12 fascinating facts about WKRP in Cincinnati

David Cassidy almost went from Keith Partridge to Dr. Johnny Fever.

It's one thing when Dick Clark breaks a band. It's quite another when a scrappy sitcom like WKRP in Cincinnati suddenly becomes the pulse of culture. But that's what happened when the quirky series first took off in syndication to become a hit: Everyone who was watching was listening just as closely to the songs the show was spinning. That's how WKRP in Cincinnati helped bands like Blondie, Devo and The Cars become as big as they are in pop history today.

There just is nothing else in TV history quite like WKRP in Cincinnati. The show ran on hilarious personalities, just like a radio show would. It also pulled in great sight gags, funny situations that drew laughs for every single scheme the show dreamed up. It helped that the cast was tremendously talented, often helping series creator Hugh Wilson to expand his characters. That's how the show went on to not just move beyond running gags to embrace more serious themes, but to truly humanize its nutty characters, for which the series won a Humanitas Award, which is basically the Nobel Prize for TV writing. The show hit notes that rang true, and it touched a lot of hearts and sold a heck of a lot of albums.

We're excited to be bringing WKRP in Cincinnati to MeTV, starting Monday, April 2 at 9:30 PM | 8:30C. To catch you back up to speed, we've dug into the show's history to see how much fascinating stuff we could find. Turns out that looking back through WKRP in Cincinnati is just as rewarding as digging in a record crate, and we emerged with some true gems below.

1. Andy Travis is based on real radio program director "Captain Mikey."


When Andy Travis arrives, his first item of business is to change WKRP to a rock & roll format. On the show, Andy knows his stuff and easily sells The Big Guy on his idea. This aspect of the character is based on real program director Mikel Herrington, considered an innovator in radio and "a walking almanac of rock & roll." The characters of Athur Carlson and Dr. Johnny Fever are both also based on actual radio personalities, with Fever's traced back to Atlanta DJ "Skinny" Bobby Harper who was famous for giving the "morning moo cow report."

2. Characters were based on series creator Hugh Wilson's family, too.


Series creator Hugh Wilson also patterned WKRP characters after his own family members. Bailey Quarters was actually based on Wilson's wife, a woman who was shy and often spoke barely above a whisper, but always knew how to speak up when it counted. Wilson has also said that Andy's personality comes from one of his cousins.

3. David Cassidy was originally cast as Dr. Johnny Fever.


When WKRP in Cincinnati auditioned for its cast members, the role of Dr. Johnny Fever originally went to The Partridge Family's David Cassidy, but the pop idol ended up turning the part down. Of course, the role ultimately went to Howard Hesseman, but only after he was invited to read for Herb Tarlek's character and flatly refused to read anything but Johnny. Way to apply the heat, Fever!

4. Les wears a bandage in every episode because of a real injury in the first episode.


While airing the two-part pilot, the actor who plays Les Nessman, Richard Sanders, legitimately cut his finger and wound up having to wear a bandage on air. He decided to make this an aspect of his character, so every episode finds a reason to bandage up Les.

5. Blondie donated a gold record to the show for helping “Heart of Glass” become a hit.


WKRP in Cincinnati became a legitimate vehicle for launching bands to pop success. Acts like U2, Toto, The Knack. The Cars and Devo, all count WKRP as pivotal in exploding their audiences. But the biggest band the show helped hit was probably Blondie, whose album Parallel Lines went on to become a gold record after the show played "Heart of Glass" from it on air. Blondie was so grateful, they donated a gold record to the show and you can sometimes see it hanging up in the background during scenes that take place in the bullpen from the second, third and fourth seasons.

6. The posters and band stuff you see on the walls were gifts from real DJs.


When WKRP in Cincinnati debuted, actual radio DJs were jazzed, because they loved that the show portrayed sides of the industry you never see. They were such big fans that they would send in bumper stickers, posters, and other swag that was used to decorate the walls in the TV radio station studio.

7. Herb actually did wear a suit made from Volkswagen seat covers.


There's a famous line from the show in the second season episode "Put Up or Shut Up" where Venus Flytrap tells Herb Tarlek, who dependably wears tacky suit after tacky suit, "Somewhere out there, there's a Volkswagen with no seats." Apparently, Herb really did wear a suit on the show that was made out of Volkswagen seat covers. Guess Venus Flytrap has spent his fair share of time in the backseat of a Volkswagen?

