(Pictured: Tim Reid, Loni Anderson, Jan Smithers, and Howard Hesseman, 2014.)
Even if Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap never wear headphones on the air, WKRP in Cincinnati gets radio station dynamics right: the relationships among people and departments, and the types of people who inhabit such an unusual workplace.
Although he loosens up as the series goes on, Andy Travis is a bit of a mystery man at the start. Some PDs’ personalities are utterly submerged in the job; they’re cordial but impenetrable. Try as you might, you’re never going to break though to a truly personal connection. Their self-imposed distance is a function of their “town to town, up and down the dial” careers. A well-traveled PD can have hundreds of acquaintances, but few real friends.
There are lots of Johnny Fevers in real stations: they’ve been in big markets and small, been married and divorced, seen and done things that make for good stories. Now they’re a little older, a little tired, and would just like to find a place to fit in, and be as happy as possible in an industry structured to make happiness elusive. (I suspect Johnny would agree that you can love radio, but you shouldn’t expect it to love you back.)
I knew a guy who had a little Venus Flytrap in him, in that he affected a self-consciously hip look—in his case, dark colors, sharp creases, every hair in place, and an impressive porn-star mustache. (You could say he was as much Jennifer as Venus: not to be caught dead looking anything less than perfect.) He knew he was very attractive to women, but he was also married to a very jealous one. He called me on the hotline one day: “Would you please tell my wife what time you saw me this afternoon?” “Two o’clock?” I stammered. I couldn’t make out what I heard next, only her voice in an accusatory tone. He came back on. “I was there at 4:30, don’t you remember?” Well, yeah, he had been in the studio at 4:30, but I hadn’t paid close enough attention to be anyone’s alibi.
Watching WKRP gives a viewer an interesting window into workplace sexism, not just in radio stations and not just 35 years ago, but in workplaces everywhere right now. Herb hits on Jennifer, and Johnny makes occasional crude come-ons (“I want to father your children”). Even visitors to the office are mesmerized by her. In 1980, it was straight-up funny. What makes it funny now is the way Jennifer continually brushes it off. What makes it uncomfortable now is that such remarks are tame compared to some I have heard directed at women in radio stations and other offices—and not just in the 1980s.
Every good radio sales rep has a little Herb in him/her. Few are as all-out obsequious, although what makes Herb funny to radio people is that we’ve all known reps who tried too hard, promised too much, or whose main talent was a gift for bullshit. An iron unwillingness to take no for an answer is helpful too—more than one client has signed on the dotted line just to get the sales rep out of his office.
Station managers often ascend from the sales department, which can make them allies of sales and adversaries of programming. I have worked for managers who made little secret of their allegiance, but I’ve also worked for the other kind. Mr. Carlson does a fairly good job of balancing the two sides, although honestly compels me to report that for an ex-program director such as I, few moments are as satisfying as when he chooses Andy over Herb.
Les Nessman’s greatest moment in journalism was not when he won all those awards—it was his dispassionate description of the bombing in “Turkeys Away.” He remained unrattled in the midst of chaos, which is a vital reporter’s trait. What Les lacks is a sense of proportion. I worked with a newsman who had a similar problem. He came into my studio one Sunday morning and breathlessly said, “Fire on the west side. I’ll send back a report when I get there.” A half-hour later, I put him on the air. It took a while to figure it out, but the conflagration he was describing live turned out to be a burning doghouse in somebody’s back yard.
Radio has always been a business where people do more than one thing. Jocks are only on the air part of the day, and most have other responsibilities off the air. Sportscasters sometimes double as sales reps, and office staffers may have responsibilities in a number of different areas. The consolidation and streamlining of station operations in the last decade or so has made everybody into a utility player, so people like Bailey Quarters are everywhere. At WKRP, she’s willing to do everything—sales assistant, promotions assistant, newscaster, singer on the funeral home jingle, whatever.
Holy smokes, I just realized that in 2015, at the company I work for, I’m a Bailey.
