For many future radio people of a certain generation, WKPR in Cincinnati was their first exposure to that business. It was a skewed introduction, especially on the technical end–things don’t really operate in a control room like that–but the characters were more than just stereotypes.
The beautiful receptionist, the squirrely news guy, the uncool salesman, the program director with the shaggy hair and cheesy jackets, the cool nighttime jock–they were all based on the real sorts of people who ended up in radio.
And there were plenty of Dr. Johnny Fevers in radio: trainwreck undisciplined irreverent weirdos who were always getting into/causing trouble. And Howard Hesseman did bring a certain sort of realism to the role.
This article from MeTV (via Mayor McCheese) explains why Hesseman was perfect for this role.
WKRP in Cincinnati gave the workplace sitcom a new spin when it arrived in 1978, quite literally. Series creator Hugh Wilson took depicting an independent freeform radio station very seriously, arguably putting in more effort to create a believable WKRP workplace than prior hit shows like The Mary Tyler Moore Show or The Dick Van Dyke Show did depicting different TV networks’ inner workings.
In many ways the pains that Wilson took to accurately portray indie radio life helped transform the show into so much more than TV. The show broke bands just like a real radio station, too. Looking back, the sitcom seems to have acted like a true pop merger, and all the letters the show received in its four-season run from DJs praising how the show just nailed their lifestyle only further proved that Wilson’s head was in the right place when fleshing out his series idea.
To write episodes and characters for WKRP in Cincinnati, Wilson borrowed real events that actually happened at radio stations. He also based characters on real figures in radio, including Andy Travis, Arthur Carlson and, of course, DJ Johnny Fever.
However, for all his attention to detail, when Wilson was casting these characters, he didn’t exactly prioritize casting real DJs. As fate would have it, though, the casting of Johnny Fever would lend even more credence to the show, especially for attentive fans who knew the background of the actor who played the radio “doctor.”