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Friday, November 25, 2011

TGIF: WKRP In Cincinnati

Hello, everyone!

Welcome to Black Friday. I hope all of you who are off to get major deals on electronics, toys, and appliances manage to get what you want without any cuts, bruises, and broken bones. And a special shout out to all of our American readers here as well, hoping that your Thanksgiving yesterday was filled with lots of food, and fun with friends and family.

And for today's blog entry, I have a special post-Thanksgiving treat for all of you Americans out there, and for the rest of the global population, I hope that you can get some humour out of today's posting.

How is today's posting linked to an American Thanksgiving? I'll get to that in a second.

But first, I have a question to pose to all of you, as well as a story linked to it.

Have you ever won anything from a radio contest or promotion? Really, anything at all? Concert tickets? Free food? Cold hard cash?

I have. In fact, the last two I've managed to win.

When I was about ten years old, I ended up winning a free pizza...though to be fair, all I really had to do was have my name sent in to the birthday club, and had my birthday read on air. And on a rather ironic note, my nephew ended up winning the birthday pizza for three years in a row!

But really, our local radio station, 104.9 JRFM (formerly known as 830 CFJR on the AM Radio dial), had quite a few contests, as did the sister station, 103.7 BOB FM (formerly known as The River). My sisters both won tickets to concerts and to the circus, as well as albums, clothing, gift certificates, and other various gifts. My mother is also one who likes to participate in radio contests, and one of her pet peeves in regards to these contests are ones where you have to call in to be a specific numbered caller, and that caller would either be an instant winner or get a chance to play a game. My mom would get so angry when she couldn't get through on the line, and even angrier when someone she knew DID get through! But, that was the chance people took.

However, in another pill of irony to swallow, while my mother would try constantly to play in radio contests and not get through, on the few instances when I would enter the contest, it didn't take me long to get on the line at all. In fact, in one of these contests a few years back, I was caller number seven, I believe it was. I had to play a game similar to the Clock Game on the Price Is Right where if I guessed the right number, I'd win the same dollar amount in cash. I ended up taking home a cheque for $431.00...the most I've ever won in any sort of contest. Not a bad chunk of change.

The one thing that I can say about our radio contests and promotions is that most of the prizes were fantastic, and the contests often went off without too much trouble.

Of course, not all radio promotions were perfect. Some of them failed miserably.

There's a book that I got for a Christmas present one year. In a twist of fate, my mom had actually won the book as a prize in a radio contest herself. The book was called 'The CHUM Story: From The Charts To Your Hearts'. It was written by Allen Farrell (a former CHUM staffer back in the day), and it was a detailed history of the early history of the CHUM radio station in Toronto, Ontario from the beginning until the 1970s. It's a really great book, by the way, and it showed a lot of behind-the-scenes moments about how the radio industry worked back in those days. I highly recommend it.

Anyway, there was a whole section on all the various contests that they did over the years, and how some of them didn't end happily. In one contest, they tried to give away a dog to promote the television program Lassie (the dog was like a Lassie clone), and the dog was so nervous, the family that won it had to return it to the station, as it kept going to the bathroom all the time.

And then there was the time that CHUM Radio ran a Father's Day contest where people would nominate their fathers for a chance to be named Father of the Year by CHUM, and the selection they chose happened to be a deadbeat dad who fathered illegitimate children all over the city for the better part of a decade!!!


The point is that radio contests are just like any sort of contest. Most of them are fantastic ideas with a great reward, but some of them for whatever reason just falter.

Like a fictional promotion done by a fictional radio station on a very real television sitcom.

The date was October 30, 1978. Although Thanksgiving in America wasn't for another few weeks yet, the fictional radio station, WKRP in Cincinnati was running a radio promotion for the holiday. It was supposed to have been an ingenious idea that nobody else had thought of. According to Arthur Carlson, the head of the station, he had insisted that his idea would end up being the greatest Thanksgiving promotion in radio history that people would end up remembering for years to come.

Arthur Carlson would end up getting his wish, but not for the right reasons.

Arthur's plan was to take a helicopter up in the air. He would have his field reporter, Les Nessman, cover the action live from the shopping mall where the promotion was set to take place. When they were up in the air, Arthur and Herb Tarlek, WKRP's account executive, would throw turkeys out of the helicopter down towards the people on the ground, offering free Thanksgiving turkeys to the lucky people who happened to catch one. Considering how expensive Thanksgiving dinner could be, getting a free turkey could be a great money saver.

There was just one problem. The turkeys that Arthur and Herb were tossing out of the helicopter were live turkeys.

Even bigger problem. They were domesticated turkeys who COULDN'T FLY.

Sigh...just watch the carnage below...