(Pictured: Cincinnati. Let’s pretend that WKRP was located in one of these buildings.)
We have been watching the first season of WKRP in Cincinnati, from the box set that restored most of the music and replaced some of the ridiculous cuts that were made on the Season 1 release a few years ago.
The show was originally scheduled opposite Welcome Back Kotter and Little House on the Prairie in the fall of 1978, and the ratings were awful—so poor, in fact, that the show was pulled in November, after only eight episodes. One of those episodes, “Turkeys Away,” is the WKRP episode everybody remembers—but despite its Thanksgiving theme, it actually aired on October 30, three weeks before the holiday. When the show returned to the air in January, it had the single best time slot on CBS, immediately following M*A*S*H. The first episode after its hiatus was a clip show intended to bring new viewers up to speed on the story.
WKRP was a different show after its first-season hiatus. Most of the first eight stories focused on radio—a punk band comes to town, Bailey gets her own show, Johnny does a remote broadcast that goes wrong, and so on. The switch to the post-M*A*S*H time slot ostensibly freed creator Hugh Wilson and his writing staff to tell more character-based stories, and to focus less on wacky radio hijinx. The remainder of the first season is a little uneven, with storylines that had become stale years before: Johnny tries to adopt a foundling left on the station’s doorstep, Mr. Carlson has trouble relating to his preteen son, Herb breaks up with his wife and his friends try to get them back together. Much better: Johnny leaves the station for a job in Los Angeles, the mysterious Venus Flytrap gets his backstory, and a funeral home makes an enormous ad buy and the WKRP staff sings the jingle.
Next to “Turkeys Away,” the best-remembered episode of the first season is probably “Fish Story.” It’s the one where Johnny and Venus get drunk on the air as part of a public-service promotion, and Herb, dressed as the new station mascot (a carp), gets into a fight with the mascot from crosstown station WPIG. Wilson wrote the episode under pressure from CBS to do more physical comedy, and he hated it so much that he took his name off of it—only to see it become the highest-rated episode of the entire series.
WKRP went on the air during my first semester at college, and I started watching it at the same time I started working at the campus radio station. Honesty compels me to report that the further we get into the series, the less familiar the episodes become, so I don’t think I watched it regularly after the first few episodes. This might be due to the fact that CBS moved the show all over its schedule during its four years on the air and it was hard to find. It’s arguable that the show didn’t gain true popularity until after its network run, when it started airing in after-school, prime-time access, or late-night slots five days a week, where viewers could actually find it.
We’ve just started the second season, by which time Loni Anderson has become the show’s breakout star, so Jennifer and her Jessica Rabbit style are prominently featured in most episodes. The best thing about the second season, however, is that Bailey starts wearing those glasses. The perfect WKRP episode would be 24 minutes of Bailey and her glasses. No doubt about it.
(Spoilers for the Mad Men series finale are below, but if you’ve been online more than 30 seconds today, you already know how it ended.)
Mad Men ended last night with the fabled Coca-Cola commercial featuring “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” I don’t know whether Don Draper took his Esalen experience back to New York and turned it into one of the most iconic ads of all time. The more I ponder it, however, the more I think that’s probably what the show means to suggest. Which is a cynical way to end the show—that for all the emotional pain Don felt in the final episode and those leading up to it, he ended up using it to sell something to people—but one in keeping with Mad Men‘s recurring theme that true change is impossible.
So let’s talk about “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”
Adman Bill Backer of McCann Erickson hatched the idea on a weather-enforced layover at an airport in Ireland, then songwriters Roger Cook and Billy Davis blended the idea with a tune Cook had written with Roger Greenaway. Davis had been on the production staff at Motown and toured with the Four Tops; Cook and Greenaway had some success as performers as the duo David and Jonathan. Cook was also a member of Blue Mink. He and Greenaway were responsible for some of the finest British bubblegum: Greenaway teamed with the great Tony Burrows in the Pipkins (“Gimme Dat Ding”) and was also in the group Brotherhood of Man for a bit. Greenaway and Cook wrote “My Baby Loves Lovin’,” recorded by White Plains, and the Fortunes’ “You’ve Got Your Troubles.” They would eventually write “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” as well.