8. Venus Flytrap was the inspiration for Ladies Man on SNL.


On WKRP in Cincinnati, Venus Flytrap is smooth and if there's a party or concert to go to, you can bet he's got a date. This might sound a lot like Leon Phelps, a certain Ladies Man that Tim Meadows created as a character on Saturday Night Live and eventually spun out into a feature film. That's because Meadows says Tim Reid's WKRP character inspired his.

9. The show was inspired by a Harry Chapin song, "WOLD."


"I am the morning DJ on WOLD..." That's how Harry Chapin's chorus on "WOLD" introduces the star of the song, a radio DJ who was "playing all the hits for you, playing them night and day. The bright good morning voice who's heard but never seen. Feeling all of forty-five, going on fifteen." The song is about a DJ who has regrets but has chosen his lot in life spinning discs. The story goes that Wilson heard this song and thought it'd make a great sitcom premise. As WKRP proved, the series creator's ear was not wrong.

10. Hugh Wilson wrote the lyrics to the theme song.


The theme song for WKRP in Cincinnati is a spectacular earworm that in many ways served as the show's hook. Wilson himself penned the catchy lyrics, which had us all tuning in to get the vicarious feeling of "living on the air in Cincinnati, Cincinnati, WKRP." 

The show also had a second theme that played at the very end. This theme song had none of the intro theme's poetry, with lyrics that were pure gibberish and written on the fly, intended to be replaced later. Instead, Wilson thought it was a great joke in itself about how rock lyrics never make sense, so they left the lyrics as is.

Image: The Everett Collection

11. An extended version of the theme song became a hit in its own right.


In 1979, Steve Carlisle released a full-length version of the intro theme song, expanding the lyrics to tell a longer story that many believe is about Andy Travis, but could just as easily apply to Venus Flytrap or Dr. Johnny Fever. In 1981, the song hit its highest height: No. 65 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

12. Almost everyone returned for at least a cameo in The New WKRP in Cincinnati.


Close to 10 years after WKRP in Cincinnati had left the air, The New WKRP in Cincinnati premiered in 1991. Rejoining the cast was Gordon Jump (Arthur Carlson), Richard Sanders (Les Nessman), Howard Hesseman (Dr. Johnny Fever) and Frank Bonner (Herb Tarlek). Throughout the reboot run, both Tim Reid (Venus Flytrap) and Loni Anderson (Jennifer Marlowe) made guest appearances, but Garry Sandy (Andy Travis) and Jan Smithers (Bailey Quarters) did not. Smithers had by that time retired, but Andy Travis, it seems, just never wondered what ever became of his old coworkers after the show.

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Jona 22 months ago
I was lucky enough to be on KOME in San Jose when Mikel Herrington "Hunter", the former Captain Mikey, took the reins in 1978. Wild craziness ensued and the station is still fondly remembered for the Hunter era. The promotions he came up with, BTW, were more off-the-wall than the turkey drop. LOL--we did a chicken-fly, actually! The creativity and non-stop in-person engagement of that station, musically and culturally, is unmatched. I'm so glad to have been on air then--I'm still on the radio today, too!
Firebird7479 23 months ago
Missing is a mention of a pennant that was on the wall in the studio of the Cincinnati Stingers, a franchise in the now defunct World Hockey Association.
vinman63 29 months ago
Jonny Fever Howard Hessman passed away at 81.
RickCharlap 31 months ago
Would love to see a good picture of the wall, I think it was in Andy’s office, that had the bumper stickers of all the various Rock stations throughout the country. I always loved seeing “WGRQ 97 Rock” from Buffalo, NY (where I still live).
Anyone know of any photos of it or…and this would be a miracle…does it even possibly still exist?
AlanRamsey 36 months ago
David Letterman was considered for the role of Andy Travis, but he wound up working on another MTM project, Mary Tyler Moore's short lived variety show, "Mary," along with Michael Keaton, Dick Shawn, Swoosie Kurtz, Merrill Markoe, Valeri Bromfeld, and James Hampton.
music 50 months ago
Put WKRP back on the air. It was the most intelligent show you had. Lose Green Acres.
RedSamRackham 64 months ago
Loved seeing Johnny throw darts at a Barely Manenough poster. ☺
pellinigroup 64 months ago
I wish you would add "New WKRP" to the mix. Also the 50th anniversary WKRP episode, which preceded the re-boot. I beleive the premise was theat WKRP signed on on December 8, 1941, right after the Pearl Harbor attack.
WKRPRadio 68 months ago
You forgot #13:
At various points, including since November 30, 2015, there have been *real* stations which have held the call sign "WKRP." The current one? Ours: 101.9 WKRP, in Raleigh, North Carolina (www.wkrpfm.com).
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