First, one person got pranked. Then a whole lot of broadcast stations. And the second bite may get expensive. By now, you've seen this video:
Yes, it's a funny, mean joke. But a few seconds in, when the hoax really starts, there's a sound that comes over the radio: a buzz like an old-fashioned modem, right before the fake CDC announcement of a "mysterious virus."
It is a kind of "modem." That's either an EAS tone* or a close copy and in either event, radio and TV stations aren't supposed to put it on the air unless there's a real emergency. Yes, even for a funny joke that we all know is a joke; the Feds figure when you hear those distinctive sounds, you should be minded to pay attention and the weekly tests are all the "crying wolf" the system needs.
Put the tones on the air outside of tests or the real thing, and you'll be facing a fine; such fines run to the millions of dollars. "Good Morning America" ran the tones yesterday while sharing this prank, and so did lots of other radio and TV stations. ("Today," on a competing network, edited them out. That network was already fined over this sort of thing a few years ago, in connection with their ads for some "end-of-civilization" TV movie.)
Picture the FCC with a radar gun hiding behind a billboard along the highway as a long line of speeders come into sight. $$$$, bye-bye!
And that's how a prank bites twice.
* Technically, it's AFSK, "audio frequency-shift keying," a way of encoding ASCII text that is used by EAS to carry emergency messages. The normal format is three long chirps followed by three short ones. Every radio and TV station in the U.S. has a widget that can read these messages and pass them along; they monitor two or more other stations over the air, plus an Internet-delivered feed. In various forms, it's been around since the Cold War. Recently, FEMA (possibly looking for something they can get some respect for) has gotten very serious about making the system work for more than just bad weather. To their credit, they actually have been knocking off the rust and finding -- and patching! -- the weak spots, something FCC was always loathe to do.
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