Even though a former Belleville resident no longer works for National Public Radio, the network is continuing an April Fools' Day tradition involving the city.
Sean Collins, 52, was a senior producer with NPR in Washington, D.C., in 1997 when he hatched the idea of making Belleville the setting for an April Fools' Day bit about a "mouth sounds competition." Belleville reappeared in 2009 as the landlocked home of a whale breeding operation. And that story received a sequel for the April Fools' Day gag in 2013.
"I think it's great that they're still using Belleville" as the setting for the pranks, Collins said in between big laughs Tuesday morning. "I'd like to think they'd keep using it. But I heard my performance and I don't think it was very believable. So I think this will be the last time."
The joke was a story that claimed the U.S. Navy would open a home for retired military dolphins in the metro-east.
The dolphins, which were supposedly trained to disable and plant underwater mines during the Cold War, would retire to a $40 million facility on the outskirts of Belleville, the fake NPR story said. At the facility, a team of 34 graduate students would try to communicate with the dolphins to preserve their war tales for history, according to the NPR fabrication.
Collins, who now lives in St. Louis, said he was asked by his former NPR colleagues to play the part of faux chamber of commerce spokesman Norm Foster who welcomed the new development despite some potential negative elements.
"We've been desperate for something like this," faux chamber head Foster said in the phony report. "Of course, the smell of all the fish is awful. But we think it's worth it."
The real executive director of the Greater Belleville Chamber of Commerce was less enthusiastic.
"I'm certainly not in favor of us being the brunt of those kinds of jokes," John Lengerman said. "My first impression is that I don't like it. Bad press is not good for Belleville, I don't care if it's a joke or not."
Indeed, some people who commented on the bnd.com web site tried to turn the NPR prank into their own attempt at humor with the city as a punchline.
"For a real joke. They should have done a story about the hole on main," Racefan28 wrote. A person with the handle Mrsmes opined that the project was probably going to be built with money from a tax increment finance district.
Collins disagreed that the publicity reflected negatively on Belleville.
He said when the first prank was done in 1997 that "The Tonight Show" called seeking to have contestants from the mouth sounds competition on the show. He said city leaders at that time briefly considered putting on a real mouth sounds contest since the fake one was so well received.
"I love being from Belleville and I love visiting Belleville," Collins said. "I'm going there today to have lunch with a friend."
Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 618-239-2626.