WKRP in Cincinnati

December 25 is the birthday of Gary Sandy, star of the sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati, which ran from 1978 through 1982.

I was a teenager when this show originally aired, and I remember it as a kind of a godsend, one of the few new shows then on television that were actually worth watching. The critically acclaimed sitcoms that had premiered earlier in the decade were all in decline, and exciting new ones like Cheers hadn’t premiered yet. WKRP looked cheaply made (videotape was new then) but the writing and performances were all top-notch and the show was well conceived for its moment.

I went back and re-watched a few episodes a couple of weeks ago, and to my delight I noticed that it chronicled a specific and largely forgotten moment: the last gasp of anti-rock forces in American culture. Think about it. Today there are no (or few) precincts so reactionary in America that they would admit to objecting to rock music on the face of it on moral grounds. Even conservative country artists use blasting amplified guitars, heavy drums and the like. It is now institutional; you hear it playing in stores and in TV commercials. That’s not how it was when I was a kid. The change happened as Baby Boomers aged and began to be the deciders in such matters sometime during the 1980s. Prior to that, there were still pockets that objected to it as late as the late 1970s. My household was one such place! (My father hated it, my mother was fine with it).

WKRP captures the moment perfectly. It’s about a radio station manager (Sandy) who wants to make a success of his station by getting with the times, and updating the programming. The conflict is that the station is located in Cincinnati, a conservative midwestern city just across the river from Kentucky. Today watching the show feels prescient. In just a couple of years this would be Ronald Reagan country.

The show had a sort of triangulated dynamic. In the middle stood the new station manager Andy Travis (Sandy), whose job was to breathe life into the station, but keep a rein on the kooky talent he’d brought in. Also living in that center (or fairly aloof from the conflict) were two fetching females seemingly crafted on the Ginger/Mary Ann model: Loni Anderson, the pornographically desirable but highly capable receptionist, and Jan Smithers as the theoretically mousy but also attractive young administrator who aspires to be a producer. That’s the center. To the right were the reactionary forces, which always reminded me of equivalent characters on M*A*S*H: Mr.Carlson (familiar character actor Gordon Jump) the wishy-washy, cautious but good-hearted station owner, who was vaguely reminiscent of Henry Blake, with the Frank Burns duties shared by Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) the sleazy, flashy-dressing ad salesman; and Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) the nerdy and incompetent McArthyite newscaster. Opposing them on the left flank were the DJs: Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) and Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid). As the more glamorous characters, those two, and the shapely Anderson, were the break-out stars of the show.

The show had a respectable run of four years, then lived on in syndication. From 1991 to 1993 there was a revival called The New WKRP in Cincinnati. And the cultural battle raged on. In the late ’70s it had looked like reactionary forces were fighting a rear guard action. They seemed to be on the way out. And they certainly did lose the pop culture war. But they won some bigger ones. Certainly no one ever dreamt it would be the conservatives who would be calling the tune for the next four decades.