Gerald "Jerry" Blum, former president and general manager of former top 40 powerhouse 790/WQXI-AM and what was then known as 94Q, passed away Saturday. He was 86.
Blum was the inspiration for the Arthur "Big Guy" Carlson character played by Gordon Jump in the CBS sitcom "WKRP in Cincinnati," according to Hugh Wilson, the creator of the show who passed away in 2018.
His son Gary said Blum died of congestive heart failure Saturday morning.
Blum ran WQXI from 1960 to 1989 and what is now WSTR-FM (Star 94.1) from 1967 until 1989. At the time, WQXI was known as “Quixie from Dixie” and drew huge ratings when people primarily listened to AM radio.
He was inducted into the Georgia Radio Hall of Fame in 2007.
Rob Stearns worked in sales at WQXI/94Q toward the end of Blum's run in the late 1980s. "He was still brash, still in your face," said Stearns. "He was an old-school guy. He was a fighter. He wanted to crush the competition. He had a very charismatic way. Always surrounded himself with the best talent and best people. A real strategic guy. Nothing could constrain him. He wanted everything big. That's where his 'Big Guy' nickname came from."
“His philosophy was to bite off more than you can chew, then swallow it,” his son Gary said. “Raft race day became the No. 1 beer sales day of the year in the state of Georgia. And he cordoned off blocks of downtown for Light Up Atlanta. He knew how to throw a party and make a promotion happen.”
Gary McKee, the morning host for WQXI from 1971 to 1989, said both events ended in part because they became too crazy and too popular.
The most infamous “WKRP” episode was lifted from an actual promotion Blum once did before he came to Atlanta.
Credit: CBS Photo Archive
Credit: CBS Photo Archive
The episode, which first aired October 30, 1978, focused on a promotional idea WKRP’s Carlson came up with for Thanksgiving Day: give away turkeys by throwing them out of a helicopter.
The turkeys came crashing down as reporter Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) was seen providing play by play. (The turkeys are not shown on camera.) Noting they were hitting the ground "likes bags of cement," Nessman cited the old Hindenburg line, "Oh, the humanity!"
Later, covered in turkey feathers, a dazed Carlson returned to the station and uttered the famous line that has stuck like stuffing in the lining of your stomach: “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!”
This disaster was inspired by a much less horrific turkey giveaway Blum conjured up in the late 1950s in Dallas for KBOX when he dropped turkeys off a flatbed pickup truck in a shopping center parking lot, according to Gary Blum.
Gary said his father never did anything like that again. “The public went nuts fighting over the turkeys and it was a mess,” Blum said. “That was about the whole story.”
Blum told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1996 that he actually uttered the words, “I didn’t know turkeys couldn’t fly,” similar to Carlson’s words on the show.
Wilson, as series creator, was a friend of the station when he was in the ad business in Atlanta. He used that story, along with others, and embellished them for “WKRP.”
WQXI, as "Quixie 'n Dixie," had a mascot like a sports team. Tom Sullivan was hired to play the Quixie Quacker right out of high school in 1978, appearing at remotes in a duck suit. Sullivan, who mentored Ryan Seacrest in the early 1990s, ended up staying at the station for 30 years in multiple capacities.
“I was at his home this past Tuesday,” Sullivan said. “I held his hand and told him how grateful and blessed I was to be able to work with and for him.”
Blum, who lived in Smyrna for decades, graduated Arizona State University in 1954 and served two years in the U.S. Air Force.
He was known for wearing garish clothing and wide-rimmed glasses. (Before radio, he sold shoes and handbags, according to McKee.)
"He was kind of our version of Elton John," McKee said. "And he loved purple. He showed me his closet one time. I saw nothing but purple for 15 feet on either side. Purple suits. Purple shirts. Purple socks. Purple shoes."
Gary recalled when he was age 11 in 1968, he accompanied his dad to a meeting packed with more than 100 radio broadcasters, all dressed in gray suits, white shirts, conservative ties. His dad wore a red and white, black- striped terry-cloth suit with white patent leather boots. That’s when it dawned on Gary that his dad loved to stand out and be different.
At the same time, Gary said his dad also prided himself as being a fair person when negotiating with his staff over salaries or advertisers over ad rates. Gary said his goal was to always leave something on the table for the other person. “He wanted the other person to walk away with respect and a sense of fairness in hopes they’ll come back and do another deal,” he said.
Blum’s sales staff was deeply loyal and he’d take them on annual trips to places such as Hawaii and the Bahamas. Many were there for decades and some years, Gary said, the sales folks made more money than Blum did.
"Jerry created a work environment and culture that fostered success," said Mark Kanov, one of Blum's best salesmen and sales managers in the 1970s and 1980s who ultimately became general manager himself when it was Star 94. "Jerry encouraged his employees to take risks and make decisions knowing that he always had your back. He was a great boss and a great man."
McKee said Blum had an interesting way he hired and kept employees. McKee, who coincidentally worked at a Cincinnati station before coming to Atlanta, recalled flying down to WQXI multiple times before Blum hired him.
“He researched the heck out of me,” McKee recalled. “He cared how I was, not how I sounded. But once he hired you, he left you alone. He wouldn’t meddle. He kept everyone away from me.” And that allowed McKee to be the success he was as the No. 1 morning show in Atlanta for many years.
Blum is survived by his wife, Dottie. Jerry’s sons, Gary and Ron Blum, Bert and Bob Campbell; grandchildren: Tyler, Casey Blum, Max, Ariel, and Roxanne Campbell; grandchild Bentley Campbell, and a Toy Poodle, Sam.
Services will be held Monday, February 18 at 11 a.m. at Arlington Memorial Park on 201 Mt Vernon Highway in Sandy Springs.
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution including TV, radio, film, comedy and all things in between. A native New Yorker, he has covered education at The Virginian-Pilot, small business for The Wall Street Journal and a host of beats at the AJC over 20-plus years. He loves tennis, pop culture & seeing live events.