The opening credit sequence for WKRP In Cincinnati, which ran for four seasons from 1978-82 and was recently reissued in full-on DVD, begins with a DJ announcing the weather, a voice quickly washed away with a spin of a dial. After a few turns, it lands on WKRP, and the sitcom’s opening theme, a smooth slice of late-’70s soft rock, eases into being. Its lyrics tell the tale of a radio man who’s worked his way from station to station and has found himself in Cincinnati, trying to revive the fortunes of a midlevel station.
That man is Andy Travis, a transplant from New Mexico who lands a job as the program director for a struggling Ohio station and decides to switch WKRP’s format from…well, it’s never really said, but based on the conservative cast of characters populating the pilot, it’s likely some musty middle-of-the-road pop that had long reached its sell-by date in 1978. Travis declares his intentions by unfurling a KISS poster in his office and ordering disc jockey Johnny Caravella to immediately start playing rock ‘n’ roll. He complies by scratching the needle on “You’re Having My Baby,” adopting the name Dr. Johnny Fever and tearing into Ted Nugent’s “Queen of the Forest.”
That song is as direct a statement of rock ‘n’ roll purpose as they come, but on all versions of WKRP In Cincinnati since the ’90s, “Queen of the Forest” wasn’t what you heard when Johnny Fever plays the record. In its place came pounding, anonymous hard rock. The joke still plays, but the context, along with the suggestion of insurrection, are lost; without Ted Nugent, the sitcom is untethered from its era.
There wasn’t much 21st Century Fox, the studio who purchased WKRP from its production company, MTM Enterprises, could do about this. When the show initially aired, the idea of home video was as alien as the idea that audiences would still be interested in the show 40 years later. Music licensing rights weren’t negotiated, and the soundtrack that gave the show so much of its character was erased.
That reality returns in Shout Factory’s new DVD set WKRP In Cincinnati: The Complete Series, which restores the majority of the show’s original music cues. Not everything is here. Trainspotters will notice the absence of Pink Floyd’s “Dogs” from the landmark “Turkeys Away” episode, and the handful of Beatles tunes peppered throughout the series are nowhere to be found. Both groups are known to command an exorbitant fee for the filmic use of their music (as late as 2012, Matthew Weiner reserved a large portion of Mad Men‘s budget to secure the rights for “Tomorrow Never Knows”) — but it’s close enough to firmly anchor WKRP In Cincinnati in the era of its creation. The show’s first season aired in the aftermath of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols and Saturday Night Fever and its last one aired as MTV was on the ascent. It was a vibrant, fertile four years, and the fact that some of this tumult crept into the confines of a sitcom suggested just how strong the cultural headwinds were during the transition from Jimmy Carter to Ronald Reagan. Early in the show’s run, the radio station sponsors a live concert by Scum of the Earth, a transparent stand-in for the Sex Pistols who play “hoodlum rock,” music that’s a few cuts below punk. When SOTE actually plays, it’s not punk by any stretch. This isn’t necessarily a surprise; the band was played by a real group called Detective, which was led by Michael DesBarres and featured a former auxiliary member of Yes in support. But the attempt to reckon with rapidly shifting fashions illustrates how creator Hugh Wilson and his team of producers were aware that rock’s canon was not sitting still.
The playlist of WKRP In Cincinnati‘s four seasons is dotted with punk and New Wave — Elvis Costello, the Pretenders, Nick Lowe, the Police, the Sports and Devo all make appearances. But the show’s aspirations were firmly mainstream. It was constructed as the successor to CBS’s witty, sophisticated sitcoms The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show, both produced by MTM Enterprises, so it was populist by design. But the central conflict of Andy Travis shepherding a fuddy-duddy middle-American station into the modern era via his DJs Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap suggests how the notion of “mainstream” was beginning to change in the late ’70s. Back then, there still were plenty of older viewers listening to the button-down Perry Como and watching The Lawrence Welk Show but rock ‘n’ roll and soul, the cultural currency of the decade, were edging their way into prime time. There were music-specific showcases like American Bandstand and Soul Train and Saturday Night Live prior to WKRP In Cincinnati, all of which made it their mission to showcase cutting-edge acts, but there was no other show where the modern music was woven into the very fabric of the program as it was on WKRP.
