How accurately have radio stations been portrayed in TV and movies? Alan Cross rates them

WKRP in Cincinnati cast members, from left, Howard Hesseman, Gordon Jump, Tim Reid and Gary Sandy. Alan Cross says the accuracy of the show is a little hit-and-miss when it comes to portraying life at a radio station. Robert Phillips / Everett Collection

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.

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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 is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”

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2. FM (1978)

Authenticity rating: 2/5

When I saw FM in high school, it kinda cemented my desire to work at a rock station. Set in a fictional L.A. outlet called Q-SKY (based on the real-life KMET-FM, but placed on a non-existent part of the FM dial somewhere in the 70 Mhz range, well below where the band sits in North America, probably to avoid confusion with any real L.A. station), the narrative is set around a cliched DJs-vs-management battle over commercials. Ownership wants to make more money by devoting more airtime to commercials with the last straw being a contract to run ads for the U.S. Army. The DJs and listeners rebel in an insurrection that spills into the streets. Police are called in and the battle continues. Everything ends when the station owner sides with the staff, fires the management team responsible for demanding more ads, and joins the anti-commercial movement.

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Yeah, right. Never would happen in real life. Ever.

The movie does have a few things going for it. Underground FM had its share of beloved weird personalities like Q-SKY’s Mother, the Prince of Darkness (played by Cleavon Little), and the pompous Eric Swan (Martin Mull). Ex-NFLer Alex Karras was cast as the bumbling Doc, although in real life, he would have never made it on L.A. radio in middays or any other shift. Studios are more-or-less accurate for the era, and it was cool to see appearances by Linda Ronstadt (Q-SKY hijacks a live concert from their competitors) and Tom Petty (who’s seen doing an in-studio interview).

Some sources say that FM was the inspiration for WKRP. Not true. Hugh Wilson’s show was already under development when FM was in production. Both appeared within six months of each other in 1978.

The best thing we can say about this movie is that the soundtrack was fantastic. It was a double set, chock full of actual hits from The Eagles (Life in the Fast Lane), Foreigner (Cold As Ice), Steve Miller (Fly Like an Eagle), Queen (We Will Rock You but not We Are the Champions), and Boston (More Than a Feeling). Steely Dan wrote an original song for the soundtrack, which also became a Grammy-winning hit. The result became an excellent classic rock mixtape.

3. American Graffiti (1973)

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Authenticity Rating: 5/5

George Lucas’ acclaimed low-budget (US$777,000) pre-Star Wars movie would not have worked at all without the backdrop of Wolfman Jack on the radio throughout the film. Set in 1962 in a California town (certainly inspired by Lucas’ hometown of Modesto and eventually shot in Petaluma), the movie follows a group young people through a summer night of cruising the streets as everyone listens to the Wolfman, a late-night DJ with a compelling, cheeky, and mysterious personality. And he was extremely real.

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Wolfman (born Robert Smith) was a big part of Southern California radio throughout the 1960s, broadcasting from XERB, an insanely powerful AM station in Rosarito Beach, not far from Tijuana. At night, XERB could be heard over dozens of states. What we hear in the film is what was heard back then.

Smitten by a blonde in a white Thunderbird (Suzanne Somers), Curt (Richard Dreyfus) takes a drive out to the radio station in hopes that the Wolfman will read a dedication to the girl in the T-bird. Finding the door unlocked, he walks in and meets a guy who claims to just work for the Wolfman pressing buttons. As Curt leaves, he looks back to see the so-called operator on the air. He did, in fact, meet the real Wolfman.

Those scenes with Curt and Wolfman Jack were filmed at KRE, a real station in Berkeley. For any era, it’s about as real as it gets.

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4. NewsRadio (1995-1999)

Authenticity Rating: 1/5

After the bulk of music listening switched over to FM, the news/talk format saved AM radio from extinction in the 1990s. This NBC sitcom set in the fictional WNYX was inspired by several such stations that thrived in New York City during the time such as WABC, WINS, and WFAN.

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Kids in the Hall alumnus Dave Foley plays Dave Nelson, the station’s new news director who, try as he might, could never really get things under control. He had to deal with Jimmy James (the station’s billionaire owner whose name was selected from the Beastie Boys song); Bill McNeal, the station’s star anchor (played by Phil Hartman in his last-ever regular role before his death); and reporter Matthew Brock (played Andy Dick who — well, he was Andy Dick).

