Celebrating 40 Years Of 'WKRP In Cincinnati'

Sep 18, 2018

On this day 40 years ago, America was introduced to Dr. Johnny Fever, The Big Guy, Venus Flytrap, newsman Les Nessman, sexy receptionist Jennifer Marlow and the crazy WKRP in Cincinnati gang when the sitcom premiered on CBS at 8 p.m. on Sept. 18, 1978. It aired for four seasons (1978-82).

Baby, have you ever wondered, wondered what happened if we never met them living on the air in Cincinnati, Cincinnati WKRP?

Here are 40 reasons to celebrate the beloved sitcom's 40th anniversary:

1. WKRP was based on Atlanta's WQXI-AM, a Top 40  radio station creator Hugh Wilson listened to while working as an Atlanta advertising man.

2. Newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) wore a bandage in the premiere – and in every other episode as a running gag. When you watch reruns at 9:30 p.m. weeknights on MeTV (WLWT's Channel 5.2, WHIO-TV's Channel 7.2), look to see a bandage somewhere on Les.

Gary Sandy played program director Andy Travis
Credit Courtesy Shout! Factory

3. Wilson had never been to Cincinnati when he created the show for CBS in 1978, he told me.

4. Gary Sandy, who starred as program director Andy Travis, once told me he believed in WKRP from the start. "I always knew it would be a classic, from the first time we read the script," he said.

5. Cincinnati was chosen for the location, according to Wilson, who died earlier this year at 74, because it rhymed with "WKRP." Wilson wrote the lyrics for the opening theme song about "living on the air in Cincinnati."

6. The call letters stood for C-R-A-P, Wilson said.

7. "As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly." That's the most quoted line from the show's four-year run. GM Arthur "The Big Guy" Carlson (Gordon Jump) makes the admission after a Thanksgiving promotion gone wrong in the hilarious "Turkey's Away" episode, when WKRP dropped live turkeys over Cincinnati's fictional Pinedale Shopping Mall. It was just the seventh episode of the first season.

8. "Turkeys Away" ranked No. 40 on TV Guide's "100  Greatest Episodes of All Time” in 1997.

9. "To think we created a piece of humor that would be considered among the TV classics is great,"  Gordon Jump told me in 1997, when Nick at Nite started airing WKRP reruns. He died in 2003 at age 71.

10. Jump and Sandy both grew up in Dayton. Jump worked for Dayton's Channel 2 in the early 1960s;  Sandy still has a farm in Northern Kentucky. Sandy once told me that Jump was a moral compass for the show in general, and the characters in particular. "Gordon had a really great vision of how they were viewed, and he was always pushing for the integrity of the city and area," Sandy said.

Loni Anderson graced this Cincinnati Magazine cover on October 1980 on display at the downtown public library last January.
Credit Courtesy Media Heritage

11. Before seen as WKRP receptionist Jennifer Marlowe, Loni Anderson had guest roles on The Bob Newhart Show, Three's Company, Barnaby Jones, Phyllis, Police Story and the original S.W.A.T. She was nominated for two Emmys as supporting actress, and three Golden Globes, but didn't win.

12. WKRP was nominated for 10 Emmys in four seasons, including three consecutive nods for best comedy (1980-82). The show only won once -- for outstanding video tape editing. Wilson did win two prestigious Humanitas Prize awards, presented for television and film writing that promotes meaning and human dignity, for WKRP. Wilson won a third Humanitas Prize for Frank's Place, a short-lived CBS comedy starring WKRP alum Tim Reid as a New Orleans restaurant owner. Wilson won his only Emmy Award for writing Frank's Place.

13. Unlike Cheers, The Bob Newhart Show, Mary Tyler Moore or M*A*S*H, WKRP was shot on video tape instead of film. That's why WKRP reruns are murky, instead of the pristine clarity of filmed shows, which may have hurt its viewer appeal in reruns.

14. In addition to the crazy comedy, WKRP also was beloved because of the great 1970s and '80s rock music on the show. More than 100 musical artists were heard, including Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Paul McCartney; Bruce Springsteen; Eric Clapton; The Rolling Stones; The Who; Elvis Presley; Stevie Wonder;  AC/DC; Booker T And The MG’s; Jackson Browne;  Elvis Costello; Creedence Clearwater Revival; Crosby, Stills Nash & Young; The Doors; Bob Dylan; Earth, Wind & Fire; Marvin Gaye; Grateful Dead; Elton John; Janis Joplin; B.B. King; Jerry Lee Lewis; Bob Marley; Van Morrison; Randy Newman; O’Jays; Tom Petty; Wilson Pickett; The Police; Linda Ronstadt; Sam & Dave; Bob Seger; Steely Dan; James Taylor; and Ray Charles.

