Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Bad DJ

I've seen and heard enough tales of scams in my lifetime that I've become almost numb to them. But to me, this story rates up there with the televangelists who bilk senior citizens out of their retirement savings:

Their voices choked by anger and tears, victims of radio personality Todd Kelly yesterday accused him of betraying them and the community by faking Lou Gehrig's disease and spending more than $120,000 raised for research on himself.

"Todd didn't kill anyone -- what he did was worse," one of his friends and former colleagues, Chrissie Sizemore, said before U.S. District Judge Joseph McKinley Jr. sentenced Todd Edward Smith to seven years in prison.

"He used his friends and the community like suckers to fund his own rock-star lifestyle," Sizemore said, "to pay for trips and drinking and partying."


Smith duped friends, fellow church members and the media when he announced that he had ALS, a progressive and incurable neuromuscular disease that eventually paralyzes those it afflicts, leaving them unable to eat or breathe.

"I'm not going to lie -- it's pretty rough," he told The Courier-Journal for a story about his "wonderful life all but doomed to a premature end."

On the Web site for his foundation, he promised that "over 80 cents of every dollar you give goes straight to scientific research."

Ramping up the sympathy, he later announced he had cancer in both legs and that eventually he would have to have them amputated.

But ALS patients and their families started to notice that Smith's illness didn't seem to be progressing, and media began to raise questions about whether Smith was really ill.

There was a time in my life that I considered a career in radio, which is what I suppose caused this story to have an impact with me. All media personalities are in a sense keepers of the public trust. But the one-to-one aspect of radio listening makes for a special bond between the DJ and his or her audience. The best disc jockeys understand this well; nearly all of them can recall listening to a particular DJ growing up whose impact was so powerful that it inspired them to make radio their career. A master radio personality can truly make you feel as though they are having a conversation directly with you, and that you and the DJ are the only ones involved. Todd Smith betrayed that trust, that special bond his listeners shared with him, which is what makes his actions especially heinous.

In addition, frauds such as Smith make it that much harder for organizations who are genuinely involved in research and treatment of debilitating diseases such as ALS to raise money. Smith's actions may cost someone actually suffering from ALS needed care and treatment. The judge could have sentenced Todd Smith to 80 years in prison; as it stands, the seven-year sentence Smith received seems a bit too light.