Today, in the spirit of doctoral students everywhere, we're offering a dissertation based on a pseudo-intellectual, pop culture thesis: "Commercial Radio in the Post-Telecommunications-Act Era as Seen Through 'WKRP in Cincinnati.' "
"WKRP in Cincinnati" was a CBS sitcom that ran from 1978 to 1982. A wacky cast of radio employees worked at the worst station in the Ohio River city, which had just changed its format from easy listening to rock. Zaniness ensued. Last week, the cable TV channel Nickelodeon aired a "WKRP" marathon, reprising several of the show's most memorable episodes. The Listener spent many happy childhood nights watching the show during its first airing. Now, as a professional radio commentator, it was revealing to watch the shows again, and not only for the presence of Loni Anderson.
Even though WKRP was fictional, many of the show's elements rang true for its era. It was a family-owned station, run by Arthur "Big Guy" Carlson--the owner's bumbling son. The program director--Andy Travis--had the power to switch the format single-handedly. The salesman--Herb Tarlek--was a leisure-suited sleazebag. The station had its own half-witted newsman--Les Nessman. And there were the deejays--morning man Dr. Johnny Fever and overnight jock Venus Flytrap, each of whom picked the records they wanted to play.
Over the past two decades--culminating with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which lifted restrictions on the number of stations a company can own--almost all of the old ways have changed. In the last three years, commercial radio has undergone consolidation, with a few companies now controlling the industry. Radio stations are now much more profitable but tend to sound alike from one city to the next. Consolidation has spelled the end of quirky stations like WKRP. And it all starts at the top.
"That sort of marginally incompetent general manager like the Big Guy is definitely a thing of the past," says Lee Abrams, program director for XM Satellite Radio. He is a radio graybeard, considered the father of album-oriented rock radio. "Now [general managers] are more marketing-savvy and more business-oriented." WKRP would no longer be owned by a single person. Instead it would be one of 300 or 400 stations owned by a huge corporation such as Clear Channel Communications or Chancellor Media Corp.
Unless a station is all-news, it is unlikely today that it would have its own Les Nessman. Stations now buy their news and traffic reports from companies such as Metro Networks and Shadow Broadcast Services, where one reporter files essentially the same news report--often under pseudonyms--for several stations.
The antics of Dr. Johnny Fever, who veered between episodes of high-volume logorrhea and narcolepsy, would not be tolerated today.
"There are fewer Johnny Fevers working today as consolidation offers fewer opportunities for 'burnouts,' " says Abrams. "In the '60s and '70s, you could hire a burnout for name value. But today, no way."
Even though Fever never approached the tastelessness of a Howard Stern, Stern shows up for work on time and makes millions for CBS.
Then there's the issue of what gets played on the radio. The format of WKRP was always somewhat unclear. In the mornings, Johnny Fever played rock. But on the overnight, Venus Flytrap burned incense and candles and played slow-jam soul. But they both picked their own music (vinyl!), something that ended even before "WKRP" began airing in 1978.
"Corruption of the deejays," says Abrams. For years, deejays were the all-powerful gatekeepers for new music--if they didn't play your record, nobody heard it. Therefore, they were regular recipients of payola from record companies and band promoters (everything from cash to tour jackets to drugs).
Also, deejays were the arbiters of taste, playing songs they liked. Today, program directors are in charge and they rarely play a record based on gut feeling.
"In the '70s at WKRP, Andy Travis would walk a new song in and it was a hit," says Sammy Simpson, promotions director for Z-104 (WWZZ-FM) and a radio veteran who admits to owning a few "WKRP" episodes on videotape. "In radio in 1999, you not only have a [program director] that is good at his job, you've got research on an ongoing basis, auditorium testing, focus groups, knowledge and literature and facts and even record sales that will tell you these songs are from the Top 10 albums being bought, so people like them, so we ought to play them. The technical side of that has given [stations] so much information on how to create a playlist."
Radio stations say the technology has helped them play what the listeners want. Critics say it makes the stations sound more homogenous.
There is, however, one thing that has remained unchanged from the WKRP era, Abrams says.
"The Herb Tarleks have multiplied and grown," he says, laughing. "They are a thriving breed."
* Jam'n Oldies 99.5, the former easy-listening WGAY-FM that changed its format in April, finally got its new call letters: WJMO. Arbitron trend reports--which provide rough ratings numbers in between quarterly reports--show that the format has experienced a strong launch, just as it has in other markets. In the station's primary demographic--ages 25-54--WJMO had a 4.5 share in April and May, placing it among the area's top-rated stations.
* WETA President Arthur Cohen is running for a spot on the 16-member board that governs National Public Radio, and he's taken his campaign to the Internet, an uncommon tactic in public radio. Cohen has posted a Web site--without the help of station staff or money, he says--from which to campaign. The site includes his resume and campaign statement. And, just so you can get to know Art a little better, he posts some photographs he's taken and Web sites he's fond of (including astrology, arts therapy and humor sites). And there's an added twist to the Aug. 11 election: The NPR board is chaired by Kim Hodgson, president of rival WAMU.
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"Washington Goes to the Moon," a five-part series airing July 19-23 on public radio WAMU (88.5 FM) from 8 to 9 p.m., celebrates the 30th anniversary of the moon landing and details the reasons it almost didn't happen, which turn out to have had as much to do with politics as technology.
CAPTION: Two decades of consolidation have put an end to quirky stations like TV's "WKRP in Cincinnati."