15. If you want to hear the original music, you'll have to buy the Shout Factory! complete WKRP in Cincinnati series 13-disc DVD boxed set released in fall 2014. The weeknight reruns on MeTV are from the sanitized 2006 Twentieth Century Fox version filled with generic rock rifts instead of the real songs.

16. Les Nessman's classic "A Date with Jennifer" episode from the first season just isn't the same without Foreigner's "Hot Blooded" blaring when Nessman tugs on a wig for his evening with the sexy receptionist to receive the Silver Sow Award for excellent farm reports.

Tim Reid as evening DJ Venus Flytrap
Credit Courtesy MeTV

17. WKRP DJs picked some of the eclectic rock music heard on the sitcom, Reid revealed during a 2014 WKRP reunion at the Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles. Sometimes WKRP broke new songs before they were played on AM and FM stations.

18. There never was a Cincinnati radio station called WKRP. Very soon after the TV show premiered, WKRC-AM (500) altered the theme song to "WKRC in Cincinnati," and played the jingle frequently – confusing out-of-towners who thought that WKRC-AM or WKRQ-FM were depicted in the sitcom, a WKRC-AM manager told me in 1999. Here's the WKRC jingle (there's a 5 second delay.)

19. A couple decades after WKRP was canceled, I learned that there was a connection between the show and Cincinnati radio: Morning DJ Dr. Johnny Fever (Hesseman) was inspired by Atlanta DJ "Skinny" Bobby Harper, who had worked at WSAI-AM in the 1960s.

20. To establish a Cincinnati flavor, every WKRP opened with scenes of Fountain Square, Fifth Street, Fort Washington Way, the city skyline and the WLWT-TV tower in University Heights during the opening theme song.

21. The opening sequence ended with the camera on Fountain Square zooming in on a top floor window of the old Enquirer Building, 617 Vine St., where the station was supposedly located. They called it the Osgood R. Flimm building. Today it’s a Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites.

22. Cincinnati radio personalities Ron Schumacher of WGRR-FM and sports talk host Lance McAlister of WLW-AM and WCKY-AM told me they are living on the air in Cincinnati because of WKRP. "I loved the behind-the-scenes look at radio. I was fascinated by it," McAlister told me in 2007, before WKRP's first DVD release. "I have seen every episode. I loved Venus' gong in the studio, Johnny's coffee mug and glasses, the toys in Mr. Carlson's office and Jennifer's sweaters. Some would say I might need help." 

Bob Gerding holding a drone his company uses to film aerial scenes for feature movies shot in Cincinnati
Credit John Kiesewetter

23. The convincing local flavor began with the WKRP opening from local video shot by Cincinnati cinematographer Bob Gerding, who was presented a lifetime achievement award by the Ohio Valley chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences last month. Gerding shot local scenes after taking WKRP director Rod Daniel to the Tyler Davidson Fountain and on a tour of the city in 1978.

"The opening is pretty much done with places of my suggestion," said Gerding, longtime CEO at the PPS Group video production company. WKRP producers frequently called Gerding, described the script, and asked him to shoot Cincinnati buildings or streetscapes.

24. Thirty years after first "living on the air in Cincinnati," Tim Reid came to Cincinnati to host Ohio Valley Chapter's regional Emmy Awards in 2008 at the Westin Hotel, across the street from the Tyler Davidson fountain seen on the CBS sitcom that changed his life. "That was the show which brought me into the homes of America on a consistent basis," said Reid, who later starred in Simon & Simon, Frank's Place, Snoops and Sister Sister, and had recurring roles on That '70s Show, Treme and Me, Myself and I.

25. Cincinnati Reds, Bengals, UC and Xavier pennants and posters decorated the WKRP studio and office walls with the generous help from Queen City folks. Roger Ruhl, former Reds marketing vice president, remembers getting a call from Gary Sandy requesting Reds souvenirs for a TV sitcom pilot in the late 1970s.

"It seemed pretty far-fetched to me, but we had a nice conversation and for whatever reason, I told my secretary to put some stuff in a box and send it to him," Ruhl told me earlier this year, when MeTV picked up WKRP. "Months later an envelope arrived with a thank-you note from Sandy and a video tape of the pilot episode. I immediately put it in the VCR and watched it, then I rounded up some co-workers and we all watched it together. Sure enough, a Reds pennant and a poster were visible."

The large Cincinnati map behind Dr. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) was one of many local items in the WKRP studio.
Credit Courtesy MTM Enterprises

26. Cincinnati native Dan Guntzelman wrote 53 episodes for the show, second to Wilson's 90, over four years. After WKRP, Guntzelman stayed in Los Angeles to produce Tony Danza's Growing Pains, Just the Ten of Us, Ed Asner's Thunder Alley and Live Shot.

