The actor Howard Hesseman, who died last week at age 81, lives on in the annals of pop culture as Dr. Johnny Fever, the morning disc jockey on the beloved TV sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati.
The Doctor was droopy, unshaven and gloriously dissipated. He ignored recommended playlists and said “booger” on air at his peril. He was hippie but not dippie, and there seemed to be more than just Maxwell House in that coffee mug of his.
In short, Fever was right on.
The sitcom about a hapless, eccentric AM rock station holds a nostalgic spot in the hearts of television viewers of a now middle-aged demographic. The show arrived fully-formed in 1978 – a crackerjack cast portraying well-conceived characters who everyone in the radio business recognized instantly. The tunes were great too: The two-part pilot episode featured Chic, the Stones and Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock and Roll.
The fictional dysfunctional WKRP was owned by a mink-coated matriarch whose bumbling son Arthur Carlson (played by Gordon Jump) struggled to run the ratings-challenged station. Though WKRP was purportedly a Top 40 station, the songs we heard were more representative of an album-oriented rock (AOR) format.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, AOR was free-form and freaky. By the 1980s, commercial radio was becoming more regimented, with programmers (not the DJs) determining playlists. WKRP represented a short window of time in radio when the counterculture weirdness of the sixties was harnessed, and when some insubordination by on-air personalities was still considered a charismatic trait.
The show was developed with an ensemble cast in mind, but Hesseman and Fever quickly captured the imagination of viewers. The Doctor was the archetypal journeyman DJ – “town to town, up and down the dial.” Hesseman, who moonlighted as a DJ in his youth, nailed the cool slacker role.
“Guys my age, in the time we worked in FM radio, all knew someone exactly like Dr. Johnny Fever,” says Terry DiMonte, 63, the recently retired morning man at Montreal’s CHOM-FM. “I think Hesseman’s portrayal resonated for people in the business because it was such an accurate representation.”
The series was created by Hugh Wilson, who worked in the advertising business in Atlanta before writing for television. He based the Fever character on Skinny Bobby Harper, a Saskatchewan-born, oft-fired DJ known as the King of Bad Taste during his stints with a variety of stations in Atlanta and elsewhere in the 1960s and ‘70s.
The Emmy-nominated WKRP was cancelled in 1982, at a time when quirky local stations were being snatched up by conglomerating corporate owners that favoured centralized programming dictated by consultants and analytics. With more than one WKRP episode devoted to the dispiriting trends happening at the time, the show’s characters were fighting a good fight that in real life had already been lost.
“By the time I got into radio in the 1980s, the era of free-form commercial radio was a thing of the past,” says John Derringer, the 59-year-old host of Derringer In The Morning on Toronto’s CILQ-FM (Q107). “I think WKRP was a great example of what people in the business wished it could be.”
Currently on Sauga 960 AM in Mississauga, radio personality Mike Richards began his career at 1050 CHUM when it was owned by the Allan Waters family. “There was a time when WKRP represented something that actually existed, when there was camaraderie and fun and a level of creative independence,” says Richards, 58. “CHUM was that kind of inspiring place.”
To Richards and younger radio personalities, the Fever character was aspirational. “It opened everything up for me,” says Bob Cesca, 50, an American podcast host who got his start as a radio station intern in Washington. “I thought, ‘My god, you can do that and make money?’”
At the show’s outset, the extemporaneously self-christened Dr. Johnny Fever is on the air at the very moment the station flips from snoozy easy-listening music to rock and roll. He tells his audience he has the “healing prescription” for what ails them: “So just sit right down, relax, open your ears real wide and say, ‘Give it to me straight, doctor, I can take it!’”
Some took it straight to heart.
“Radio was the spirit of rebellion,” says George Stroumboulopoulos, the 49-year-old Apple Music radio host and namesake star of The Strombo Show on CBC Radio 2. “The idea was that a good DJ understood that they were selling commercials, but that part of it wasn’t their responsibility. Their part of the rebellion was, either overtly or subversively, to get the audience to be part of what they were doing. Dr. Johnny Fever did that.”
WKRP in Cincinnati lasted 90 episodes. CBS moved the show around its prime time schedule, thus contributing to the lower ratings, which doomed its run. The show thrived in syndication, but that came to an end when licensing fees for the show’s music jumped outrageously. The early nineties sequel The New WKRP in Cincinnati lasted only two seasons.
Big Television and Big Music had killed a magical show. Big Radio has done much the same with its monolithic approach to rock radio.
“If you listen to Q-107 in Toronto or Rock 101 in Vancouver or Q-107 in Calgary or 100.3 The Bear in Edmonton, it’s hard to tell them apart,” DiMonte says. “They’re all doing the same thing, playing the same records.”
The final WKRP episode aired on April 21, 1982. Fever and evening DJ Venus Flytrap (played suavely by Tim Reid) put the needle down on the classic Albert Collins blues song Frosty. Such a track would never make a commercial rock station’s playlist today.
“WKRP represented a moment in time in the radio business, and I think the show represented a time in our lives as well,” Derringer says. “There was amazing music coming out then, and here was this guy, Dr. Johnny Fever, who said he was going to play it for you. And he did.”
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