“I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” first hit the radio as a single early in 1971 under the title “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” by the New Seekers. It flopped. Radio stations resisted it, for obvious reasons—a free three-minute plug for Coke? I don’t think so—and Coca Cola bottlers didn’t like it much, either. (The company was just coming off a long run of success with the slogan “Things go better with Coke.”) Backer, however, believed so strongly in the concept that he persuaded McCann to spend what turned out to be $250,000 turning the song into a TV ad. The first attempt, intended to feature dozens of schoolchildren, was shot in Europe by cinematographer Haskell Wexler, but the film turned out to be unusable. The concept was scaled down and the footage shot by an Italian company, most of it in Rome. The New Seekers’ version of the song wouldn’t sync to the film, so a new version was recorded by a group eventually called the Hillside Singers.
When the commercial hit the air in America, in July 1971, it was so popular that people called radio stations asking to hear it. By the end of the year, two versions of the song, a recut version by the New Seekers and the version from the ad by the Hillside Singers, were on the charts. The Hillside Singers’ version first appears at ARSA on a survey from WPOP in Hartford, Connecticut, dated November 3, 1971. The New Seekers’ version first shows up at WIXY in Cleveland the next week, and hits the Top 10 there the week after that (and #1 a couple of weeks later). The Hillside Singers’ version made the Hot 100 first, on November 27, with the Seekers charting a week later. For the weeks of January 15 and January 22, 1972, the Seekers’ version held at #7 and the Hillside Singers’ version at #13 on the Hot 100. The Seekers’ version shows up on 255 charts at ARSA, compared to 185 for the Hillside Singers. It was by any measure a monster hit, although the Seekers had the better of it. But “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” didn’t stay on radio station playlists very long. Both versions were gone from the Hot 100 dated February 19, 1972, and I don’t recall hearing it much after that.
“I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” wasn’t the first time popular culture was used to sell us something—and not just a thing, but in true Don Draper fashion, an emotion. But it resonated with us like few other ads in history, and in that regard paved the way for the constant remixing of art and advertising we’ve lived with ever since.
For much that’s more interesting on the music used in seven seasons of Mad Men, click here.
January 29, 1971: The Partridge Family is in its first season, part of ABC’s fondly remembered Friday night lineup. The family’s #1 hit, “I Think I Love You,” is still on the radio, and in another week their followup single, “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted,” will bubble under on its way into the Hot 100 and eventually, the Top 10.
On this particular Friday night, the Partridges have a problem. They’ve been booked into a club in Detroit, but it isn’t the posh hotel ballroom they’re expecting—it’s an old firehouse in a neighborhood they clearly find questionable, even nobody comes right out and says so. They park the bus, they go inside, and after a minute or two, one of the owners of the club slides down the pole.
Go ahead, click the link before you read any further. It’ll be more fun that way.
I like to binge-watch whole TV series on my lunch hours, an episode a day, every day. Lately, I’ve been watching Mannix, the CBS detective series starring Mike Connors, which ran eight seasons between 1967 and 1975. I’m not far enough into it to talk intelligently (or otherwise) about how it mirrors the culture of its time, although Mannix has his share of interludes with sweet young things dressed ’67-appropriate, and he drives a pretty cool car. I understand, from the tremendous profile of the series that appeared at the AV Club entirely by coincidence about the time I started rewatching, that in later seasons Mannix would embrace a trippy, almost avant-garde style for some sequences, but I haven’t seen much of that yet.
