How accurately have radio stations been portrayed in movies and TV? Let’s rate a few of them.

[This was my weekly column for GlobalNews.ca. -AC]

Over the last century, radio stations have been the subject and the setting for a number of TV shows and movies. This, for better or worse, is how the general public perceives how real-life radio works. I’ve rated this selection of radio-centric shows and scenes through the years.

1. WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-1982)

Authenticity Rating: 3/5

Every time people of a certain age hear that I work in radio, they inevitably ask “Is it anything like WKRP?” The answer is both yes and no.

The show’s creator, Hugh Wilson, did come from a radio background, serving time as a sales rep at WQXI, a top 40 station in Atlanta, so he was certainly well qualified. His characters were slight caricatures of the real thing: the general manager who was often clueless about what was happening with his station; the harried program director; the burnout morning man; the trippy nighttime DJ; the sleazy salesperson; the squirrely newsman; the naive copywriter; and the receptionist who secretly runs the place. I’ve worked with each of those people multiple times.

The show was groundbreaking in its use of music. Up until WKRP came along, no one used real music in the soundtrack. It was all stock stuff, soundalike material made up by studio players. But viewers of WKRP heard actual songs from bands they recognized — something that eventually created endless licensing headaches when it came to syndication and issuing the show on DVD. That remains the reason why the show isn’t streamed anywhere. (Hugh Wilson explains the music issues here.)

WKRP (the call letters are a nod to the fact that Cincinnati had a station called WKRQ) does contain a number of errors and omissions due to the format of a three-camera sitcom with an ensemble cast limited by the practicalities of TV. Back when we spun records instead of relying on a digital playback system, we’d never turn the volume in the studio down to zero for fear of the record ending unnoticed. Where was the rest of WKRP’s on-air staff? The midday person? The drive DJ? The weekend folk? Who would run a free-form radio station on AM? (WKRP broadcast at 550 kHz). And I’ve never heard of anyone being fired for saying “booger” on the air.

Still, WKPR is beloved by radio folk who remember the show. Names and phrases have become shorthand within the industry. If we describe anyone as a “Herb Tarlek,” we’re immediately understood. And for radio veterans, we all know the feeling of a listener contest gone wrong, which will forever be summed up as “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

Keep reading. There is plenty more to rate.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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