I don’t know how many people still watch WKRP in Cincinnati (apparently it is streaming on Hulu), or how well the jokes have aged, but there is a small but dedicated fan base out there. Part of it might be nostalgia not just for the sitcom itself, but for a time when radio stations were idiosyncratic things, not just part of vast media conglomerates that have a song playlist you could fit onto a thumb drive. Ask any boomer and they’ll recall their own favorite real-life versions of rock DJ Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) and funk/soul DJ Venus Flytrap (Tim Reid).
Recently, one dedicated fan went through the first season and identified every song played on the shows, and produced this spreadsheet first mentioned on BoingBoing. That then led to somebody wishing for a Spotify playlist and of course the Internet has provided. Find the playlist and stream all 202 tracks below.
What to make of the choices? DJ Johnny Fever starts off with Ted Nugent’s “Queen of the Forest” to announce the station’s switch from muzak to a rock/Top 40 format in the first episode. A majority of the songs are major label selections, with the Rolling Stones the favorite choice through the season with five songs total. Other bands are still staples of classic rock format stations to this day: Bob Seger, Boston, Styx, Van Morrison, Foreigner, The Grateful Dead, Blondie, The Doors. Venus Flytrap’s selections aren’t as common, but they are also a familiar cross-section of the disco era: Chic, A Taste of Honey, Evelyn Champagne King, and Marvin Gaye.
One interesting appearance was Michael Des Barres, former frontman of the rock band Detective (who were signed to Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label), and post-Robert Palmer frontman of Power Station. He was cast as the lead singer of the punk band “Scum of the Earth” in one WKRP episode, where he sang three Detective tunes. (The band actually came dressed in business suits, so I’m not sure how “punk” they were). Now, the producers must have liked Michael Des Barres, because when the ill-fated sequel The New WKRP in Cincinnati premiered in 1991, he played one half of a morning show team.
Creator Hugh Wilson explains in this video how costly some of the original rights usages could be, where maybe “I could get 17 seconds of Pink Floyd for $3,000.” But as the show grew in popularity, record companies started to treat the show “like a real station” and providing music and merchandise to dress the sets.
The use of actual radio hits (and not “soundalikes”) became a problem for the show in syndication. When it was time to renew the rights, the various media companies wanted 10 times as much. As Wilson says, that was the end of WKRP in syndication.
That also may be why that $3,000 worth of Pink Floyd only exists as a very blurry YouTube video up at the top of the post.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW's Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.