What’s most interesting about the first handful of episodes is that they contain appearances by fairly famous musical acts. The fourth episode, “The Many Deaths of St. Christopher,” aired on October 7, 1967. Joe Mannix meets a girl in a club called the Bad Scene, where a young singer with a guitar is performing—Neil Diamond, appearing as himself. In one sequence, Diamond performs “The Boat That I Row” and a song called “Raisin’ Cain,” which he has never formally recorded in all the years since. After a fight breaks out in the club and Mannix is knocked to the floor, Diamond walks over and says to him, “Hey man, you mind if I finish the set by myself?” In a second, shorter sequence, Diamond sings “Solitary Man.” On October 28, 1967, in “Warning: Live Blueberries,” an even-more-surprising act appears: in yet another club, the Buffalo Springfield play “Bluebird” through a better-than-five-minute scene, and come back later with a bit of “For What It’s Worth.”
Neither appearance was a walk-on by an unknown. By October 1967, Neil Diamond had scored five top-20 hits since the previous August, including “Cherry Cherry,” “Girl You’ll Be a Woman Soon,” and “Thank the Lord for the Nighttime.” “Kentucky Woman” would chart the week after his Mannix appearance. The Buffalo Springfield had been to the Top 10 with “For What It’s Worth” in the spring of 1967; “Bluebird” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman” both missed the Top 40, but their debut album had a 16-week run on the charts beginning in the spring. Neither does a lip-synch; Diamond appears to be playing live, while the Springfield sing “Bluebird” live over a recorded backing track and do “For What It’s Worth” unplugged. How well known either act was to the typical adult viewer of a detective show isn’t clear at 47 years’ distance. Nevertheless, it’s pretty cool to watch them now.
A more obscure group would appear on Mannix a year later, but they were not utterly unknown. The Peppermint Trolley Company did their spot in November 1968 on an episode called “Who Will Dig the Graves?” Their lone Hot 100 hit (which wasn’t what they sang on the show) was “Baby You Come Rollin’ Across My Mind” in the summer of 1968. You know them better as the group that wrote and performed the Brady Bunch theme.
So in his early years on the job, Joe Mannix had a hipness factor slightly higher than other TV detectives. Even without the rock stars, he comes off as much less of a stick-in-the-mud than his TV contemporary Steve McGarrett, and although Mannix was criticized for its high level of violence—I have yet to see an episode without a fistfight—its moments of darkness are few, at least as far as I’ve gotten. It cracked the top 30 in five of its eight seasons, including a rank of #7 for 1971-1972. Still, it was and will not ever be as beloved as Hawaii Five-O, get remade like Five-O, or receive a big-screen reboot, at least until Hollywood runs even further out of ideas than it appears to be right now.
I was interested to note in research for this post that Mike Connors is still alive, 89 years old this summer, and married to the same woman since 1949. Impressive.
(Don Cornelius, pictured here in 2010, created Soul Train as a vehicle not just for black music but for black youth and black pride. But he didn’t hesitate to make white artists part of the show.)
It’s one of the great music trivia questions: Who was the first white artist to appear on Soul Train? The most popular answers, Elton John, Gino Vannelli, and David Bowie, are all wrong.
In The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style, Nelson George settles it definitively. “The first white American acts on Soul Train were instrumentalists, not singers, which probably explains why they aren’t well remembered.” The groundbreaking performer was one of the top session cats in the business, Dennis Coffey, who performed his solo hit “Scorpio” in January 1972. Tower of Power was next, fronted by black vocalist Lenny Williams but featuring a number of white musicians, appearing in November 1973.
Vannelli appeared in February 1975, singing the spectacularly underrated “People Gotta Move.” George says that the circumstances of Vannelli’s booking (over three years before his breakout hit, “I Just Wanna Stop”) are bit unclear. Vannelli opened some shows for Stevie Wonder in 1974, and he claims Soul Train’s producers invited him on after that. Don Cornelius told an interviewer that Vannelli’s handlers asked for the booking. Eventually, Vannelli says he asked Cornelius why he’d had him on, because “I’m obviously not a black artist.” Cornelius responded, “Well, I consider you off-white.”