Go ahead and finish the quote:
“…I thought turkeys could fly.”
A TV sitcom about radio.
Yes, “WKRP in Cincinnati” only had a four-year run from the late’70s to the early ’80s. But if you worked in radio during that time, those 90 episodes became “Must See TV.” Or perhaps better put, “Must See Radio.”
If you’ve ever been part of a radio station staff past or present, you’ve probably had the same idea that Hugh Wilson had: there are so many funny, crazy things that happen in radio and all those eccentric characters, it would probably make a great TV sitcom.
The difference is that Wilson, a former WQXI/Atlanta sales rep, obviously was taking good notes and made it happen. He collected the weird, offbeat stories, as well as the stereotypical staffers that inhabited radio back in the ’70s, and turned his idea into hit TV show.
“WKRP in Cincinnati” was produced by MTM – the studio juggernaut Mary Tyler Moore and Grant Tinker built. The show about an absurd staff of radio crazies trying to turn a bad station around fit right into their lineup.
At the time, MTM was a huge force in television, producing hits like “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Hill Street Blues,” “Lou Grant,” “St. Elsewhere,” and others. Back then, the studio was analogous to the power and influence Shonda Rhimes and her empire hold over prime time TV today.
I was reminded of “WKRP’s” influence when I read the news of Wilson’s passing this week. He created and wrote the show, and even co-penned the lyrics to “WKRP’s” memorable theme song with lyrics like these, that sum up the radio careers experienced by thousands of people:
Got kind of tired packing and unpacking,
Town to town and up and down the dial
Maybe you and me were never meant to be,
Just maybe think of me once in awhile.
When it was on the air, radio people watched the show religiously, comparing notes the next day at the water cooler or in department head meetings. I believe part of the fascination was the very fact that someone decided to make a weekly TV show about radio. “WKRP” was goofy at times, but there was something flattering about it.
And in a clever “wink” to radio, Wilson made sure WKRP wall space and bulletin boards were plastered with actual radio station bumper stickers. Believe me – if your station’s logo made a cameo appearance on “WKRP in Cincinnati,” it was a badge of honor and bragging rights for your morning show the following day.
When Sonia Sotomayor was being questioned about her qualifications to be on the U.S. Supreme Court, she remarked how she was influenced by TV lawyer Perry Mason who ruled prime time TV on the CBS network back in the ’50s and ’60s. And so I wonder how many people who went on to become DJs, PDs, and maybe even radio sales reps, were oddly inspired by “WKRP” to take a shot at radio.
The “WKRP” staff was comprised of every cliché in radio – the anal, uptight PD, the self-important news director, the gregarious but empty-headed GM, the zany, coffee-guzzling morning guy, the hot receptionist, the sleazy sales guy, the cool black DJ, and the quiet young woman who did a lot of the work behind the scenes and became an increasingly important part of WKRP’s operations.
Like in most radio stations, you got to know this crew pretty well. And if you’d worked in radio for any length of time, you probably knew co-workers just like them.
Not surprisingly, I always identified with PD Andy Travis, constantly trying to bring order to the chaos. And I’m sure most of the radio people watching this show had a favorite character, too.
The thing was, “WKRP” was a fun place to work. Of course, things went wrong – just as they do in “real life” radio. But at WKRP in Cincinnati, the interplay between the characters in day to day radio situations made the show special. Media organizations are always intriguing to watch, as I was reminded last weekend when I saw “The Post.”
But in “WKRP’s” case, the show was flat-out funny to the millions who enjoyed it each week, but especially for those of us working in that little fraternity called radio. Perhaps the best and most famous episode aired during the first season – “Turkeys Away” – the hilarious story of a radio promotion gone very wrong, apparently based on a real-life WQXI debacle. The title of today’s post lifts the best line from this classic epsiode, excerpted in the video below. It is most definitely “safe for work,” but you might want to have a chat with your marketing director after you watch it.
As goofy and exaggerated as the “WKRP” characters could be, there was something flattering about someone thinking a sitcom about radio could be funny and a big hit.
Like Hugh Wilson, who signed off for good this week.
I sure wish someone would find radio today as interesting and entertaining as MTM did back in the ’70s. And if there’s someone out there in Hollywood who wants to give it a shot, I volunteer myself as casting director.
I know just the types.
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