Hello my babies, this is the Dahc-tar, Dr. Johnny Fever, comin’ at you from the legendary WKRP, broadcasting from your TV or computer or whatever it is you watch your DVDs on. I’m back, my little darlings! Back to cure all that ails you with a healthy dose of rock and rrrroll! I’m gonna make you laugh, gonna make you sing, gonna make you plead and howl, I might even make you cry, cause I know it’s been a long time. It’s been a long lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely, loooonely time since we last saw each other. But I’m back for good, playing you the original hiits the way they were meant to be heard, and showin’ you the truth. The truth will set you free, just like rock ‘n roll. So sit back, relax, and enjoy the show, cause the mighty KRP lives on!!
Oh, and one more thing: Boogerrrrr.
My lame attempt at writing as Howard Hesseman’s beloved Dr. Johnny Fever aside, this is a good year for TV and music lovers alike. After decades wrangling over the rights to hundreds of songs (the list of artists is mind boggling and includes the likes of Springsteen, Dylan, Petty, Blondie, Van Morrison, McCartney, both Elvis’, Bob Marley, CSNY, CCR, Clapton, Seger, Otis, Sam & Dave, Elton and the Who, just to name a few), WKRP in Cincinnati, one of the late 1970s best workplace comedies finally- FINALLY- arrives on DVD in a stellar complete series box set from the fine folks at Shout! Factory. For those of us who grew up with WKRP, it’s a chance to relive its greatness; for a new generation, it’s a chance to see how TV, music and the fading art of local radio merged into hilarious and enlightening entertainment.
As a young man, I missed out on the first airings of WKRP episodes when they appeared on CBS. I wasn’t the only one, though, as the network shuffled the sitcom around its schedule on a regular basis during its four seasons. Like so many, I found and fell in love with the misadventures of the staff of fledgling AM station, WKRP, when the series began its successful run in syndication. Weekday afternoons at 4:30 on Cleveland TV8, that’s when it was on. The routine of those early evenings are embedded in my memory. But it wasn’t just a routine; I was hanging out with friends, people I wanted to be like when I grew up. The crew at WKRP taught me lessons in loyalty, friendship, tolerance and the mystical power of rock music. I can’t be the only kid in the ‘burbs who imagined being a DJ thanks to Johnny Fever, can I?
The show’s premise is an age old story: A stranger comes to town and brings with him change. The way he shakes things up excites the community. He inspires them to embrace new ideas and to be accepting of things that may make you uncomfortable. In return, the people ground him with humility and love. In this case, the community is the city of Cincinnati, Ohio and the floundering AM radio station that is losing money. After a series of failed program directors, station Manager Mr. Carlson (Gordon Jump) hires a cowboy from New Mexico to come save his station. This good looking, friendly young man is named Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) and he’s looking to shake things up.
First up, he changes the radio format from elevator music to rock ‘n roll. You have to remember that in the 70s, rock was still considered rebel music. In the late 70s, especially, when disco took the nation by storm, some even considered rock to be dead. But Andy believes in the music and no one could be happier than the grizzled radio vet spinning vinyl at WKRP. That would be Johnny Caravella, a guy once fired from a job for saying “booger” on the air. Johnny rechristens himself Dr. Johnny Fever and takes the city by storm.
Other changes Andy makes are bringing in a smooth night time DJ, Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid) to bring love and peace to the evening. He also promotes beguiling office assistant, Bailey (Jan Smithers) to run promotions and create original programming.
Andy does meet some resistance, especially from ad executive, Herb (Frank Bonner), and his sidekick, inept newsman Les Nesman (Richard Sanders). These two cronies of Mr. Carlson do their best to get Andy sacked, but the cowboy wins out, convincing the “big guy” that he needs to give the new format time to catch on. Catch on it does, as WKRP the radio station becomes a hit and Fever becomes a star. Rounding out the cast is Loni Anderson’s Jennifer, the station’s beautiful receptionist and perhaps the smartest person in the radio station, and possibly the richest, too.
WKRP was the creation of Hugh Wilson, who was fortunate to have the show produced at MTM (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show) and shepherded by legendary television producer Grant Tinker. It was Tinker who always stood up to the network executives and took the heat, allowing Wilson, his staff of writers, and the talented cast the freedom to tell stories that not only created laughter, but also challenged viewers to think about some of the issues of the day. True, there were compromises, and broad humor was inserted to help lure an audience. But on a series that made you cry with laughter over an ill-advised Thanksgiving promotion that had live turkeys being dropped from a helicopter, or a drinking contest between Fever and a highway patrolman that saw Fever getting progressively sober with each shot he takes, there were thought provoking half hours that gave you pause and sometimes made you cry.
In “Who is Gordon Sims,” we learn that Venus is an Army deserter and discusses the horrors of Vietnam, a subject that was still being pushed under the rug in the late 70s. “Clean Up Radio Everywhere” is an episode about the growing influence of conservative religious groups and censorship. No episode better represented the risks the show took than “In Concert,” a February 1980 episode that used to the December 1979 Who concert tragedy in Cincinnati where eleven fans died, and turned it into an honorable tribute to those who lost their lives and the city itself. Remarkably, CBS was reluctant to let the episode air, but Wilson wouldn’t back down. WKRP was a sitcom about rock ‘n roll that took place in Cincinnati. In his eyes, to not address the tragedy would have been irresponsible.
After four seasons, and countless moves on the CBS schedule, the network cancelled WKRP in 1982. The series ended with a cliffhanger: Mama Carlson, the station owner, threatened to change the station format to talk radio. Fans were left hanging, as the show never had an opportunity to wrap things up. WKRP found a second life in syndication, even though it never reached the magic number of 100 episodes. It played throughout the 1980s, and then all but disappeared throughout the 90s to today. Several years ago, Wilson oversaw a release of season 1 on DVD that replaced many of the more expensive songs that they’d used. While it was nice that some version of the show was on DVD, it felt somewhat incomplete. Furthermore, subsequent seasons were never released.
Thanks to home video, I’ve returned to many of the shows I grew up on, hoping that they retained even a little bit of the impact they had on me in my formative years. Unfortunately, many that I loved haven’t aged well. Still, there are some that not only hold up, but also reveal new things that I never caught wen I was a young teen. WKRP falls into the latter category. Watching it again 30 years later, I found a depth and sophistication that eluded me in the early 80s. I’m so grateful that WKRP in Cincinnati has finally made it to DVD. Old fans and new ones will be, too.
WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Series is a four-volume set on 13 DVDs. Bonus features include a Paley Center Reunion that was held earlier this year, an interview with Gary Sandy (who wasn’t available for the reunion) and a couple of short featurettes that appeared on the original season one release.