Imagine a moment in time when commercial radio played several genres of music on one station; when it empowered DJs to find, break, and expose new artists on the air; and when it did not subscribe to a calculated demographically designed format for profit.
With the 35th anniversary of its season debut, the 13-DVD boxed set of WKRP In Cincinnati: The Complete Series is finally available. At last, we can experience working at the fictitious Ohio FM radio station in the late 1970s. The series ran from 1978 to 1982 on CBS and was just released on DVD by Shout! Factory.
Hugh Wilson, who created the show, based the characters and several story lines, including the Season 1 episode “Turkeys Away,” on his own experiences of working in advertising at Top 40 radio station WQXI in Atlanta.
The episode involves a Thanksgiving Day promotion that goes quite wrong, when live turkeys are thrown from a helicopter and then described on the air as “hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement.” That episode has gone on to become a Thanksgiving Day staple across the country.
Actor Howard Hesseman, who played the “burnt out” DJ Dr. Johnny Fever, actually worked as a DJ for KMPX in 1967. That now-defunct San Francisco radio station was credited as being the birthplace of the free-form progressive rock format.
Soul DJ Venus Flytrap, played by Tim Reid, always interjected quick, snarky quips that kept ignorant comments from his all-white staff mostly at bay. Attractive radio station secretary Jennifer Marlowe, played by Loni Anderson, was always the smartest person in the room. And General Manager Arthur Carlson, played by Gordon Jump, was always far more interested in buying fishing equipment for vacations than managing the station. In the pilot, Carlson hires new program director Andy Travis, portrayed by Gary Sandy, to make the station profitable. Travis tells his new boss, “Rock & roll is where the money is,” and the show begins.
During its tenure, WKRP, was a candid snapshot of the the times it represents. It’s all there. Payola scandals involving “bad DJs” taking bribes in cocaine to cater to the record companies. Garbage strikes in Cincinnati, where Dr. Johnny Fever instructs his audience to drop their garbage off at City Hall. Constant pressure on station management from character Bailey Quarters, played by Jan Smithers, about the lack of female DJs working at the radio station. An on-going business relationship that Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap have with their sports bookie, “Wing.” The leering sexist jokes directed at the female employees. The constant indirect references to cocaine use every other episode. And the incessant determination of news director Les Nessman, played by Richard Saunders, to refer to Venus Flytrap–the only African American on the staff–as “Negro.”
It was after the show was canceled and then went into syndication that it became a unanticipated success. In the following decade, WKRP far exceeded expectations and outperformed many other syndicated sitcoms that had been huge hits during their own prime time runs.
However, it was the difficulty of securing proper music licensing that kept the DVD release of the series on pause for more than a decade. During the second success of the show during syndication, songs were cut out and replaced with bad cover versions. Shout! Factory was able to obtain licensing rights for 111 of the original musical artists. Which translates to an 80 percent success rate for original musical continuity.