Photo: (left) Gordon Jump as Art Carlson in the "Turkeys Away' ep; his inspiration Jerry Blum, who passed earlier this year.
Photo: (left) Gordon Jump as Art Carlson in the "Turkeys Away' ep; his inspiration Jerry Blum, who passed earlier this year.

41 years later: ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’ turkey episode remains legendary and so do the Atlanta connections

Originally posted on Thanksgiving 2019 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

If you read my column regularly, you’ll be getting  real sense of déja vu every Thanksgiving because since 2013, I’ve decided to post something about this particular TV show episode, inspired by characters of a former Atlanta top 40 station 790/WQXI-AM. It’s my little tradition to you, the loyal reader. I thank you! 

Although “WKRP in Cincinnati” was a middling-rated sitcom from four decades ago, it generated one episode that TV viewers of a certain age still cherish: the one where the radio station general manager thought it was a good idea to fling live turkeys out of a helicopter as a give-away.

Dubbed “Turkeys Away,” the October 30, 1978 episode featured reporter Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) narrating the scene with growing horror. We never see any turkeys hitting the pavement “like sacks of wet cement,” as Nessman said, but he does utter the famous Hindenburg line, “Oh, the humanity.”

Later, we see GM Art “Big Guy” Carlson - played by actor Gordon Jump, who died in 2003 - back at the radio station pecked and bewildered . He ended the episode uttering the infamous line: “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!” 

Hugh Wilson, creator of the show and a former Atlanta ad copy writer, wrote that famous last line, inspired by his mom, who used “As God is my witness” frequently.

Sadly, Wilson passed away last year.

The Carlson character was based on Jerry Blum, the general manager of the popular AM top 40 station 790/WQXI in Atlanta from 1960 to 1989. During its peak in the 1960s and 1970s before FM took over the musical airwaves from AM, WQXI was the dominant top 40 station and was known as “Quixie from Dixie.”

According to Jerry Blum’s son Gary, Blum did a similar live turkey giveaway promotion in the late 1950s off a pick-up truck in Dallas at a shopping center parking lot. It didn’t go well. 

"The public went nuts fighting over the turkeys and it was a mess," Blum said. "That was about the whole story... To my knowledge, the turkey drop was never repeated."

Blum told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1996 that after the botched promotion, he actually uttered “I didn’t know turkeys couldn’t fly,” similar to what Carlson said on the show. 

Blum died earlier this year of congestive heart failure. He was 86. 

>>RELATED: My obituary about Jerry Blum

>>RELATED: An oral history of that episode

All the regulars from season one of“WKRP in Cincinnati” except for Jump are still around.

Both Loni Anderson (receptionist Jennifer Marlowe), Tim Reid (night jock Venus Flytrap) and Gary Sandy (program director Andy Travis) are all 74. Both Howard Hesseman (jockey Dr. Johnny Fever )and Sanders (reporter Les) are both  79. Frank Bonner (salesman Herb Tarlek) is 77. Jan Smithers (traffic reporter Bailey Quarters) was the relative baby of the crew when the show aired and is now 70. 

Wilson, before he died, said a couple of other characters on the show were inspired by actual employees at WQXI. 

The late, wacky “Skinny” Bobby Harper - who died in 2003 - was the model for Johnny Fever.

Fashion-challenged Herb Tarlock was a stand-in for long-time Atlanta radio executive Clarke Brown. (”I dressed like a total schmuck,” Brown told me a few years ago. “But that was the fashion back then.”)

Unfortunately, the show is not available on any streaming service for free right now that I can find. On Amazon and Vudu, you’d have to buy individual episodes or full seasons. 

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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