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Urban Legends
Printable version of Urban Legends
Written by Mike Fernandez

This article is courtesy of  Christian Single magazine.

The year was 1981. Ross Brittain and Brian Wilson (not the Beach Boy) were the toast of the radio world in Atlanta. For two and a half years the two-man team hosted morning drive at pop station WZGC-FM. I was a fan. Rarely did I miss a show. They were funny, original, and according to the local radio ratings, the audience thought so, too.

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The Cost of Deception
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John A. Williams
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But like everything in life, all good things must come to an end. So it was with Ross and Wilson. Success bred success, and my favorite comedy tag team eventually hit the road to New York City to host the morning show at WABC.

I was disappointed. But that’s the world of radio – here today, gone for a better gig tomorrow. Unfortunately for Ross and Wilson, the memories of laughter weren’t the only thing they left behind in Atlanta. Forever and a day, this morning show crew would be remembered for The Joke.

The word on the street – and around the water cooler – and wherever else you could share a story, was that Ross and Wilson were fired from WZGC because, in the midst of a gruesome crime spree in Atlanta, they went on the air to dedicate Queen’s "Another One Bites the Dust" to the murdered and missing children in Atlanta.

The story circulated amongst anyone who had ears to hear. I had heard it so many times, I almost came to believe it. Let me repeat the word. Almost.
Something about it just didn’t quite ring true. I couldn’t personally vouch for its lack of authenticity, but one telltale sign kept popping up every time this story was propagated. The person who heard it was always "a friend," or "a friend of a friend." I could never find a first-person account of anyone who had actually ever heard the episode.

Fast-forward 20 years later. I’m on the phone with the aforementioned Brian Wilson (again, a reminder: not Carnie’s father), now a syndicated radio talk show host. Not surprisingly, he’s very familiar with the story.

"A reporter from an Atlanta newspaper called me at the studio in New York in '81," explains Wilson, "and said, 'Have you heard the rumor? It’s being said here that you and Brittain were fired because…'

"My response was, 'What?!' First of all, we weren't even allowed to play that song in morning drive. Second, it was sick humor – not the kind we would do. Third, our departure for the New York station had already been announced in the local paper. Even though the station wasn't thrilled, our parting was amicable."

According to Wilson, The Joke never happened, and he has no idea how it got started. He describes this episode as "the model for all urban legends."

The Legend Lives…and Lives

According to John A. Williams (not the conductor), author of The Cost of Deception and president of Sound of His Voice Ministries, the Ross and Wilson story falls squarely into the urban legend (UL) definition.

"Urban legends are popular tales with a good hook – something that draws you into the story – that usually involve some combination of off-the-wall, frightening or supernatural events," says Williams. "They always happen to 'a friend of a friend.'"

Broadcaster and speaker Rich Buhler, founder of the UL-debunking Web site, agrees. "We all love a good 'wow' story," says Buhler. "What would you do if you walked into your dentist’s office and there was a pig in the chair? Then you find out the pig was there to get dental work done. You would tell people that story for the rest of your life."

And for the rest of their lives, Wilson and Brittain will more than likely have to continue to put the kibosh on the lie that wouldn’t die.

"In 1991 I went back to Atlanta to host a show on a news/talk station," says Wilson. "Third caller into the show, boom! He asks about the rumor. I thought, 'My gosh, that was 10 years ago.' Then the local paper did another story on it. If I went back on the air in Atlanta today, I promise you it would start all over again."

Again, part of the UL pattern. "Urban legends are given birth, they grow, they decline and then they come back in another form," says Williams. "The location or the name of the company has changed, but the plot is still the same."

The Christian, The Atheist, and Ivory Soap

There are a plethora of contemporary myths that society has perpetuated, ranging from hair-raising creepy campfire tales to she’s-dying-please-help-her e-mails to the rodent-in-your-chicken stories. While some believe these phony fables are reserved for those whose main source of news is supermarket tabloids, the Christian community has proliferated its share of spiritual whoppers.

Look no further than Exhibit A: Madalyn Murray O’Hair. For more than a quarter of a decade, the Christian community has received letters, faxes, e-mails – you name it – stating unequivocally that the famed atheist has a petition before the Federal Communications Commission to remove all Christian programming off the airwaves. In turn, and in panic, believers have swamped the FCC in similar communication fashion, urging the commission to deny O’Hair’s request. Approximately 30 million letters have been sent to the FCC since 1976, the largest single response to any item in the agency’s history.

For the record, O’Hair never introduced such a petition. There is a shred of truth (not uncommon to ULs) to the story: a real petition number (attributed to O’Hair), RM2493. The original petition was submitted by two men asking the FCC to put a freeze on Christian organizations acquiring signals at the noncommercial end of the FM dial. The two gentlemen wanted smaller schools and colleges to have a crack at what were termed "educational" channels. The request was denied, but the story, mysteriously attached to O’Hair, is like a Friday the 13th movie – just when you thought the enemy was dead, he resurfaces five years later in the next sequel. The most recent round of e-mails declares that TV’s "Touched by an Angel" is the next target).

It doesn’t stop there. May I present Exhibit B. The story goes that an executive of Proctor and Gamble appeared on a nationwide talk show and declared he was a member of the Satanic church and 10 percent of P&G’s profits would be given to the church. Couple that with the company’s logo, which many a rumormonger made out to be a Satanic symbol, and you had calls from all over Christendom to boycott Proctor and Gamble’s products – toothpaste, Ivory Soap, anything branded with their name and symbol. Again: Never happened.

"When I first heard the story, a gentleman told me he saw the interview on television," says Williams. (Several also told Wilson they actually heard the "Another One Bites the Dust" bit). "However, no one can produce a transcript, nobody knows the name of the executive, and the name of the show he appeared on changes, depending on the year."

Trust, Then Verify

So is the Christian community more easily duped than others? Perhaps we’re "urban legend-challenged"?

"No category of people is more susceptible than others," explains Buhler. "We (Christians) are a special interest group with special concerns. But I do believe we are vulnerable because of our desire to embrace truth."

Williams concurs. "We have to learn to discern the truth, because if we are going to represent the truth to people, we can’t deal in fabrications, half-truths, innuendos, and rumors."

That goes for those in the pew – and the pulpit. Every week, urban legends are repeated by an unwitting pastor – ranging from President George W. Bush witnessing to a teenager on the campaign trail (never happened) to the inspiring tale of actor Mel Gibson overcoming severe facial burns (ditto, didn’t happen) to become an Academy Award-winning director.

"There’s nothing wrong with a fictional story with an inspirational purpose," says Buhler. "But if it’s presented as a real story, for the sake of integrity, we need to have the desire to know whether or not it’s really true."

And how exactly can we know? E-mail has accelerated the process of spreading urban legend (note how many ULs have resulted from the World Trade Center tragedy alone). When disseminating information, Williams offers some practical steps:

1. "Ask questions. Where did you learn the information? Try and go back to the source.

2. "See if the source is verifiable – CNN, a newspaper or magazine. Is it something you can find in a well-known media outlet?"

3. "Look at the fruit of it. Does it produce the qualities Jesus would want us to emulate, or does it produce fear and doubt and dread?"

For Williams, the cost of not verifying the truth comes at a high price. “Believing and spreading the urban legend makes Christians appear irrational and irresponsible," says Williams. "We’re viewed as reactive rather than proactive. Because of that view, it hinders our right to take the message of truth into the marketplace and be heard and taken seriously. My advice, when it comes to discerning the truth of a story, can be summed up in three words: Trust, then verify."

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