or those too young to remember, WKRP in Cincinnati was a TV show set in the fictional universe of Cincinnati radio (emphasis on the word fictional), yet it was based on actual radio follies from creator Hugh Wilson’s stint in Atlanta radio. The show aired for four seasons from 1978 to the spring of 1982 when it was canceled, but it thrived in syndication and now the complete series is available on DVD box set.
Growing up, Fairfield Township comic book writer Chad Lambert was so inspired by the show that he moved to Cincinnati to work in radio, eventually as a writer/producer on 700 WLW’s The Gary Burbank Show.
“There was something about communicating to people and relating to people and making it feel like you’re in the car with them on their commute,” Lambert says. “There was something about [radio] that connected with me on a spiritual level and I wanted to do it.”
Lambert rolled his own autobiographical experiences with radio and his interest in WKRP into a comic book titled COMICS #5: WKRP in Cincinnati.
Previously, Lambert wrote a series of short stories called Radio Ga Ga for Dark Horse Presents, “which is like the top anthology of the industry,” he says. Radio Ga Ga consisted of anecdotal vignettes about his days in Dayton, Ohio, and Cincinnati radio. Then, when Lambert’s friend Jaymes Reed of Levity Biographies was putting together the series COMICS, with every book centering on an iconic comedian like George Carlin and Lucille Ball or TV show like Saturday Night Live (which Lambert also wrote about for COMICS), he pitched him the WKRP idea.
“Jaymes wanted another book about a TV show,” Lambert says. “I then revealed to him I came to Cincinnati to become a radio personality because of WKRP in Cincinnati. I pitched that idea because it’s a very well-respected comedy that fits into the comedy world. So it was kind of a marriage of the two.”
It entailed Lambert combining his own knowledge about the show and his personal life. “It’s autobiographical, but I’m not giving up the story of WKRP just to be self-serving,” he says. Throughout 24 pages, the history of WKRP unfurls like a lost time capsule. Lambert includes tidbits and characters such as Skinny Bobby Harper, who was a legendary DJ who got his start at WSAI-AM in Cincinnati and was the inspiration for the show’s Dr. Johnny Fever, and how actors Gordon Jump (Arthur Carlson on WKRP, also known as the Maytag Repairman) and Gary Sandy (Andy Travis on WKRP) were Daytonians.
Lambert says the reason why Wilson based the show in the Queen City was simply because he liked the way “WKRP in Cincinnati” rolled off the tongue. Even though only establishing shots were filmed in Cincy, the writers made sure to include local references about The Reds and a joke about flying from Cincinnati to Dayton. In reading the comic, there’s an admixture of die-hard fan knowledge that only a seasoned viewer would get and general info catered to the casual viewer. For instance, there’s a joke about boogers, which is from the pilot episode.
“In my mind, it was like we’re self-publishing, why not write this for the die-hard, make the general story accessible to anybody, but then also why don’t I go in there and put little Easter eggs in for the hardcore so they know I’m not just basing this on a Wikipedia entry, that I’m actually doing the research, which is the same thing I did for [the SNL comic],” Lambert says. “I literally spent three to six months on each one of these books. That’s insane for a 24-page comic. You shouldn’t spend any more than a month or two on that. This is the only WKRP biography that’s likely ever going to get made.”
In 1994, Lambert moved to Cincinnati from his hometown of Jackson, Ohio, but it took him a while to find work in Cincy radio. One fateful day in 1996, Lambert’s dad told him he heard Burbank’s show was looking for an intern, so Lambert called up Damian Dotterweich, a former writer and producer at WLW, who brought him on as an unpaid intern.
“He found out three months later that I was 25 years old and not going to school, and I think they felt sorry for me and they hired me,” Lambert says.
At the time he was commuting to his job at Dayton’s Alt-Rock station 103.9 The Edge (later the X), but ended up working seven days a week, shuttling back and forth between both gigs. “The Burbank Show was one of the top shows in the Midwest, so I went from the minor, minor leagues to the big show,” he says. “That was eye-opening. Gary was manic and crazy, and [his sidekick] Doc [Wolfe] was calm and cool. Everybody was totally different, but they were all that dynamic of [WKRP]. The salespeople were kind of sleazy like Herb was, some of the news people were kind of weird like Les. They all were all just nuts. You got to have a screw loose to be in that business.”
Eventually, the long hours and stress wore Lambert down and he wanted to focus on his family, so he left radio in 2002. “At that time, I was approaching my mid-30s,” he says. “I wanted some peace and quiet, I wanted a regular job, I wanted to focus more on copywriting and just being able to go home at 5 o’clock every night and have a normal life.” Six months after he left radio, Lambert decided to focus on comic books as a creative outlet from his day job. “I just started writing for me and exorcising all these demons,” he says. “And I never stopped. One ended and the other began.”
His first comic book was Possum At Large in 2003, and he’s since helped adapt mainstream movies like Kung Fu Panda, Shrek and Megamind into comic form.
Today, Lambert thinks radio is “in the toilet.”
“That’s one of the reasons I got out of it — it had just become overrun by corporations,” he says. “I think in the next five to 10 years the corporations are going to get bored with radio and leave. I think there’s an opportunity for radio stations to become local and independent again and hopefully get their voices back. That’s the hope.”
In the meantime, there’s WKRP to keep the dream alive. ©
CHAD LAMBERT will sign his comic at Arcadian Comics & Games in Newport, Ky., on Saturday. More info about COMICS #5: WKRP in Cincinnati: levitybiographies.com.