Although the show was acclaimed — it was nominated for 10 Emmys over the course of its run — syndication is where WKRP took root into pop culture consciousness. It ran steadily after school, early evening and in the twilight hours all the way into the late ’80s, leaping over The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show to be MTM’s most-successful show in syndication according to the studio’s co-founder Grant Tinker. Throughout this smash syndicated run, all using the original music that was still covered under the initial licensing deals, the show didn’t merely experience a second life — it helped cement the idea of the classic rock radio.
During the four years WKRP In Cincinnati aired on CBS, classic rock — both as a term and as a format — didn’t quite exist. The first station to call itself “classic rock” was, coincidentally, a station from Cleveland, one that specialized in playing the hits from the mid ’60s to 1980: the very songs that, as the Complete Series DVD makes plain, that were the lifeblood of WKRP’s playlist.
Where WKRP strayed from classic rock was the late night slot that belonged to Venus Flytrap, the New Orleans transplant incongruously decked out in SuperFly threads, pledging an everlasting allegiance to Sly Stone but generally playing the smooth sounds of quiet storm. In practical terms, the pairing of Venus Flytrap and Johnny Fever would’ve made for a terrible radio station; any listener sucked into Venus’s seduction would never stick around for the beery arena-rock of Fever. As television, however, it made sense: Venus Flytrap broadened not just the audience but the aural template, tapping into the aftershocks of funk, disco and psychedelic soul nearly as ably as Johnny Fever stood for the burnout ’60s hangover of the ’70s.
Still, the anchor of WKRP is rock ‘n’ roll, not soul, which is accurate. Despite the great soul and funk bands that came out of Ohio, it was part of the great Midwestern rust belt comprised of blue collar workers working long nights, the kind of listeners long identified with the sound of Les Pauls cranked through Marshall stacks. Most of the music played on WKRP In Cincinnati falls squarely into this category: then-new songs by the Rolling Stones and the Who, second-album singles from Boston, rockers by upstarts Foreigner and Eddie Money, oldies by Jimi Hendrix and Deep Purple and the deathless “Layla.” Steely Dan, the Eagles and Crosby Stills Nash & Young soften up the edges, as they do to this day on surviving classic stations, and mellower pop and fusion provide brief glimpses at passing trends: the disco opportunism of Chicago’s “Alive Again,” James Taylor dipping into yacht rock on “Your Smiling Face,” Herb Alpert getting funky on “Rise.”
It’s too much to say WKRP In Cincinnati was responsible for turning these sounds and songs into accepted standards, but by relying on a proto-classic rock playlist, the show played its part in moving this music away from the confines of FM radio, pushing it toward its current status as background bumper music in television, movies, commercials, sports bars. So much of this music is still out there, playing anywhere there’s a PA in public, but the culture that produced it has nearly vanished, and that disappearance makes WKRP In Cincinnati The Complete Series bittersweet. As a sitcom, it holds up as well as any 40-year old sitcom can: Some of the jokes are creaky and the pacing is sometimes slow, but that allows the nimble cast to play off of one another as they cherish the writing, a necessarily element of any successful-scripted television show. It’s still a pleasure to watch, but as the episodes roll on, it’s hard to deny that the world of WKRP In Cincinnati is gone. DJs and program directors are no longer nomads roaming from gig to gig: They’ve been eliminated by centralized computer programming that churns out uniform playlists to stations throughout the country. This means a middle-level market like Cincinnati no longer has a radio station as quirky as WKRP, one where the music feels as much as an outgrowth of the on-air personalities as it does a reflection of the audience: it has a Jack FM endlessly spitting out the same songs you know and love, many of which that showed up somewhere on the 88 episode run of WKRP In Cincinnati. But context counts: On today’s airwaves, the songs sound staid. On WKRP, they bring back the birth of classic rock, a reminder that there was a time when rock ‘n’ roll, in all its forms, had yet to become a common language.