27. Former WSAI-AM DJ Casey Piotrowski contributed one script, the infamous "Contest Nobody Could Win." The Big Guy freaked when Johnny Fever mistakenly announced a $5,000 prize, instead of $50, so the staff tries to rig the contest to make it impossible to win. Of course, they fail.

28. WKRP jocks always promised listeners "more news and Les Nessman." Great line.

29. "Monster Lizard Ravages East Coast!" Enjoy this blast from the past, when WKRP newsman Les Nessman read a wire service news bulletin on Feb. 3, 1982, during the fourth and final season. "Officials say this lizard, the worst since '78, has devastated transportation, disrupted communications and left many hundreds homeless!" Dr. Johnny Fever tries to correct him by pointing out, "The 'B' is out on the printer. It's a monster blizzard!" 

30. WKRP fans told Jump "they worked with a guy like Les Nessman, or they bought a car from a guy like Herb Tarlek. The characters were so identifiable - one bubble off plumb - and so close to real life. And the show had the unique ability that any one character could carry an episode. It was truly an ensemble piece," Jump once told me.

Frank Bonner as salesman Herb Tarlek.
Credit Courtesy Media Heritage

31. WKRP didn't always go for the quick laughs about Nessman 's imaginary office walls, or salesman Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) wearing white belts and leisure suits. Writers tackled such tough topics as Venus Flytrap admitting he was really draft dodger Gordon Sims; homophobia; tornadoes; and Cincinnati's 1981 Who concert tragedy which killed 11 people. Jump told me that producers didn't know how to end The Who show, and allowed him as an Ohioan to ad-lib comments about Cincinnati having "good people" who would remedy the problem.

32. While Loni Anderson, Tim Reid and Howard Hesseman starred in other series, Frank Bonner found success behind the camera. Over the next 20 years, he directed episodes of Family Ties, Head of the Class, Who's the Boss, Evening Shade, The Mommies, Harry and the Hendersons, Just The Ten Of Us, The Famous Teddy Z  and the short-lived The New WKRP in Cincinnati revival (1991-93).

33. One more Les Nessman classic: How he butchered the name of professional golfter Chi-Chi Rodriguez.

Howard Hesseman holding Chad Lambert's "WKRP in Cincinnati" comic at a Baltimore area nostalgia convention Sept. 14, 2018.
Credit Courtesy Chad Lambert

34. WKRP stars still draw a crowd. Chad Lambert of Liberty Township saw Hesseman, Reid and Jan Smithers at a WKRP reunion at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention in Hunt Valley, MD, just outside of Baltimore on Sept. 14. Hesseman (right) is holding a copy of the comic book he wrote about the history of WKRP in Cincinnati.

35. Since Les Nessman didn't know much about sports, "The Big Guy" hired Sparky Anderson after he was fired by the Reds as a sports reporter in an episode called "Sparky" on Dec. 24, 1979, one of my favorite episodes. The popular Big Red Machine manager was a disaster, and Carlson had to can him, leaving Sparky to muse why he always gets fired in Cincinnati.

36. CBS never figured out where to put WKRP. It premiered in 1978 at 8 p.m. Monday in a lineup with M*A*S*H, One Day At A Time and Lou Grant. CBS tried it at 8:30 and 9:30 p.m. Monday; 8 p.m. Saturday; 8, 8:30 and 9 p.m. Wednesday; and back to 8:30 p.m. Monday in four years.

37. Finally WKRP in Cincinnati was on a roll. The sitcom beat ABC Monday Night Football  and Michael Landon's popular Little House on the Prairie on NBC. But it was too late. WKRP reruns won the time period in September 1982, four months after CBS had canceled the series, said Bill Dial, WKRP producer. By that time the stars had moved on to other shows: Loni Anderson to Partners in Crime with Lynda Carter; Hessemann to One Day At A Time; and Sandy to Pirates of Penzance on Broadway.

MeTV promotional photo for "WKRP" with Howard Hesseman, Loni Anderson and Jan Smithers.
Credit Courtesy MeTV

38. "It was a great tragedy that WKRP was canceled. Golly, what a shame," Jump told me in 1999. "The shows hold up very well. I look at them now and say, 'That's pretty decent comedy . . . and pretty doggone good writing.' "

39. In our last conversation, Hugh Wilson told me: "I'm proud of it. I thought it was pretty funny."

40 . I'll end where it all started -- the great theme song by Tom Wells, with Steve Carlisle singing lyrics from Hugh Wilson:

"Baby, if you're ever wondered,

Wondered whatever become of me,

I'm living on the air in Cincinnati,

Cincinnati, WKRP.

Got kind of tired of packing and unpacking,

Town to town, up and down the dial,

Maybe you and me were never meant to be,

Just maybe think of me once in a while,

I'm at WKRP in Cincinnati."