Two decades before VH1’s Behind The Music tore the lid off of music industry backstabbing, tragedy, and excess, and roughly 35 years before the pulpy Empire thrust us headlong into the power struggles within a modern hip-hop label, an endearing sitcom entitled WKRP In Cincinnati took us behind the scenes of a struggling easy listening station trying to stage a comeback by switching to a rock format. Airing between 1978 and 1982, creator-executive producer Hugh Wilson’s irreverent series not only lampooned a business which he knew well but revealed how so-called professionals were often flying by the seat of their pants. It also celebrated the music of the day and proved to be influential, reportedly helping Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass” become a hit. (Thankfully Shout! Factory has restored most of the music that had been removed from syndication due to rights issues.)
WKRP — yes, those call letters can be interpreted as WKR(A)P — initially pitted the suits (cheesy salesman Herb Tarlek, nerdy newsman Les Nessman, bumbling station manager Arthur Carlson, and his strict mother/station owner) versus the dungarees (new program manager Andy Travis, newswoman Bailey Quarters, and DJs Venus Flytrap and Johnny Fever), with shrewd secretary Jennifer Marlow acting as both Mother Hen and intermediary during conflicts. But the show soon began to unite the ragtag band of radio outsiders as they attempted to raise their status from #16 in an 18-station market into something more prestigious.
The main reasons why WKRP is a beloved American sitcom are the same reasons why any show is beloved, save the anthological Twilight Zone: the characters and the cast’s undeniable chemistry. They were mostly lovable but had plenty of foibles. Perpetual burnout and cynic Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) was the yin to Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid)’s charming, energetic yang. Bailey (Jan Smithers) evolved from meek employee to sassy, confident news hound. Oversexed and arrogant Herb (Frank Bonner) was the butt of many jokes, while Les (Richard Sanders) walked the line between appealing and annoying nerd. Clueless Carlson (Gordon Jump) showed moments of clarity, but often deferred to his smart, confident program manager Andy (Gary Sandy).
Perhaps most distinct of all was Jennifer. The buxom, leggy secretary portrayed by Loni Anderson did not type, take dictation, or fuss over long phone calls, but she was smart and savvy, knowing how to dispense advice, coddle people at the right time, and even find time to read books like Economic Policies of the United States. She was also the highest-paid employee on staff.
Naturally, some characters were jockeying for position in the hierarchy, even if they weren’t disc jockeys. And the results were not always comic, such as when ambitious ad man Herb learned that diet pills being advertised on the station could act like speed if consumed in large enough qualities. The seemingly straight up Andy even became duplicitous in the last season when he cut a secret deal with Carlson’s mother by manipulating the others out of forming a union to help keep the station operating smoothly.
Funny side note: An old high school classmate of mine, now known as Jeff Thomas, is a modern radio host on WKRQ in Cincinnati. He told me that the same personal struggles still exist today. “I think the episode that resonated with me the most was the one where Venus was offered a job as program director for a competing radio station,” recalls Thomas. “Even though it meant more money and a position in management, he turned it down, for a few reasons. For one, he realized they were only looking for a token black middle manger to execute programming decisions handed down by the parent corporation. But I like to think Venus also understood that live air personalities are crucial for a local radio station to connect with its listeners. Otherwise, all you’re left with is a jukebox with an antenna.”
It is a credit to Wilson and his writing team that they chose to let their characters mature and change throughout the show’s four-year tenure. By also giving the ladies and their African-American DJ more latitude, their storylines often stood out. Beyond the highbrow stuff, there was that eternal question for male viewers: Jennifer’s wit, wiles, and curves or Bailey’s earnestness, moxie, and subtler sexuality? And while some may think that late ‘70s TV was tame by today’s standards, which it generally was, don’t think that WKRP did not have its racy moments. This was the decade of tight jeans, women going braless, and Loni Anderson’s increasingly plunging neckline, which seemingly corresponded with the seasons three and four ratings dip. Johnny Fever was clearly nursing a regular hangover and indulged off-camera in recreational drugs.
The fun-loving sitcom was also risqué in tackling topics like sexual harassment, Venus’ military desertion, and the episode where seemingly non-racist Andy balks at Venus taking his sister out. And after the fatal stampede at a real-life Who concert in Cincinnati left 11 people dead, the show created a storyline around it to address the dangers of festival seating (i.e. general admission) at arena shows. The WKRP crew loved to be funny — witness the episode where Mr. Carlson and Herb drop turkeys from a helicopter into a crowd of Thanksgiving revelers which turned hilariously tragic as they did not realize that turkeys cannot fly — but it was not afraid to be appropriately somber when a solid script called for it.
For all of its cultural impact — Chrysalis Records presented WKRP with a gold record for Blondie’s Parallel Lines album after Johnny Fever played a few bars of the song and identified it on the episode “A Commercial Break”; the record stayed visible on the show for two seasons — the show was never a ratings smash. The final episode hit #7 in the weekly Neilsen ratings, the best it ever performed in its four seasons — CBS bounced it all over the schedule. The gold disc was displayed prominently in the office in seasons two through four.
While WKRP In Cincinnati is less sarcastic and cynical than a lot of modern sitcoms, that is partly why it is still so appealing. It gave us an inside peek to the radio and music business at a time well before every red carpet peccadillo was plastered all over social media and every nasty rumor circulated across the Internet in seconds.
Bryan Reesman is a veteran entertainment journalist and longtime contributor to Playboy. He appreciates the musical eclecticism of the WKRP staff and still has a crush on Bailey.