Like WKRP, we’re dealing with a three-camera shoot and an ensemble cast, so portraying life in a real radio station wasn’t exactly the point. Some things did ring true, however. For example. Hartman’s Bill McNeal doesn’t get along with his co-anchor, Catherine Duke (Khandi Alexander), something that I’ve seen in real life. Station engineer Joe Garrelli (Joe Rogan) has a familiar attitude when it comes to consumer electronics and tools of his trade. And every station has hired a Beth (Vicki Lewis), an odd kind of employee who is the butt of jokes.

We don’t see much of the station’s infrastructure, but we tuned into for the rapid-fire repartee, not for a technically perfect portrayal of a real radio station.

5. Play Misty for Me (1971)

Authenticity Rating: 4/5

When Play Misty for Me was in the theatres, ads carried the warning that patrons would not be seated during the last 20 minutes of the film due to the shocking nature of the conclusion. (This was when movies ran continuously throughout the day, meaning you could buy a ticket and walk-in at any point.)

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Clint Eastwood plays Dave Garver, a DJ at an actual community station playing jazz and broadcasting at 1400 AM, KRML/Carmel, Calif., Eastwood’s home town. Garner’s shift is late at night (handy, given that the real KRML was a daytime-only station that was required by its licence to go off the air at sundown). He plays jazz and other soft music, sometimes reading poetry as part of his show. Cheesy today, yes, but back in the day, this sort of thing was common.

As late-night DJs are wont to do, Garver strikes up a conversation on the request line with a woman named Evelyn who always wants to hear Misty, the jazz standard. They eventually meet and have sex. This is always a bad idea. Evelyn then becomes obsessed with Garver and eventually ends up in a psychiatric hospital. When she’s released, she resumes calling Garver, asking for Misty again and again. Danger and murder ensue.

Given that the movie was shot in a real station, the sets are accurate for the era. Using songs like Roberta Flack’s The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face adds an authentic feel. As for the bad decision of a male radio announcer meeting a female caller and things going terribly wrong, that’s as old as radio itself. I’d have given this a 5/5 rating had Eastwood been a real DJ like Wolfman Jack.

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6. Airheads (1994)

Authenticity Rating: 1/5 for the story, 5/5 for the sets

The Lone Rangers, a rock band (played by Brendan Fraser, Adam Sandler, and Steve Buscemi) upset that they can’t get their song on the radio, break into a station called KPPX and blast their tape to the world. Mayhem ensues as a SWAT team is called while metal fans show up outside the station in solidarity. During the standoff, it’s revealed that the station owner had planned to flip formats to adult contemporary, which would have resulted in the entire staff being fired. When the staff hears this, they side with The Lone Rangers. In the end, the band prevails and ends up with a record contract even as they’re sent to jail. Their album, entitled Live in Prison, ends up going triple platinum.

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Yeah, no. While the sets are pretty accurate — the film was set at the real-life KNAC, an L.A. rock station — none of this would ever happen, though bands do show up at stations asking that we listen to their demos. And it’s cool that White Zombie makes an appearance (and too bad that Metallica, Testament, and Cannibal Corpse turned down offers for cameos. Anyone notice Lemmy from Motorhead in the crowd? He’s there.) Props, too, for the Kurt Loder appearance and the strong soundtrack (Primal Scream, House of Pain, Aerosmith, David Byrne). Oh, and Steve Buscemi’s character was inspired by Rex Brown, the bass player for Pantera.

But the story is loosely based on Dog Day Afternoon, the Al Pacino movie based on a real bank heist. Does that help?

7. Pontypool (2008)

Authenticity Rating: 0/5 for the story, 3/5 for the sets

There is an Ontario village called Pontypool, which consists of little more than a couple of stores, a Chinese restaurant, a church, and a gas station, so the concept of it having its own radio station complete with a shock-jock character running the place is pretty farfetched. And to have a helicopter-based reporter? Nonsense.

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In this Bruce McDonald-directed film (based in the same principles as Orson Welles’ infamous War of the Worlds broadcast of 1938) our DJ hero learns that a deadly virus has broken out in the village and reports to the world (including the BBC) about what’s happening. People get infected and die. The end.

Shot in a Toronto film studio instead of a radio station (the Neumann microphone is super-accurate), Pontypool was made for a budget for $1.5 million, its box office gross was $32,118. Ouch.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

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