“Baby, if you’ve ever wondered, wondered whatever became of me, I’m living on the air in Cincinnati,
Cincinnati, WKRP. “
It almost sounds like a take on Harry Chapin’s WOLD, and in many ways it is. The song was hot for a while on radio stations. It seems that DJ’s couldn’t resist songs about DJ’s. Who saw that coming? Of course, the song is the opening theme to WKRP In Cincinnati. The show is back on DVD thanks to the folks at Shout Factory. If that’s not big news, this absolutely is: it’s back with most of the original music intact including the opening and closing themes. For fans of the show, it’s the news we’ve been waiting for for decades now.
“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.”
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that WKRP has had a troubled release life. The show was in trouble from the moment it first aired. The CBS powers that be were never completely sold on the show, and it was pulled literally after airing only a handful of episodes. Poor ratings appeared to have killed the show before it even started. For some reason the show ended up getting a slight retool and was put back on the air after the holidays in early 1979. There were no cast changes, but the sets were spruced up a bit, and a bullpen set was created to give the characters a common room in which to interact. This set created one of the show’s most memorable running jokes. Les Nesman believed he should have had his own office and drew lines around his desk, including a broken line where the door should be. He required others to open and close the non-existent door or he would throw a fit. The show returned with an unusual clip show, almost unheard of for a show only five episodes old, but it was intended to bring the audience up to date with the show’s restart.
After 90 episodes the show had been moved around so much that the ratings never did catch fire. Even with lead-in shows like M*A*S*H, the show never found a stable audience. When it was cancelled, no one ever expected to hear from it again. But, like Star Trek before it, the show found a growing cult following in syndication. Some of the cast eventually reunited for a follow-up series called The New WKRP In Cincinnati. It lasted almost three years in syndication but never captured the popularity of the original show during its syndicated years.
The show’s format was pretty simple. WKRP was the 18th-ranked station in an 18-station market. The station manager was Arthur Carlson, “The Big Guy”, played by Gordon Jump. He was really an overgrown child, working for his mother who owned the station. He avoided anything that remotely resembled responsibility, preferring to remain sequestered in his office playing with toys or fishing rods. He relied on the receptionist, Jennifer Marlow, played by Loni Anderson, to protect him from the real world. Both the character and the actress were there for their looks, and the show didn’t go to any lengths to be apologetic about it. It was the subject of a great amount of the show’s humor. She was the highest-paid member of the station’s staff, just as Anderson at one time was. She pushed for the extra dough and got it.
The station’s sales manager was Herb Tarlek, played by Frank Bonner. He was your stereotypical used car salesman. He was married but constantly hit on Jennifer. It was another of the show’s running gags that found her finding new insulting ways to put Herb in his place. The news was run by Les Nesman, played by Richard Sanders. He was as inept as they come. He coveted his “Buckeye News Awards” and his “Silver Sow”, presented because of his hog reports. He saw communist conspiracies everywhere and was so dimwitted that he often didn’t know when he was being made fun of.
The station has settled into its beautiful-music format when Carlson hires Andy Travis, played by Gary Sandy, to turn the station around. He wants to prove to his mother that he can make money with the station. Of course, that means changing the format over to rock ‘n’ roll. That doesn’t sit well with the station’s establishment. Only DJ Johnny Caravella is excited about the change. He was a washed up star DJ from L.A. who had been fired for saying “booger” on the air. Since then he’d been the “up and down the dial” voice mentioned in the theme song, changing the last name with each stop. With the change, he becomes Dr. Johnny Fever and delivers his prescription of rock music. He was played by Howard Hesseman, who became one of the show’s standouts.
Travis also brings in his own star DJ for the night shift. That’s Venus Flytrap, played by Tim Reid. He was just the shock to the establishment that Travis was hoping for. He was a black man in an all-white station. He burned incense during his show and had a gong for effect. The final piece of the staff puzzle is Bailey, played by Jan Smithers.
Of course, none of this was ever enough to truly turn the station around. They moved up a couple of notches, but the comedy of the show could always be found in the low ranking of the station in the ratings. The show would mirror its station for most of its CBS run.
The humor was mostly found in the interaction of these characters. They were almost all over-the-top, and obviously no one in their right mind would keep them on at a radio station. This year saw some subtle changes to the series. Cast members got involved in both the writing and directing of the show. Richard Sanders wrote the first episode of the season and, of course, it was a Les story. It was also one of the more expensive episodes in the show’s run. We not only go outside the studio but up in the air as Les disobeys Andy and Carlson and hires a veteran to fly his crop duster to do traffic reports. Les wanted to close the “helicopter gap” with rival WPIG. He ends up being taken hostage by the crazy pilot. Frank Bonner would direct a couple of episodes this season, but they wouldn’t feature much of his Herb character, allowing him to concentrate on his work behind the camera.
The season would actually leave the station more in the third year than the first two combined. A trip to a Dayton hotel for a sales pitch finds Herb reuniting with an old high school chum… but his friend has changed a bit. Herb also takes center stage on a more serious episode that dealt with his excess drinking. The episode guest starred a pre-Coach Craig T. Nelson. It was a rare moment when the show took on a social issue. The highlight of the season and another outside-the-studio episode was the hour-long “Dr. Fever and Mr. Tide”. Johnny gets a chance to host a television dance show run by Newhart’s late Mary Frann. When he shows up he refuses to bow to the disco-themed music and attire until he’s threatened with a hefty breach of contract lawsuit. So, he invents a new persona named Rip Tide, who eats up the attention. Before long Johnny and Rip are fighting each other for control, much to the concerns of his friends. This episode also featured the rare serious moment in a touching scene where Jennifer tells Rip that she doesn’t like him and that she does like Johnny.
In another episode that takes place outside of the station, Les discovers a secret about his father when he’s denied credentials at a presidential press conference. Jennifer takes on the role of an on-air advice personality in Ask Jennifer, and Bailey gets to take center stage in I Am Woman as she tries to save the station’s building as a landmark. Carlson is put in the middle when his mother finally gives him the chance to build his dream building if the current one is demolished.
I talked about a troubled release history. The network originally tried to release the first season on DVD years ago. Because of the cost to get the music to all of the rock songs used, they changed the music including the theme song. You have to understand that the music was an integral part of the stories and the appeal of the show itself. Without those original tunes the show falls rather flat, and that’s exactly what happened to those first-season discs. Needless to say, there were no follow-ups, and I had truly lost hope that we would ever see the show released on home video. I had put the odds better of getting the 1960’s Batman on disc before WKRP. I was right by a few months. Now, I have to warn you that I’m told there are still a couple of substitutions. Some bands do not allow their music to be licensed at any price. I am still pleased with the result. This is the best possible at any cost, and Shout has done everything they can to deliver the show as exactly as they could. Just as I encouraged you folks not to buy the original release to show your anger at the music issues, I’m encouraging you now to go out and support this attempt. It’s the only way you are going to get to see the rest. Let’s give Shout Factory a really loud… well… shout, and pick up these episodes now. If you’re looking for me, well, that’s easy. “I’m at WKRP in Cincinnati.”