Commercial radio has a long history in the US. It is in this context that sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati (CBS, 1978-1982) exists, balancing corporate requirements with sociocultural critique. For those unfamiliar with the series, it followed the trials and tribulations of the radio station WKRP based in Cincinnati, Ohio and its eccentric employees. Unlike contemporary talk radio, associated with conservative viewpoints (Mort 2012), WKRP turns itself into a rock and roll station in its pilot episode, tackling issues of race, gender, substance abuse, censorship, and other progressive social issues across its four series. It did this through its variety of heteroglossic characters whose eccentricities made them sympathetic, particularly with regard to their errors. Though the series is under-studied academically,[1] for this blog I shall focus on how the diegetic WKRP engages with what we now call ‘corporate social responsibility,’ or CSR, as part of the series’ overall progressive perspective. To do that, I have chosen two representative examples: ‘Clean Up Radio, Everywhere’ (3.22) and ‘Pills’ (4.12). Each features an example of the radio station’s management and/or need for profit coming into conflict with its perceived social responsibility and focuses prominently on the more conservative characters, the religious station manager Mr Carlson (Gordon Jump) and strongly capitalist sales manager Herb Tarlek (Frank Bonner).[2]

3.22 features a religious-based advocacy group, CURB (Clean Up Radio Broadcasting), which is trying to prevent songs featuring what it defines as ‘sexually suggestive, if not obscene lyrics’ from radio. After hearing from the head of CURB, a preacher named Dr Hallier (Richard Paul), that three thousand Christians in the area were members and had been ‘monitoring’ the station and being shown a list of explicit lyrics, Mr Carlson initially agrees, though is warned by his programme director, Andy (Gary Sandy) that such groups move swiftly from censoring words to ideas. Carlson argues that ‘this is a portion of the public expressing themselves’ and that he does not want to ignore it, though Carlson later argues that a small group of people should not have the power to determine what is on radio and television, calling it ‘un-American’ in a meeting with Hallier. Andy is ultimately proved correct later in this meeting, however, when Carlson asks Hallier about John Lennon’s ‘Imagine,’ a song which features no expletives or sexual content but which does posit a world without religion. Hallier argues ‘that sounds like Communism to me.’ Carlson’s protests that the song has no obscenities and is about ‘political, philosophical ideas’ fall on deaf ears as Hallier retorts that ‘the idea is man-centred, not god-centred’ and that imagining that there is no heaven is ‘blasphemy.’ Carlson, despite being an observant Christian, ends his association with Hallier. This leads, as threatened, to advertisers cancelling their contracts with the station due to CURB’s pressure, though in a final argument with Hallier, Carlson states that ‘I’m not sure that giving up my freedom of decisions is [coming over to] God’s side.’

As Cui et al (2017) and van Aaken and Buchner (2020) both point out, there is a correlation between the perceived-religiosity of a corporation, its actions and the perceived-religiosity of its customers or audience. Because the goal of a corporation is profit, bounded rationality implies that a corporation’s management will do what it believes its consumers want in order to maintain its income. What 3.22 illustrates is both the arguments for and against acquiescing to pressure groups, with the economic cost of doing the right thing juxtaposed against the moral cost of doing the ‘wrong’ thing. Just before the final confrontation with Hallier, Carlson is visited by an old friend, Harvey Green (Ralph Manza), who advertises on WKRP. In a frank and emotional conversation, Green says he cannot afford to alienate any customers, even if they are a vocal minority. This makes him feel ashamed, though Carlson does his best to comfort him, saying that Green has made a ‘good business decision.’

Similarly, 4.12 illustrates the negotiation between profit and moral limits, though this time with regard to Herb. As the sales manager, he is deeply invested in creating and maintaining profits through advertising sales. He is therefore extremely pleased at the beginning of the episode when he has landed a big contract for ‘Wickerman’s Weight Loss Energy Capsules.’ DJ Dr Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman), however, realises immediately that the diet pills are a legal substance whose effects mimic  speed (amphetamine) which, as he later points out, kids inadvertently overdose upon as they believe the look-alikes to be harmless, and refuses to record an advertising spot. The debate over first airing the adverts at all and then about trying to cancel the contract (which they are legally unable to do)[3] is ultimately resolved when Andy finds Herb in the recording booth. Though it initially seems that Herb is attempting to cover up a problem, Herb insists that he has to do a recording, that he has ‘to do the right thing’ because Andy and Carlson always do. ‘I’m tired of being the only one around here without a shred of human decency! It bugs me!’ Andy then realises that Herb is trying to record an apology about the diet pills as a teenaged boy who had taken the pills suffered some medical problems because of them. Herb is then told to give the apology live on air which he does. ‘I’m sorry that we advertised this stuff. Well, we’re not gonna do it anymore.’ Though he does end his apology with a suggestion that any parties interested in advertising on the station to call, and Wickerman (Robert Ridgely) ultimately moves to the other side of town to continue his business, Herb is reassured by Andy and Carlson that he has done the right thing. If one views capitalism as a form of religion as Weber (2005) does, then in this we again can see someone with firm religious beliefs running headlong into a moral conflict and falling firmly on the side of social responsibility.

Though not strictly about CSR, the episode ‘Turkeys Away’ (1.7), whence the title for this blog comes, illustrates one of the key elements of WKRP, namely, its sympathetic characters whose errors come out of well-intentioned attempts at reconciling the needs of capitalism with their own need to be moral individuals. The series shows that, in most cases, good faith debates can be had about how to approach and resolve such conflicts. It shows this through its heteroglossic characters, all of whom are fallible but, perhaps more importantly, learn from their mistakes. The series also shows that such concerns are nothing new but have pervaded media in particular for decades. And, as Billy Joel sings ‘Everybody’s talkin’ ‘bout the new sound, funny/But it’s still rock and roll to me;’ we can expect such concerns will follow media throughout the streaming era and into whatever comes next. With luck, WKRP’s example will be the one that is followed. Rock on.


Dr Melissa Beattie is a recovering Classicist who was awarded a PhD in Theatre, Film and TV Studies from Aberystwyth University where she studied Torchwood and national identity through fan/audience research as well as textual analysis. She has published and presented several papers relating to transnational television, audience research and/or national identity. She is currently an adjunct with Southern New Hampshire University and is under contract with Lexington for an academic book on fictitious countries.  She has previously worked at universities in the US, Korea, Pakistan, Armenia, Ethiopia and for a brief time in Cambodia.  She can be contacted at . Her ORCiD:



[1]     Only Kassel (1993) has addressed the series; while it is from a university publisher it is a popular rather than scholarly book.

[2]     Herb’s sartorial style was so distinctive that Canadian progressive rock band the Rheostatics wrote a song in his honour.

[3]     ‘We’re not talking about right: we’re talking about the law!’is how the station’s lawyer (Max Wright) describes the crux of the problem.



Cui J et al (2017) Corporate Social Responsibility, Religion, and Firm Risk. Asia-Pacific Journal of Financial Studies 46: 305–340.

Kassel M B (1993) America’s Favorite Radio Station: WKRP in Cincinnati. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Mort S (2012) Tailoring Dissent on the Airwaves: The Role of Conservative Talk Radio in the Right-Wing Resurgence of 2010. New Political Science 34(4): 485-505.

van Aaken D and Buchner F (2020) Religion and CSR: a systematic literature review. Journal of Business Economics 90: 917–945.

Weber M (2005) The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Parsons T (tr). London: Routledge.