This Thanksgiving week, it warmed my heart to see many postings of what I thought was the funniest moment in Television Sitcom History; the WKRP Turkey Drop. I look forward to it every year from Richard Sanders’ frantic portrayal of newsman Les Nessman’s reporting at the shopping mall to Gordon Jump’s deadpan delivery of the line “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly” as Mr. Carlson, the Big Guy! The impact of that episode was so strong on me that every time I saw him as the Lonely Maytag Repairman, I thought of Turkeys.
I often get asked if any of the characters on WKRP reminded me of folks I worked with in radio. My answer is not just any of them, but nearly all of them remind me of friends I have worked with over the years.
Now, you may say, no one could have been as clueless as the big guy, but we all have our moments. Once during an electrical storm, I was sitting in the back of the control room as my fellow DJ was completing his shift that ended just before mine. There was a lightning strike out at the transmitter a few miles northeast of the studios. From the remote control meters we could tell that there was no power at the site, so we sat back to wait for the power to be restored. Our station owner, who even looked like Gordon Jump ran into the control room to find out what was wrong. When we told him, he ordered us to make an announcement that we would be back on the air as soon as power was restored. When my friend hesitated, he reached over, turned on the microphone and made the announcement himself. As he left the studio, we could hear him slap himself on the head and mutter to himself “That was dumb!” This man was really smart, he knew how to run a radio station and hire the best folks he could. His stations were always at the top of the charts. He just had that momentary lapse. I like to think that Mr. Carlson was the same.
Did I work with any Jennifer Marlowes? You bet I did and like Loni Anderson they were all beautiful and sharp as tack. In fact, you could not work as a receptionist at a radio (or television) station very long unless you were wise, sophisticated, intelligent, and well spoken. If don’t believe me, try working an afterhours shift when the receptionist is gone and the phone lines ring directly into the studios. It’s a trip!
There were no “enthusiastic junior employees” Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers) in radio, but in television we had productions assistants which was definitely not a junior employee but were a major team player who made it all happen.
What can I say about Frank Bonner who played the sales manager Herb Tarlek? Frank played Herb as if he were a sleazy car salesman. I never knew a radio or television salesperson who I would call sleazy. These guys and gals were the best and without their effort the rest of us could not have done our jobs. So guess this is one WKRP character that I never met in real life.
Gary Sandy as program director Andy Travis was probably the most atypical of most of the PDs I’ve known. Although there was one or two who didn’t pull air shifts who were as laid back as Gary. They were a real pleasure to work with and I’d do anything for them; even working on air on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon when they got into a bind when I was the engineer and not responsible for air shifts.
In some of the stations, I’ve worked for; the program director was either the morning or afternoon drive DJ. These guys were anything but laid back. One of these and the only one I’m going to mention by name here was the legendary South Carolina DJ, Woody Windham. When I was looking for my first real job in radio, I nervously dropped off a demo tape with Woody at WCOS and spoke with him briefly. Within a couple of hours, I received a call from the station asking me to come in. I was hired initially as the control operator for Georgia Tech football on the FM station but quickly progressed to weekend part timer, all night show DJ and eventually doing the evening show out at Doug Broome’s drive in near the corner of Two Notch and Beltline. I will be forever grateful to Woody for seeing something in that skinny, nervous college kid who came to see him that fateful afternoon with only a couple hundred hours of college radio experience.
Then, there are all my DJ friends as represented by the characters Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) and Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid.) Each of us was “wild and crazy” in our own style. But everyone had a fire in the belly for rock and roll. Some of these great voices are stilled now but the rest are just as fun as they used to be. When we run into each other we immediately drop back into the old days and the radio war stories fly back and forth. Some of them are even true!
Bill Dial on the left with the beer. There is one radio broadcast role that was not well represented on WKRP, the station engineer. Series writer Bill Dial occasionally shows up as Bucky Dornster, WKRP's station engineer, but he never got his fifteen minutes of fame. We all had First Class Radio Telephone licenses issued by the FCC, issued after passing a tough electronics test. We were the station geeks and we kept everything running. Like me, several of these worked on both sides of the microphone, doing air shifts as well as working on the equipment. The term “engineer” was loosely applied to us as very few actually were Registered Professional Engineers. In fact, I have known only three or four RPE’s who worked in broadcasting. A few, like me were electrical engineering degree holders but never sat for the RPE. Most were graduates of technical schools. Today they are called “Broadcast Technicians” and due to deregulation, the First Class License is no longer required or available from the FCC.
So, as I sit back and watch “The Turkey Drop” episode one more time on YouTube, I’ll be seeing all the faces and hearing the voices of the men and women I’ve had the privilege of working with in broadcasting. Somehow, time has flattened and those faces and voices from 50 years ago are as vibrant and energetic as those of the student DJs that I will see tomorrow when I go into WUSC-FM for my Monday Backbeat Show. Life is good! Oh MY!