How disasterous was that? I couldn't even imagine myself running around a shopping plaza, trying to avoid a barrage of turkeys being tossed directly at me.

And yet that episode is widely regarded as one of the best episodes of the sitcom WKRP In Cincinnati by fans and critics. It's even ranked at #40 on TV Guide's Top 100 Episodes Of All Time).

When you take a look back at WKRP In Cincinnati though, it was highly underrated, and ultimately was canceled not because of bad writing, but because it kept bouncing around from time slot to time slot, and people got frustrated with trying to find it in their TV listings.

WKRP In Cincinnati ran for four seasons between 1978 and 1982. A revival of the series was made in the early 1990s, running between 1991 and 1993. The show was created by Hugh Wilson, and the sitcom was based on his own experiences working in advertising and sales in Atlanta, Georgia's WQXI radio station. In fact, almost all of the characters on the show were based on real people that Wilson encountered during his career.

Another plus that the show had was that the cast did not change at all during its four season run. There were no new characters introduced, but none left the show during its run. Considering that most shows now have one or more cast changes per year, this was very unusual at the time.

Now, from the clip I posted above, you've already met most of the cast, and I've talked about Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump), Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) and Les Nessman (Richard Sanders). 

Those three characters were also the only three characters to appear in the 1991 revamp of the series as regular cast members.

Other cast members included Andy Travis (Gary Sandy), who could easily be called the main character (for a while he and Jump were the only cast members credited in the opening titles). It was Andy who moved to WKRP as its program director in an effort to keep the radio station from going under. With his spotless reputation for taking failing radio stations and turning them into ratings gold, it was expected that Andy would do the same for WKRP, but unfortunately, his tenure with the station was met with much frustration due to Carlson's incompetence and the wacky behaviour of the various deejays and staff members. Still, he managed to last four years at the station, so that was a positive.

You had Dr. Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap (Howard Hesseman and Tim Reid respectively) who were the two deejays that we happened to see on screen. 

Dr. Johnny was a burned-out disc jockey who came to WKRP after being fired from a Los Angeles radio station for saying a nasty word on air. That word was booger.  You have to wonder how strict the guidelines were regarding the FCC circa 1978, don't you? Here's a bit of trivia for you all. Howard Hesseman who played Dr. Johnny actually worked as a disc jockey before he went into acting. 

As for Venus Flytrap, he's the late-evening deejay who likes to do his set with mood lighting and a smooth-talking persona. His real name, Gordon Sims, is never used, and details of his personal life prior to WKRP are sparse.

Herb Tarlek would always wear a white belt and white shoes with whatever garish outfit he wore, and despite his being married, he would always pursue the buxom blonde receptionist of WKRP, Jennifer Marlowe (Loni Anderson). 

But the one quality that I'm sure all women could celebrate was that Jennifer had a brain underneath all that blonde hair, and she wasn't afraid to use it.

Les Nessman tried to be a serious news reporter and put everything into presenting himself in a positive light, but he didn't exactly succeed at this. Case in point, the clip from the episode “Turkeys Away”. He would often come into work with a bandage over some part of his body from some sort of accident he got into, but did you know that this recurring gag came about from a real injury that actor Richard Sanders experienced? During the filming of the pilot, Sanders bopped his head on a studio light and gashed his forehead quite badly. He was forced to wear a bandage to cover the cut, and Sanders decided to incorporate it as a running gag.

Then there was Jan Smithers' role as Bailey Quarters, the radio station ingenue, who was in charge of billing and traffic reports in the first couple of seasons of the show. Bailey also happens to hold a degree in journalism, and her real dream is to become a broadcast executive, so Mr. Carlson decided to let Bailey try her hand at on-air reporting...a job that she excels in better than Les ever could. Another one of Bailey's quirks is her shyness and quietness, qualities that she eventually overcomes by the end of the series. But those quirks helped Jan Smithers get the role of Bailey, as Hugh Wilson stated that while actresses TRIED to act shy, Smithers always WAS shy, and that helped her get the role.

I think some of the reasons why I liked the show though was the fact that during its original run, the show played real songs by real artists. You'll hear different, more generic music being played in syndication, but in the original run, you'd hear songs by Foreigner, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, Robert Palmer, and others.

And almost every episode of the series was based on a real-life event, either based on Hugh Wilson's past experiences, or a social commentary on real life news stories. An episode entitled “In Concert” was based on the 1979 tragedy in which eleven people were killed at a Who concert in Cincinnati by suffocation after being trampled on by fans rushing into the concert hall to see the show.

And, would you believe that “Turkeys Away” was reportedly based on a REAL-LIFE event that happened at WQXI, the station that Hugh Wilson worked at before he created the show?

Now, that is a scary thought.  

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