When 'WKRP' Tackled The Who's Tragic Concert Stampede
Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner) and those plaid suits. Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman) and his fruitless but oft-repeated attempts to snag a date with receptionist Jennifer (Loni Anderson). Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) and the flying turkeys that… didn’t. Ask any WKRP in Cincinnati fan for a favorite memory of the show, and it’ll almost certainly be one of the 1978-82 series’ funnier moments.
But when a real-life tragedy struck the southwestern Ohio city where the fictional series was set in 1979, the cast and crew of WKRP sprung into action with an episode — Season 2’s “In Concert” — that melded the show’s trademark workplace humor with a profound reaction to an event that made national headlines. Now for the first time WKRP fans can find the episode — as well as restored original music from The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, The Doors and more — on Shout! Factory’s new WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Series DVD box set, out this week.
On December 3, 1979, 11 people were killed while trying to enter Riverfront Coliseum for a concert by The Who. Tickets for the show were for festival seating, meaning first come, first get the best seats, and thousands of fans had arrived at the Coliseum hours before the show’s 8 p.m. start time. And when the doors to one entrance opened, the tightly-packed crowd surged through them, knocking some people to the ground while thousands of anxious fans literally walked on top of their bodies. Some concertgoers reported being lifted off the ground by the sheer force of the crowd, while those lying on the concrete, the ones who survived, said they couldn’t get back on their feet and their cries for help went unheard or willfully ignored.
The show went on — members of The Who weren’t even aware of what had happened until after their performance — but Cincinnati’s city council reacted quickly: A law was passed banning festival seating. And the WKRP in Cincinnati family acted nearly as quickly, by TV production standards.
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“We were at a party at [WKRP series creator] Hugh [Wilson]’s house. We were all very close as a unit, and every weekend there was a party or something at somebody’s house,” Tim Reid, who played DJ Venus Flytrap, tells Yahoo TV. “There was a big discussion about what had happened in Cincinnati — we used to have the Cincinnati newspapers around — and I think it was Hugh who made the statement that we’re a radio station in Cincinnati. We have to do something about it. The following week at work, Hugh came down to the set and he had the outline of the story and everybody was like, ‘Yes.’”
The episode, which found WKRP sponsoring The Who concert in town, would unfold like a two-act play. The first half would find WKRP staffers giving away tix and excited to attend the show themselves, except for station boss Mr. Carlson (Gordon Jump), who was treating a cold with a comical facial mask and grumpy about having to take his son to a rock show.
In the somber second half, set at the WKRP offices the morning after the concert, shaken, guilt-stricken staffers would discuss the crowd tragedy and the ills of festival seating, while trying to figure out how to deal with the disastrous event they’d sponsored.
But despite Wilson and the writing staff’s best efforts to portray, and respond to, The Who concert tragedy with the utmost sensitivity, WKRP’s network, CBS, had some very big concerns about the episode.
"CBS hated the idea,” Hugh Wilson tells Yahoo TV. “They were appalled… that a show that called itself a comedy would take on a subject like that, and ‘How could it be funny?’ and ‘People would be turned off by it.’ It just confounded them. But we proceeded, and Grant Tinker, who ran [WKRP production company] MTM at the time… we couldn’t have done it without his support. I don’t even think he thought it was a good idea. But he said, ‘I got to go to bat for my writers.’ And we didn’t do it because we thought it would get us ratings,” adds Wilson, who went on to direct movies Guarding Tess and The First Wives Club, and produce, along with Reid, the cancelled-too-soon CBS dramedy Frank’s Place. “In fact, everyone told us it would damage the show — all the experts.”
An executive at the local CBS affiliate in Cincinnati initially refused to air the episode, and denied WKRP producers’ request to use news footage of the real candlelight vigil following the concert deaths at the end of “In Concert.” But once the local station saw a finished cut of the episode, they agreed it was tastefully and thoughtfully done, and agreed the installment would air in Cincinnati on February 11, 1980, just two months after the Coliseum catastrophe.
One famous Cincinnatian who was also involved with The Who concert tragedy tells Yahoo TV he gives “In Concert” and the entire series his thumbs up.
"I think media reflects the culture of the time, and that episode was totally appropriate,” says Jerry Springer — yes, that Jerry Springer — who was among the Cincinnati city council members who voted to ban festival seating after The Who show.
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“Even sometimes when it doesn’t show us in a good light, it’s totally appropriate. I get that complaint all the time with my show. ‘Oh, you shouldn’t.’ Well, you know what? This is part of society. Just open up any newspaper on any given day, and by the time you get to page three, I’ve got 20 shows. Of course, the media should reflect what’s going on in the world.
“WKRP in Cincinnati was wonderful,” continues the talk show host, who was also once Cincinnati’s mayor. “Other than the Big Red Machine during the ’70s, people’s knowledge of Cincinnati was very limited. WKRP was incredible… every week, to have one of the top 10 shows in television talk about Cincinnati. That became what people knew about Cincinnati. There were people around the country who actually thought WKRP was a real station.”
WKRP in Cincinnati: The Complete Series DVD box set is now available from Shout! Factory.