but with radio as a medium, so long as due care is taken.”

A spokesperson for Bauer Media told RadioToday: “Following the call from a listener who was seeking to win money to cover legal advice for her divorce, Key 103 put her in touch with a legal firm who offered her £2000 – the equivalent value – of advice free of charge”.

Two days later another emotional caller, Carly, wanted £1,000 to pay for a debt so she could receive her mother’s ashes. Mike Toolan decided to block the studio phone lines so nobody could steal the prize from her.

He the asked his producer if he was going to get in trouble for doing that, to which the producer replied “No”. Mike said: “Carly, I er, I’m sorry. I’ve completely kind of changed the rules of the competition. We just blocked the switchboard so nobody could call.”

Ofcom investigated and found the station in breach again, to which Bauer agreed.

Bauer said that “the programming team is aware that on this occasion they made a poor judgement when the decision was taken to block the phone lines during one round of the competition”. This decision was taken, according to the Licensee, “as the appeal by the entrant [Carly] was very emotional and at the same time there was an overwhelming response by the audience on social media to the entrant’s appeal and her reasons behind wanting to win the prize”. The programme team therefore “felt compelled to block the phone[line] (as a listener may have done) to ensure the contestant won the prize”

The Licensee said the “level of feeling towards this contestant was overwhelming” and it hoped that “the subsequent feedback – whilst not excusing their decision – goes some way to explain why the station felt they were doing the right thing despite non-compliance with the competition rules”.

Ofcom concluded: “In our opinion, the Licensee should have been more aware before transmission of the potential for offence arising from including Sarah as a contestant in this competition on 27 April 2016. We were concerned that after the events of 27 April 2016, it appears the Licensee took no action to review its compliance process to help ensure that future broadcasts of the Heartless Hotline competition were conducted in compliance with the Code.

“The inclusion of a second contestant with similarly sensitive personal circumstances on 29 April 2016 resulted in another breach of the Code. We were concerned that the Licensee described this second breach as:
“technical”; “in the spirit of the competition”; and “to an extent justified”. In light of these concerns, we are requesting a meeting with the Licensee to discuss how it approaches the compliance of competitions in its live radio content.”

Ofcom found the station in breach of Rule 2.3 and Rule 2.13 of the Broadcasting Code.

Here’s how the competition sounded on day 1:

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