Livin’ on the Air

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(Pictured: Cincinnati. Let’s pretend that WKRP was located in one of these buildings.)

We have been watching the first season of WKRP in Cincinnati, from the box set that restored most of the music and replaced some of the ridiculous cuts that were made on the Season 1 release a few years ago.

The show was originally scheduled opposite Welcome Back Kotter and Little House on the Prairie in the fall of 1978, and the ratings were awful—so poor, in fact, that the show was pulled in November, after only eight episodes. One of those episodes, “Turkeys Away,” is the WKRP episode everybody remembers—but despite its Thanksgiving theme, it actually aired on October 30, three weeks before the holiday. When the show returned to the air in January, it had the single best time slot on CBS, immediately following M*A*S*H. The first episode after its hiatus was a clip show intended to bring new viewers up to speed on the story.

WKRP was a different show after its first-season hiatus. Most of the first eight stories focused on radio—a punk band comes to town, Bailey gets her own show, Johnny does a remote broadcast that goes wrong, and so on. The switch to the post-M*A*S*H time slot ostensibly freed creator Hugh Wilson and his writing staff to tell more character-based stories, and to focus less on wacky radio hijinx. The remainder of the first season is a little uneven, with storylines that had become stale years before:  Johnny tries to adopt a foundling left on the station’s doorstep, Mr. Carlson has trouble relating to his preteen son, Herb breaks up with his wife and his friends try to get them back together. Much better: Johnny leaves the station for a job in Los Angeles, the mysterious Venus Flytrap gets his backstory, and a funeral home makes an enormous ad buy and the WKRP staff sings the jingle.

Next to “Turkeys Away,” the best-remembered episode of the first season is probably “Fish Story.” It’s the one where Johnny and Venus get drunk on the air as part of a public-service promotion, and Herb, dressed as the new station mascot (a carp), gets into a fight with the mascot from crosstown station WPIG. Wilson wrote the episode under pressure from CBS to do more physical comedy, and he hated it so much that he took his name off of it—only to see it become the highest-rated episode of the entire series.

WKRP went on the air during my first semester at college, and I started watching it at the same time I started working at the campus radio station. Honesty compels me to report that the further we get into the series, the less familiar the episodes become, so I don’t think I watched it regularly after the first few episodes. This might be due to the fact that CBS moved the show all over its schedule during its four years on the air and it was hard to find. It’s arguable that the show didn’t gain true popularity until after its network run, when it started airing in after-school, prime-time access, or late-night slots five days a week, where viewers could actually find it.

We’ve just started the second season, by which time Loni Anderson has become the show’s breakout star, so Jennifer and her Jessica Rabbit style are prominently featured in most episodes. The best thing about the second season, however, is that Bailey starts wearing those glasses. The perfect WKRP episode would be 24 minutes of Bailey and her glasses. No doubt about it.

4 thoughts on “Livin’ on the Air

  1. Coleen

    Ahhhh…best show ever!

    When the show debuted, I was just starting out in college radio…we used to dissect each episode every week. Almost to death.

    The secret to the show’s success was not that it was about radio per se, but focused on people we could relate to in the context of radio. We all knew someone who worked in the business who acted exactly like that.

    Never understood why nobody wore headphones in the studio. A great question unanswered.

    1. Yah Shure

      Coleen, that very question about the headphone-free ‘KRP was brought up in Ken Levine’s blog post about the “inaccuracies” in the show in February, 2014:

      But contrary to what Ken stated, no-headphones studios *did* exist at the time. Among the many comments left on his post was one of my own:

      “Bulky headphones would’ve just gotten in the way on WKRP. I worked at a station with a headphones-free setup, but could never get comfortable with it. Not only did it feel unnervingly weird, it was much too easy to end up having your voice drowned out by the music (or vice versa) without ever being aware of it. Cans provided a much better means of being in control of your own show.”

      With practice, I found that hitting CBS at the top of the hour worked great cans-free, but for the rest of the show, headphones were the only way to go.

      1. Coleen

        Thank you Yah Shure. Forgot he had posted that…I am a big fan of his blog…and I never was “headphone free” in my career. That would be unnervingly weird for me, too!

  2. Yah Shure

    I missed those first WKRP episodes, due to the competing “WJON In St. Cloud” airing simultaneously on channel 1240. The conflict with CBS’s drunken-sailor scheduling of the show was a key factor in the purchase of my first VCR in 1980. The downside was that premium-quality tape was too expensive at the time to stockpile first-run tapings of the show.

    The upside was buying the machine about two weeks before John Lennon was shot, so I was able to watch (and archive) TV coverage from the following evening.

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