WKRP Reunion Highlights Innovation and Chemistry

Last week the Paley Center for Media hosted a reunion of cast and crew from WKRP in Cincinnati. The show aired on CBS from 1978 to 1982 with an 88-episode run and is still in syndication more than 30 years later. When it first aired, I was too young to appreciate the show, but I grooved on it as a teenager and have to admit that WKRP is partially responsible for my forays into radio.
The two-hour Paley Center program brought together the majority of the show’s main characters, including Loni Anderson (Jennifer Marlowe), Howard Hesseman (DJ Dr. Johnny Fever), Tim Reid (DJ Venus Flytrap), and Jan Smithers (Bailey Quarters), as well as creator Hugh Wilson and directors Jay Sandrich and Assad Kelada. Gary Sandy (WKRP Program Director Andy Travis) called in during the discussion. Hopefully the Paley Center will put up an archive of the livestream (or at least some highlights) on its Screening Room and/or YouTube page.
In many respects WKRP in Cincinnati broke a lot of new ground in the world of TV sitcoms. The program addressed many social and political subjects long before they were considered appropriate to speak about. These included themes such as discrimination involving race, gender, and sexual orientation, and the moral quandaries soldiers faced during (and after) the Vietnam War. It also shone a spotlight on several of the radio industry’s dark secrets, including payola and automation.
WKRP in Cincinnati also blazed new trails in music. The show’s DJs actually picked the music that viewers heard in the original episodes, and these picks shaped both music sales and station playlists. Blondie credits WKRP for helping it break into the bigtime after Johnny Fever played "Heart of Glass" in an episode (the band gave the show a gold record to hang on-set), and Venus Flytrap’s love of Bob Marley was instrumental in convincing actual program directors to give his music regular rotation.
The cast and crew believe WKRP in Cincinnati‘s success was directly attributable to the fact that there was a special chemistry between the actors, writers, directors, and producers. Unlike many sitcoms, where the writers are sequestered from the set, the creative process for WKRP was organic and extended beyond the studio, including booze-fueled parties out of which some of the show’s greatest moments were born. Howard Hesseman said he had never seen such creative camaraderie on a sitcom before or since, and the rest of the reunion panel vehemently agreed.
Unfortunately, those who see WKRP episodes in syndication today are not getting the authentic experience. That’s because the music licensing agreements for the songs used on the faux station have lapsed. Therefore, many WKRP episodes are heavily edited: actual songs have been replaced with generic session-tracks and related character dialogue has been overdubbed with sound-alike actors. In some cases, entire scenes involving copyrighted music have been removed.
This is why there’s been no DVD release of WKRP in Cincinnati. 20th Century Fox did release a DVD collection of the show’s first season in 2007, but these were music-sanitized episodes and thus did not sell well. However, the pop-culture archival company Shout Factory has now acquired the rights to WKRP, and word is they are confident they can secure the permission to restore the program’s original music and release its entire corpus. Interestingly, the principals behind Shout Factory are also the founders of of Rhino Records, which is well-known for its compilations, remasterings, and reissues of older music and TV shows.