But the original idea was inspired by the actions of an Atlanta radio exec Jerry Blum
On October 30, 1978, CBS sitcom “WKRP in Cincinnati” aired what would become its most iconic episode: “Turkeys Away.”
”In the episode, the general manager Art “Big Guy” Carlson (played by the late Gordon Jump) decides to dump live turkeys out of a helicopter over a shopping center as part of a Thanksgiving Day promotion. But it goes awry. His newscaster Les Nessman (Richard Sanders) does play by play and watches in horror as the turkeys fall to the ground and crash into windshields of parked cars.
We don’t see the turkeys but Nessman at one point evokes the Hindenburg line and says, “Oh, the humanity” He then adds, “The turkeys are hitting the ground likes sacks of wet cement!” Later, a bewildered Carlson returns, turkey feathers on his tattered jacket, to say the famous line: “As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly!”
The sitcom was created by former Atlanta ad executiveHugh Wilson, who based some of the show’s characters and antics on 790/WQXI-AM, a powerhouse Atlanta top 40 station back when AM radio ruled the roost. Wilson, according to an oral history on the website Classic TV History, recalled WQXI-AM general manager Jerry Blum telling him about a promotion that inspired Wilson to write the episode.
Blum’s son Gary said his dad actually held a much smaller Thanksgiving promotion throwing frozen turkeys out of the back of a flatbed truck in the early 1960s at KBOX-AM in Dallas.
“The public went nuts fighting over the turkeys and it was a mess,” Gary said. “That was about the whole story.” But he admitted the story became embellished over the years. Even Wilson himself in the interview thought the turkeys were thrown from a helicopter as opposed to a flatbed truck.
Mark Kanov, a former WQXI exec, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1996 that Blum actually uttered the words, “I didn’t know turkeys couldn’t fly, " similar to Carlson’s line on the show.
Blum “thought he would just throw them out of the back of the truck and they would fly,” said Kanov, general manager of Star 94 at the time. “But they were like dead weights hitting the ground. Hundreds of people were grabbing them. One would get hold of a leg, another a neck. It was like tug of war.”
And recently, retired radio jock and programmer C.B. Buckley contacted The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and provided audio from a 1976 National Association of Broadcasters convention where Decatur, Illinois, radio executive Stephen B. Bellinger related a story about a radio promotion dropping turkeys from a plane. Buckley said she wasn’t sure given the timing whether this was the inspiration for the “WKRP in Cincinnati” episode two years later.
Bellinger, in the audio, said he flew airplanes and worked for a Wisconsin radio station and decided to attach $100 bills to the right and left legs of a turkey and dropped it over thousands of people. But the bird didn’t flap a single wing. Instead, it shot right through the roof of a store. “The insurance adjustor sitting across from me a month later, said ’You threw a what out of which?’ That was our biggest bomb,” Bellinger said.
He didn’t say when this promotion actually happened.
Gary Blum acknowledged the similarities between this story and the “WKRP” episode but stands by his story that Wilson gleaned the idea from his father. “They were close friends,” he said.
According to CBR.com, the city of Yellville, Arkansas, dropped live turkeys from airplanes for decades before Thanksgiving. But as complaints mounted, the Yellville Chamber of Commerce stopped sponsoring the promotion in 2018, according to the Arkansas Times.
Rodney Ho writes about entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 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.