You might remember this sitcom from 1978. If you’ve ever lived in Cincinnati, you probably remember it better than most. The pilot launches straight into an opening sequence, with a person’s hand adjusting a car radio, searching around before landing on what will be the show’s theme. We’re led to understand that the city itself will play a part. There are lots of shots of iconic Cincinnati landmarks: Fountain Square, skywalks, the Suspension Bridge, Riverfront Coliseum, Riverfront Stadium… there’s even a billboard for Frisch’s Big Boy in the background of one shot. Interestingly, only two actors’ names are given during this sequence (Gary Sandy and Gordon Jump).
The story is motivated by the introduction of Andy Travis (Gary Sandy), the new program manager at a lagging, independent radio station. Starting with what we can surmise is a typical morning, we see the buxom receptionist (Loni Anderson) water the plants as sleazy salesman Herb (Frank Bonner) hits on her. Andy arrives, with a hint of a southwest accent, wearing a cowboy hat, and we know he’s different. We soon discover that he’s smart and articulate, traits which further separate him from the Midwestern hodgepodge.
The characters go on entering, one by one, each full of warnings for Andy about the high turnover of program managers at WKRP. Les Nesman (Richard Sanders) is the uber-dorky newsman. Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump), the boss, cares more for fishing—in his office, no less—than actually working. Johnny (Howard Hesseman) makes the grandest entrance as a confused, sleep-deprived, cool guy (today we’d call him a hipster) who has gone by a different moniker in every city where he’s worked. Drug use is implied though not spelled out. Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers) is the mousy office assistant, who may have potential to do bigger things. If anyone is going to hook up, it’s going to be Bailey and Andy.
The station desperately needs an update in format to survive, despite the wishes of its owner, Carlson’s conservative mother. Andy boldly changes the format, in an exciting and funny scene with Johnny. The chronically tired DJ comes alive with the switch over from elevator music to contemporary rock-and-roll. We enjoy his triumph as he rocks out, rechristening himself Johnny Fever.
As in many shows of this era, the laugh track is used to exhaustion. The thing is, the show’s a riot on its own. The jokes are pretty lowbrow, ranging from sight gags like Carlson’s casting a fishing line over his desk, to funny song titles (How Can I Miss You if You Won’t Go Away?), to plain old stupidity.
Today, there’s the added humor of, well, the 70s. Records! Eight-tracks! And scarily, the clothes don’t look that out of style. The real humor, though, comes from the characters. In some ways, WKRP is a predecessor to The Office, following people who manage to get through their workday by doing next to nothing. If computer solitaire had been invented in 1978, you can bet these guys would be playing it. Andy is Jim. Carlson in Michael. Bailey is Pam. Johnny is a male Meredith. Les is Dwight. No such comparison exists for Venus Flytrap, the charismatic DJ, who looks for all the world like a pimp, introduced at the very end as the episode’s final button. Les calls him a Negro – can you still say that on TV?