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An item on Radio-Info.com noted that Dial had also worked at WAKE (1340) and WSB (750) in Atlanta.
Atlanta was also the same market, not coincidentally, where Hugh Wilson was working as an advertising executive with WQXI (790). “Quixie in Dixie” was Atlanta’s Top 40 monster during the 1960s and ’70s and a training ground for jocks like Dr. Don Rose and Scott Shannon.
An aspiring screenwriter and producer from Coral Gables, Fla., Wilson eventually moved from Atlanta to Hollywood to try his hand in the TV business, where he worked on “The Bob Newhart Show.”
According to the book “America’s Favorite Radio Station,” an anecdotal history of “WKRP” by Ray Browne and Michael Kassel, stories from WQXI provided plenty of inspiration for Wilson as he sat down to create the show that became “WKRP in Cincinnati.”
WQXI was famous (some might say infamous) for its stunts. One promotion invited listeners to see the “Quixie Quacker Dancing Ducks” in the window of a department store in downtown Atlanta.
It turned out the ducks were dancing because a station executive had put a hot plate under the window … and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was not amused.
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In another WQXI promotion, live turkeys were tossed into a suburban Atlanta shopping center … not from a helicopter, but from an 18-wheeler.
Wilson’s script for the “WKRP” pilot clicked with Mary Tyler Moore’s production company, MTM Enterprises, which wrangled a commitment from CBS to fund development.
Browne and Kassel report that Wilson quickly called Dial in Atlanta, urging him to come to Hollywood. “There’s money on the ground out here,” he said.
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Wilson and Dial weren’t the only people with a background in radio. Howard Hesseman, who played burned-out morning man Dr. Johnny Fever, prepared for his role by jocking at San Francisco’s freeform radio pioneer KMPX-FM.
(And there’s a rumor that while Richard Sanders, who played hapless newsman Les Nessman, was a student at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Institute of Technology, he spent some time at its then-carrier current radio station, WRCT.)
It lent an air of authenticity to “WKRP” that made the stories much sharper, and when the show premiered on CBS at 8 p.m. Sept. 18, 1978, Tom Shales of the Washington Post called it “the best new comedy series of the year.”
“Its cast of zanies is not necessarily zanier but easily more sufferable than the crowds of cut-ups on any other new shows,” said Shales, noting that “WKRP” was produced by Mary Tyler Moore’s production company, MTM Enterprises.
Indeed, he said, WKRP was “reminiscent” of the fictional WJM-TV in Minneapolis that was depicted on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and was “in the tradition” of that beloved sitcom.
The Los Angeles Times called “WKRP” “new and very funny,” and said that with a Monday night lineup of “WKRP,” “MASH” and “One Day at a Time,” CBS had “the strongest Monday night comedy bloc since the days of ‘Lucy,’ ‘Danny Thomas’ and ‘Andy Griffith.'”
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Unfortunately, CBS couldn’t seem to leave well enough alone, and the network was soon bouncing the show around the prime-time schedule, losing viewers at every step along the way. Jaime J. Weinman, TV critic for the Canadian newsmagazine Maclean’s and a “WKRP” fan, notes that the show was moved 11 times in four seasons.
There were rumblings that CBS was purposely trying to sabotage the show. It may have been that “WKRP” was too accurately depicting life at radio stations like those operated by CBS and its affiliates.
Then, too, “WKRP” was occasionally causing stomachaches for the network’s standards and practices department. Writers and producers on “WKRP” insisted on tackling real-life issues that were confronting radio stations in the 1970s, including censorship by “Moral Majority” style pressure groups, drug use and alcoholism, and violence at rock concerts.
“Soon after ‘WKRP’ was canceled in June of 1982, summer reruns of the series shot into the top ten and stayed there throughout the summer,” Weinman writes. “The reason, most likely, was that after CBS executives cancelled the show, they stopped moving it around the schedule; they left it in one time slot for the whole summer, and viewers finally knew where to find it.”
According to Weinman, the last broadcast of “WKRP” on CBS won its timeslot and placed seven in the overall ratings for the week.
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With the unexpected ratings success, Weinman says, CBS tried in the 11th hour to bring “WKRP” back for a fifth season, but it was too late. The principal actors had all signed up for other projects.
(At one point, he says, the network considered turning the show into a Saturday morning cartoon series, which it had also done with “The Dukes of Hazzard.” In the “WKRP” cartoon, the lead characters would all have been … dogs. “This series was, perhaps thankfully, never actually produced,” Weinman says.)
“WKRP” was revived, of course, for a syndicated series in the early 1990s, with Sanders returning as Les Nessman and Gordon Jump and Frank Bonner reprising their roles as harried station manager Art Carlson and sales manager Herb Tarlek, respectively.
All the revival proved was that you can’t go home again. The new cast members didn’t have any chemistry, and worse yet, the scripts weren’t all that funny.
They also weren’t that realistic: With consolidation and automation overtaking the radio business, it no longer seemed probable that a stand-alone full-service AM station in Cincinnati could even survive, let alone provide jobs for all of the characters.
Maybe Wilson, Dial and the others were now too far removed from the radio business. In any event, the less said about “The New WKRP in Cincinnati,” the better.
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Thankfully, DVD has brought “WKRP” back to the small screen, and the first season is now available for purchase.
Unfortunately, one of the things that made “WKRP” so unique at the time — the integration of then-current rock and pop songs into the stories — has been lost in many of the episodes. Some songs had to be replaced with generic soundalikes because the producers couldn’t obtain rights to include the original music on the DVDs.
Still, even with the sometimes obvious edits, the essential quality of the show shines through.
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And now, with limited commercial interruption, here’s the episode of “WKRP” that was perhaps Bill Dial’s greatest triumph:
Comedy writer and pop-culture historian Mark Evanier last week noted the death of Bill Dial.
Dial, 66, died June 2 of a heart attack. According to Internet Movie Database, during a career than spanned three decades in Hollywood, Dial was a writer and producer on shows ranging from “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Sliders” to “Simon and Simon” and “Harper Valley PTA.”
But one of Dial’s first credits was one of his best.
Because, you see, Dial was also a writer (and occasional performer) on “WKRP in Cincinnati,” and he wrote the infamous “Turkeys Away!” episode from the show’s first season, which TV Guide ranked as one of the top 40 moments in sitcom history.
Dial’s death also reminded Monday Morning Nostalgia Fix that this September marks the 30th anniversary of the debut of “WKRP.”