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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Dave Mason says
Yup. ‘KRP was a classic-and still is (!). When I remind people of my days in Cincinnati, they will always say “Oh WKRP?”…. and I proudly tell them “WKRC”-which still exists. In my first month there I was having beers with one of our co-workers-at Rookwood Pottery -and who did we spot at the bar? Gary Sandy!! He was in town for a local stage production, but who’d have thought ? Andy Travis-right there in Cincinnati. RIP Hugh-you and the writers did us all proud.
Jerry Noble says
Missed opportunity- I was visiting a friend in Los Angeles who was a writer on a TV show when he briefly introduced us to his boss, “Bill”. We said a quick hello, and moved on with the rest of our tour. Only afterward did I discover that “Bill” was (the late) Bill Dial, the co-writer of “Turkeys Away” and also played station engineer Bucky Dornster. Totally missed my “I’m not worthy!” moment.
Fred Jacobs says
I hate that when happens. Thanks for the sad story.
Larry Spider J Hamilton 00 says
Wasn’t there a sitcom involving an R&B station in Detroit or another northern city and the story centered around a newly hired
White Program Director and his Black staff? Early 70’s I think…called ‘Soul Radio’…or something like that (on NBC I think)!
Fred Jacobs says
Wow, don’t remember that, but I’m hoping some of our blog readers will. I was probably too busy watching “White Shadow” (which sounds like a similar theme).
Steve King says
It was called Rhythm & Blues, back in 1992. It was on NBC and only lasted for a few episodes.
Mike Kennedy says
I’m one of those who watched WKRP in the late 70’s, got bitten by the radio bug, and went on to become a DJ and PD. Wanted to be Johnny Fever, became Andy Travis. No regrets. RIP Hugh, thank you for getting me into this crazy business “Town to Town, Up and Down the Dial”.
Fred Jacobs says
Mike, you’re a “lifer,” and I say that with all the respect in the world. I had a feeling there are people like you who “discovered” radio from Fever, Flytrap, and the rest. Thanks for confirming it!
Steve King says
I always wanted to be Andy Travis…and did.
He.was always portrayed as the anchor of the team and their advocate. I have had many people over the years tell me I was Andy…and took it as a badge of honor.
Fred Jacobs says
It’s a compliment, Steve. In between the gags and one-liners, the guy was a rock solid PD.
Willis Damalt says
You mention the station bumper stickers plastered on the walls. I was a promotion guy at the time of WKRP. Me and my buddies would look for the record posters on the walls and compare notes after every show. The posters were always timely and hip; not something you saw often on TV in those days. A great and wonderful show! We always thought they should do a spin off about a record company promotion dept. Talk about entertaining……..
Fred Jacobs says
Willis, no question about it. Most had no idea what went on behind the scenes in promo departments. Thanks for the comment.
Zoé Kassis says
I loved this show. I remember that some of the posters were on the cutting edge as well. I figured whoever did the art direction for that show was into new music