By: Michael Grasso
April 25, 2022

One in a series of 25 enthusiastic posts, contributed by 25 HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of our favorite TV shows of the Seventies (1974–1983).



In 1978, CBS took a chance on a comedy writer named Hugh Wilson, who’d come to Hollywood in the mid-’70s from Atlanta, where he’d worked in advertising. During those years as an ad exec, Wilson had gotten to know local radio pretty well, and he’d pitched a series to MTM about the management and DJs at a local AM radio station changing formats from “beautiful music” (think Perry Como and Lawrence Welk) to contemporary rock and roll. This elementary premise of Wilson’s (along with one of the strongest sitcom ensembles ever assembled) gave birth to what is in my mind the pinnacle of the 1970s workplace sitcom, WKRP in Cincinnati.

I love WKRP so much I recorded a podcast about it for four years with my fellow WKRP fan Rob MacDougall, Hold My Order, Terrible Dresser, where we looked at each episode and how it related to ’70s/’80s pop culture, political history, and social trends. And WKRP was nothing if not topical. Its first season, marked by a generation gap-inspired plot arc embodied by sleazy sales guy Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner)’s formulation of the station as the battleground between “the suits and the dungarees,” slowly gave way to more nuanced character pieces. As in many workplace sitcoms, the bosses and management — the bad guys, the “suits” — slowly got softened and humanized over the years, but WKRP earned that softening with a sharp eye towards the personal and psychological context of each character.

And in Season 3 (1980-1981), as the Reagan revolution washed over America, WKRP took on serious issues: drinking in the workplace, fears about urban crime, the dangers of festival seating at rock concerts, religiously motivated censorship, an educational system that had left too many young Black people behind. WKRP didn’t pull the “very special episode” card too often, but when it did the show soared. But it also wasn’t afraid to be goofy or just downright funny: ask any WKRP fan about the episode where Bonner spends about three-quarters of the episode in a giant fish mascot costume. All the while, the series broke huge musical hits in an era largely before MTV: Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” and Bob Marley, among others, got substantial exposure and airplay thanks to the efforts of WKRP‘s producers and actors (both of the show’s DJs — the recently-departed Howard Hesseman and Tim Reid — were allowed to choose the records their characters would play).

WKRP earned a spot in Rob’s and my hearts because of its omnipresence in syndication in both the U.S. and Canada in the early 1980s. After its somewhat premature cancellation in 1982 (CBS had ill-served the series by moving it all around the prime-time schedule during its four seasons), it became a UHF staple in the 1980s. In Boston, it aired three times nightly on two different stations in the mid-’80s, right before primetime along with the other two titans of grungy late ’70s/early ’80s workplace sitcoms, Taxi and Barney Miller. The sitcoms on in primetime during my childhood were full of happy families with sometimes sassy but essentially perfect children; the sitcoms of just a few years back that aired an hour earlier were full of grumpy adults working in grubby offices with coworkers whose quirks drove them a little crazy. Even at ten years old, the latter felt far more real and true than the former, and taught one of my first lessons in how television can warp the reflection of American life it broadcasts back at us. In our farewell post for the podcast I noted WKRP, even though I was far too young to really “get it,” gave me “a collection of oddball archetypes that somehow became part of the Tarot of my childhood mindscape.” Rediscovering WKRP in adulthood made me realize that you won’t see the truer, deeper, more historical meaning of those archetypes until you’ve become a grumpy, grungy adult with a job yourself.


KOJAK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRODUCTION by Josh Glenn | Lynn Peril on ONE DAY AT A TIME | Dan Reines on THE WHITE SHADOW | Carlo Rotella on BARNEY MILLER | Lucy Sante on POLICE WOMAN | Douglas Wolk on WHEW! | Susan Roe on THE LOVE BOAT | Peggy Nelson on THE BIONIC WOMAN | Michael Grasso on WKRP IN CINCINNATI | Josh Glenn on SHAZAM! | Vanessa Berry on IN SEARCH OF… | Mark Kingwell on BATTLESTAR GALACTICA | Tom Nealon on BUCK ROGERS | Heather Quinlan on LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE | Adam McGovern on FAWLTY TOWERS | Gordon Dahlquist on THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO | David Smay on LAVERNE & SHIRLEY | Miranda Mellis on WELCOME BACK, KOTTER | Rick Pinchera on THE MUPPET SHOW | Kio Stark on WONDER WOMAN | Marc Weidenbaum on ARK II | Carl Wilson on LOU GRANT | Greg Rowland on STAR TREK: THE ANIMATED SERIES | Dave Boerger on DOCTOR WHO | William Nericcio on CHICO AND THE MAN | Erin M. Routson on HAPPY DAYS. Plus: David Cantwell on THE WALTONS.




Enthusiasms, TV