Sometimes you wonder how all those TV pilots, shows, and series get “greenlit” when there so many crashing failures. We all have our favorite shows – especially sitcoms – the ones that kept up laughing for years.
But then there are the ones that never should have seen the light of day. In recent years, my favorite sitcom loser was “Alex, Inc.” starring the always entertaining Zach Braff. But not this time. The show was loosely based on the real-life adventures of Alex Blumberg and his podcast, “Start-Up.” It was premised on what happens when the nerdy public radio storyteller leaves the cushy confines of the network to strike out on his own with his podcast company.
It lasted one season, and was probably cancelled by the network after the second episode. Let's face it – we learned two things from “Alex, Inc.”
First, podcasts had entered the entertainment mainstream. But second, podcasts aren't very “sitcom funny.” Only Woody Allen could pull that off with regularity. Podcasters may be smart, clever, and wonky, but seldom are they cool.
And to that point, I wouldn't expect a sitcom anytime soon about the trials, tribulations, and antics of an algorithimist trying to make her way through a big music playlist company, like Spotify or Pandora. They may be fun places to work – free food, ping pong, pinball machines – but they are not especially cool settings where amazing stories are told. Its hard to imagine anything zany happening at Apple Music.
But then there's radio. And while it's been some time since a successful TV sitcom revolved around an air studio, “Frazier” is one that many fondly remember. I blogged about its reboot last year, and we're still waiting for Kelsey Grammer and a new cast to entertain us with craziness from the world of radio, that is, if Frazier is still a talk show host.
The show that radio veterans most lovingly recall, however, is “WKRP In Cincinnati,” a sitcom that charmed and entertained America in the late 70's. It aired during the era when I worked as a programmer at a rock station, and I've blogged extensively about this show and what it meant to radio. Back in 2018, I wrote about creator Hugh Wilson, and his crazy idea for a sitcom based on a fictitious rock radio station.
And then last year, I blogged about the guy who brilliantly played the sleaziest radio salesman of all time – Herb Tarlek. Veteran actor Frank Bonner was marvelous in this role, always finding new and different flimflam schemes. I think we loved Herb because he reminded so many of us of real-life radio sellers we knew and (mostly) loved. Not to mention his garish taste in clothes.
But yesterday, WKRP's morning guy and spiritual leader left the planet. Dr. Johnny Fever – played by Howard Hesseman – personified everything about what it meant to be a cool jock. He was the patron saint of jaded DJs. Hesseman passed away yesterday at the age of 81. He dove into the Johnny Fever character with the reckless abandon of a wild and crazy jock, battered by management teams in his past, but ready for one more run at redemption and stardom on the Cincinnati airwaves.
In this segment, the erstwhile Dr. Johnny Fever does a break that would have consultants cringing…and laughing. (At least, it's short.)
And watching those old “WKRP” videos reminded me, yet again, that radio has had an amazing run over the last many decades, but in the middle of the “audio renaissance,” the industry is trying to get its mojo back amidst a digital cornucopia of choice.
I took on some of the challenge of addressing this last week with a 2-parter about radio and new music discovery – where it's gone and how to get it back. Hundreds of you responded to this post with ideas of your own. Most often, the feedback revolved around this notion that radio has lost its fastball, making less of an impact with each passing year.
At the same time, Sean Ross took his best shot at the same theme, and came up with a definition for what he calls “real radio”:
“'Real Radio' is still defined for me by doing what a playlist cannot do — putting together music in an order that is different each time, but not random; telling me what’s happening in my town, or yours; advocating for the music it introduces to me; being punctuated by people who are funny or thought-provoking. Part of the initial appeal when I began listening, and part of radio’s identifying DNA now, is the shared experience. But I know that AI and voice-tracking have made the day imminent when the deejay wishes you happy birthday over your party playlist.”
Blogger Dick Taylor riffed off Sean's effort in a new post called “What Purpose Does Radio Serve in 2022?” In his essay, he looked at all the things radio used to do – traffic, school closings, new music discovery, breaking news – most of which have been usurped by Internet brands and platforms. Dick urges radio broadcasters to find their “Why” or else face more aimlessness.
Both guys have the right idea, as did much of the social media strings that followed my posts. But I think the essence of what radio must become is what it used to be:
When Jeff Smulyan was hawking NextRadio, his mantra was “We have to make radio cool again.” But the “cool factor” rarely comes from technology or a new gadget.
It's that intangible human factor that defines cool. It's radio's personalities. The producers of “WKRP” used the Johnny Fever character to parody legitimately cool, real-life DJs who dominated the American airwaves in the 70's and 80's.
When “WKRP” first aired on CBS-TV in 1978, these jocks were everywhere on the radio dial, and not just in the biggest markets. Seemingly every city and town had at least a couple of stellar DJs who were music experts, and knew their way around the backstage areas of concert venues. Many forged relationships with the artists themselves. When bands came to town, they made it a point to drop into the station to schmooze with these DJs for an in-studio interview.
Markets like New York, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and so many others had several great rock radio stations, boasting many cool and talented jocks. Names like Scott Muni, Kid Leo, Arthur Penhallow, and Charles Laquidara (pictured) were the star QBs at their respective stations. They were tastemakers, influential not just at their stations, but industry-wide.
And then there was L.A. radio with two behemoths, KLOS and KMET, duking it out for rock radio dominance. Jim Ladd, whose photo you see at the top of this post always personified the cool rock DJ to me, and apparently to everyone else.
Ladd was the inspiration for Tom Petty's “The Last D.J.,” a song about the homogenization of radio personalities and corporate control of the industry.
In the comments I received on my post, many focused on this growing void on stations in big markets and small. Paul Ingles, who I worked alongside at WNCX in Cleveland, left this analysis on Facebook:
“FM radio happened in the late 60s and early 70s because corporations and station owners didn’t know WHAT to do with it so they gave it over to young freaks who knew how to speak to their tribe. It succeeded by ignoring the tightly formatted rules of the day. The drum beat was spread by word of mouth..”
Even though it was a network TV show, Hugh Wilson's radio sitcom – and its wild and crazy guys and gals – had a ring of authenticity, insipid laugh track and all. Even “The Big Guy,” the hapless Mr. Carlson (brilliantly portrayed by Gordon Jump) realized that WKRP was nothing, if not for its jocks and its programming team.
How many kids watching that show grew up to be the next generation of DJs, PDs, or music directors, thanks to Johnny Fever, Venus Flytrap, Andy Travis, and Bailey Quarters? (I'm not sure many were motivated to pursue jobs in radio sales or news, based on the Herb Tarlek or Les Nessman characters.)
And how about the millions of viewers who watched Dr. Johnny Fever and the “WKRP” crew and wished they had gone into radio?
Johnny Fever may have been a TV sitcom caricature of a rock radio DJ, but you rooted for him. He would never have worn underwear on his head, body shamed famous celebrities, or even started a podcast. He was too cool for all that.
But that's the point. Life imitates art. Or maybe in this case, it's the other way around.
“WKRP” and Howard Hesseman made radio look like a cool job and a great place to work.
Because it was.
Thanks to Anita Wadd for the heads-up.