Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Turkey for Thanksgiving

Every Thanksgiving, somebody who just recently learned I worked in radio in Cincinnati asks about the infamous Turkey Drop episode of "WKRP in Cincinnati." Did it really happen? I wish I could give a straight answer. The Turkey Drop is one of those urban legend things that we would like to think really happened - it could've happened - but probably didn't.

Of course, this being the Internet, I'd get a lot more hits if I wrote "Shore nuff. Ah saw it. Happind rat chere at the house. Ah wuz sittin' on the camode readin' "People" magazine, when it hit. BOOM! A live turkey crashed through muh ceilin' and landed right in the bathtub. Ah hollered out at muh wife, 'Hey, Malvina! When did we git a bathtub?'" But that would be blatant sensationalism. And besides, if I was worried about getting hits, I'd write about something far more important, like if Jack ever goes to the bathroom on "24."

Yes, the Turkey Drop episode was based on a real event, but it didn't happen in Cincinnati. Somebody somewhere dropped turkeys - the frozen variety, so I was told - and proceeded to smash windshields and do the kind of property damage caused by tossing icy bowling balls from a helicopter. Lessee, 20 pounds dropped at 500 feet accelerating at the rate of gravitational acceleration of 32 ft/sec/sec equals... Well, I'll let you do the math. Let's just say you wouldn't want to be standing under one of these things.

The version I'm more tempted to believe is the Money Drop variation. According to radio legend, a station manager decided it would be a good idea to drop money from a helicopter over a shopping center parking lot. (Depending on the storyteller, the aircraft may be a helicopter, a small airplane, or a hot air balloon.) Somebody noted that loose cash would fly all over the place due to the hurricane force wind kicked up by the aircraft. (Thus, supporting the helicopter theory.) Being the genius that is required to be a radio station manager, this guy decided to put the money in bags and toss them onto the parking lot. Sounds good, right?

Again, our friend Physics enters the picture. A ten pound bag of money dropped from 500ft, accelerating at approx. 32ft/sec/sec equals property damage, personal injury, and numerous lawsuits. You can't write this kind of comedy.

In the aftermath of the WKRP Turkey Drop episode's first airing, radio station managers, being the original thinkers that they are, tried legal, safe turkey drops of their own. Usually, pillows, water balloons, or some other softer safer alternative was used for the stunt, although I did hear of one genius who missed the punchline of the TV show and used live turkeys. He probably works in middle management at Clear Channel now. Figures.

In celebration of the Turkey Drop, here are some facts about Cincinnati radio during the time of WKRP that you will, no doubt, find both fascinating and completely useless:

* There has never been a real station in Cincinnati with the call letters WKRP. In the 1980's, I worked for a manager who tried to change the calls of his station to WKRP, but the prized letters already belonged to a station in Georgia. The station owner in Georgia, knowing what he had, wanted too much money for the letters. (Call letters are not for sale as a rule, but if you want to persuade another station to trade, they can ask, "What's in it for me?") Spending money was beyond the capabilities of our owner, so the real WKRP remained in Georgia.

* There is a WKRC in Cincinnati. The makers of the TV show were not aware of this until it was too late. WKRC radio is one of the older stations in town and at one time was owned by CBS, the network that first aired "WKRP in Cincinnati."

* WKRC hired the musicians who performed the TV theme to cut a sound-alike jingle, replacing the "P" with a "C" for proper identification.

* The title of the TV show caused no end of headaches in the Cincinnati market. People thought channel 9, WCPO, the CBS station airing the show, was changing call letters. People got it confused with WKRC-TV (ironically now the CBS affiliate in Cincinnati). Nielson had to be notified that viewers would be entering "WKRP" under "WCPO" or vice versa, or claiming they watched "WKRP Channel 9." Fortunately, once the show premiered and people understood it was a sitcom about a fictional radio station, the confusion died down.

* The pilot episode shows WKRP to be a 50,000 watt station. In later episodes, this was changed to 5,000. Apparently, the writers felt a 50,000 watt station couldn't possibly suck as bad as WKRP. In the real life late '70's and early '80's, however, Cincinnati's two 50,000 watt stations made WKRP look positively progressive. WLW was, in the words of radio executive Randy Michaels, a "sleeping giant," and WCKY (the original at 1530) was still playing Johnny Mathis.

