FEATURE Radio Fraudcasting How your local radio DI got fat hawking skinny snake oil BY ANDREW WHEAT Radio listeners tuning into Dallas DJ Jeff K on could hear him extolling a magical weight-loss remedy. “It helped me lose 36 pounds,” said the DJ, whose real name is Jeff Kovarsky. “I ate so much over Thanksgiving, I still have turkey burps. But thanks to Body Solutions, I keep the weight off and now I’m ready for Christmas. So, bring it on, Grandma. The honey-baked ham, the apple pie, the Christmas cookies. I’m not afraid because I’ve got Body Solutions Evening Weight Loss Formula.” Few listeners then could have known that Kovarsky was hyping a scam by a politically connected Texas company that preyed on people who wanted to believe a radio personality’s claim that it’s possible to “lose weight while you sleep.” Last October, the Feds shut down San Antonio-based Mark Nutritionals, long after it began paying radio personalities at 755 radio stations across the country to sell this snake oil by saying that they had shed pounds just by taking a spoonful of this herbal potion before bed. Mark Nutritionals also paid millions of dollars to the radio stations for these endorsements. While the stations have not advertised the fact that they rented out their airwaves to promote this fraud, 370 of themincluding 58 in Texasfingerel themselves by registering in court to recover money from the company after it declared bankruptcy last year. Ex-tabloid celebrity photographer Harry Siskind started Mark Nutritionals in 1999, after the bankruptcy of an earlier venture that sold weight-loss cookies called Texas D’Lites. Although the slang term “mark” is all too applicable to Mark Nutritionals’ customers, Siskind named this company and Mark’s, a San Antonio nightclub, after his late brother-in-law. Siskind told the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce in 2001 that his initial doubts about this marketing scheme vanished like celluliteovernight after his first paid radio announcer generated $3,400 in sales. To be sure, commercial radio embraced quack claims in its infancy. Carr Collins, the insurance magnate who headed Texas’ first workers’ compensation agency, used radio to sell $3 million of “Crazy Crystals” during the Great Depression. The in 1940, after the serendipitously named Dr. Arthur J. Cramp debunked the crystals’ laxative claims. Mark Nutritionals cleverly put radio personalities on a commission to endorse its product in what were not clearly delineated ads. Paying promoters proportional to the volume of sales that they generated created incentives for strong endorsements and discouraged announcers from addressing complications. Few listeners, for example, ever heard that Evening Formula was just part of a full Body Solutions regimen that also was supposed to include doses of the stimulant ephedraone of the nation’s most dangerous herbal remedies. Devoid of pictures or fine print, radio was the ideal medium to broadcast this former paparazzo’s message to an obese nation. Millions of faithful listeners heard personal pitches from familiar voices, yet they could not see if the announcer plugging the product really had lost weight. In four years, Mark Nutritionals rang up $155 million in sales to more than one million customers. The company’s imitators testify to its success. Richard Cleland, the assistant director of the FTC’s advertising division, says that false weight-loss claims are flooding the market. Michigan-based marketing firm BTW Associates, which advertises its “Reality Radio” services as “America’s most effective model for live endorsement radio,” worked for at least 50 radio stations that promoted Evening Formula. “When taken every night on an empty stomach right before you go to bed,” Emmy-award-winning CBS commentator Charles Osgood said of the product on 400 Infinity Broadcasting stations, it “will help you to lose weight while you sleep. It’s that easy.” While the FTC, which settled its 2002 fraud lawsuit against the company in October, would not identify all the stations that promoted this fraud, half of them registered in federal court to collect money that Mark Nutritionals owes them. An FTC attorney involved in the case said it’s reasonable to assume that these 370 creditor stations are pursuing revenue from Evening Formula ads that they aired. Other stations may not have pursued such debts out of the shame that dogs some of the people who either promoted or bought into this scam. After joining a 2002 class-action lawsuit against Mark Nutritionals, Florida homemaker Janet Makinen cited embarrassment as “the reason most people have never taken on the Yet the payola lure of all the advertising money that Mark Nutritionals owed to major radio chains prompted them to swallow their pride. Even before Mark Nutritionals filed for bankruptcy, Viacom’s Infinity Broadcasting sued the company to recover more than $9 million in advertising revenue and Cox Enterprises sued to recover $452,000. The nation’s three largest radio powers account for 41 of the 58 Texas stations that are seeking payment for pro 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 12/5/03
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