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.


Greg said...

Hi Steve, I just discovered your blog (thanks to Fred). I enjoyed reading your comments about WKRP. According to Wikipedia, QUOTE:"In November 2008, Cincinnati low power television station WBCQ-CA changed its branding to WKRP, and the station's owner, Block Broadcasting has registered 'WKRP' and 'WKRP in Cincinnati' as trademarks." END QUOTE. I thought you might find that interesting.

stevef said...

Yep. There it is. The web site is hard to find as it still goes by the old calls. He just turned on his digital on 47 according to a friend.

OK, so now there is a WKRP in Cincinnati, but it's not a radio station. The FCC allows call letters to be "shared" across different media.

Does anybody know if the Elliot Block who owns WKRP have any relation to Block Communications?