* Many take claim for being the inspiration for Les Nessman, but the hilarious fact is that during that period in radio many big signal AM stations in the Midwest would play The Little River Band, and then follow that with a farm report. Ag was big business to those stations. And to some, it still is.

* The tower shown in the title sequence is actually an FM tower for 94.1FM. This is one of those stations that has changed formats and call letters too many times to track, but I believe at the time these shows originally aired the call letters were WWNK. For people my age, we remember it as WSAI-FM, a station who at one time had a manager named Les Rau.

* In one episode, we hear a series of radio station calls announced as part of a city-wide promotion. Those call letters are real. And most are still on the air with those calls.

* In 1981 a lone gunman got into WCPO television and held the station hostage for several hours before he was apprehended. No one was injured. The gunman did not identify himself as Bobby Boogie, and he did not shoot a speaker.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Back Off!

It's official. The economy is in the toilet. Want indisputable proof? The Superbowl. NBC just sent word that "The Road to the Super Bowl" Pre-Game extravaganza will now start at 1pm, being reduced to 5 hours instead of 6. The Pre-Kick and Post Game Elements are now included in the actual game which will now start at 6pm.

Of course, some folks would say that the first horseman of The Apocalypse rode by when they gave the Superbowl to NBC. But the fact is it would've made little difference what network had the Superbowl this year; when GM cuts its advertising, we all lose a little.

For years, General Motors has been the leading spender in sports advertising, standing far ahead of the second place rivals Toyota, AT&T, and Anheuser-Busch. You might remember those clever Budweiser frogs and horses with a warm glow, but GM made sure every time a referee blew a whistle, John Mellencamp started singing.

And that may have been the problem all along. You see, while there's been a lot of talk about why GM and the Big Three are hanging by a thread - the UAW is to blame, bad designs, too much reliance on SUV's and big trucks, front office management that makes the Cincinnati Bengals look like Lloyd's of London - the one thing that rarely gets mentioned is the ad campaigns. Or rather, the tendency to bash us over the head every nine minutes with a lame jingle for a truck I don't want, or a Cadillac I can't afford. (An article on GM's ad spending cuts appeared in last Sunday's New York Times, followed immediately by a half-page ad for Cadillac's Red Tag Event, so apparently the memo had yet to get out.)

Over exposure, or media saturation, can result in a backlash effect that undoes everything the advertiser is trying to accomplish. Last Sunday's New York Times Magazine ran an article explaining how companies need to carefully manage their brand exposure to avoid a backlash. Car companies, in the throes of a sales manager induced panic, tend to forget all these concerns and simply blanket the air with their message. If I heard Toyota's dreary "Saved By Zero" spot one more time, (For the musicians reading this, doesn't anybody teach anybody to avoid parallel fifths anymore?) I was ready to buy a Hummer just for spite. Further complicating matters are the local car dealers, wedging their ads in during the local breaks with even more clutter. And for a car company that's been on the brink since the day I was born, Chrysler manages to be on the air more than anybody, often running two fifteen second "bookend" spots that start and end the break set. "Bookending" is the bane of television advertising. For the same amount of money, you get on twice as often. It's a technique that monopolizes ad scheduling - there's no room for another car ad within the break - cheats the network's or station's inventory, causes no end of headaches for the trafficking department, and builds even more backlash from the consumer who's sitting at home saying, "Didn't you bozos just run this?" In the interest of fairness, Arby's, Macy's and Elder Beerman (Federated Department Stores) bookend us half to death as well.

As the NYT article suggests, perhaps less is more. It's not about over saturating the media, but rather carefully selecting when and where your message is shown, and crafting that message to implant the right emotional response.

NBC just cancelled "My Own Worst Enemy." The first thing a coworker said to me about this was, "I would've watched it, but they hit me over the head with the promos so much I got resentful and said to hell with that." Backlash. Scroll back to my blogs during the Olympics, and you'll see me complain about this back then. "Enemy" was meant to be, to a certain degree, a product placement device for the new Chevy Camero. Apparently, it did not work. Perhaps GM's announced cutbacks had a hand in the decision to cancel "My Own Worst Enemy."

The question now is: will Christian Slater be appealing to congress for a bailout?