BY EDITOR-IN-CHIEF ED RYAN
He was born in Williamsport, PA, in 1933, and by age 16, Dick Orkin was ready for radio. He began as a fill-in announcer at WKOK in Sunbury, PA. After earning his BA in speech and theater from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA, he attended the Yale School of Drama, then returned to Lancaster to become the news director at WLAN in 1959. Orkin would move on to KYW in Cleveland, and in 1967 he took a job as production director at WCFL in Chicago, where he created Chickenman.
Chickenman chronicled the exploits of a crime-fighting “white-winged warrior” and his secret identity, mild-mannered shoe salesman Benton Harbor. It’s a short-form radio series many of you probably remember hearing or even playing on your station. Chickenman’s 250-plus episodes have been syndicated around the world and can still be heard on Internet radio and on some AM and FM stations, making it the longest-running radio serial of all time. At WCFL Orkin also produced more than 300 episodes of another popular serial, The Secret Adventures of the Tooth Fairy.
Inspired by the commercial parodies on Stan Freberg’s and Bob & Ray’s radio shows, Orkin created the Famous Radio Ranch in 1973 to produce his own comedic radio spots. Stationed in California since 1978, the Radio Ranch has produced hundreds of memorable ads for a variety of clients, ranging from Time magazine to First American Bank to the Gap, and has collected more than 200 awards in the process.
Dick Orkin, one of radio’s most creative minds, was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2014.
Orkin: In 1966, ABC Television decided they wanted to re-release Batman and Robin, but they wanted to do their own version of it. So they did what is now called the campy version of Batman, which means it was more of a spoof — it was an excess of the radio serial of the superhero.
Soon after that, my program director at WCFL in Chicago suggested that I might do something comparable to that — not necessarily Batman and Robin, but I could choose my own superhero. My first choice, after thinking about it for a while, was going to be Gorilla Man, because when I was born, in 1933, that was the introduction of King Kong. I thought Gorilla Man would be fun, but then it dawned on me that something as scary as a gorilla wasn’t going to work as a nerdy, nervous parody of a superhero, and the idea was to do something funny.
After reviewing a bunch of plausible animals that I could use in a costume for that version, I came up with Chickenman. I said to myself at the time, whatever I do, it can’t be the standard superhero. He needs to be a little on the chicken side — I said, “Aha, chicken!”
RI: So you break out the pen and paper and hit the production studio?
Orkin: Well, they had engineers back then. WFCL was owned by the Chicago Federation of Labor. It was a fairly large station in Chicago and had a lot of competition. They decided that they wanted to do it full-throttle with production. So I took one of the DJs, Jim Runyon, who was the morning man, and our traffic girl, Jane [Roberts] Runyon, who later became his wife, and I just started writing. That’s how it happened. I came in in the morning and took out my typewriter and just started writing episodes one through 260, over a period of approximately four years. They were 2 1/2 to three minutes long.
As an aside, Jane rode a motorcycle around Chicago. Why she did that to check on traffic, I have absolutely no idea. But she looked good on the motorcycle. She wore short shorts. She got a lot of attention, and I think she was on a motorcycle because she looked good and then just happened to stick her nose up in the air and catch the weather and then report it back to the station on the radio.
Orkin: WCFL was for the most part a music station. But a contemporary music station. Not hard rock, a soft rock station. They were also looking for comedy features they could run between the music cuts, and that was when Ken Draper, the PD, suggested I do something with a good comedy serial inspired by Batman and Robin. And that’s what I did. Sometimes I wrote two episodes a day.
RI: What was it like to try to get such a long feature syndicated on music stations?
Orkin: Talk radio was coming on; the impulse to do talk on radio in addition to music started around that time. Then they wanted some comedy features. A number of stations, particularly in Chicago, decided to do their own two- to 2 1/2-minute features. Mine was certainly not the first one, but I think it was probably the most widely syndicated once it got on the air at WCFL, and then probably the one that was heard more than any other in the country.
RI: How many stations did it eventually get syndicated on?
Orkin: I would say about 1,500.
RI: What kind of feedback did you get from stations and listeners at the time?
Orkin: From the moment it started on WCFL in Chicago, there was a tremendous response to it. People loved the characters. The comedy I was using was not cartoon comedy. I just had normal people in conversation, chatting about office matters. In this case, the office matters happened to be about fighting crime and evil. There was a commissioner in the office, who was sort of like any other commissioner, except he was a little bit more inept at his job. In fact, he spent most of his time coloring in a coloring book.
Then there was Miss Helfinger, who was the commissioners’ secretary, who was not happy about Chickenman being there, and they were constantly at cross purposes in everything they did. It was an office situation, with normal-sounding people talking about silly things in the office.
RI: Where did you come up with the ideas for the episodes?
Orkin: (Laughing) I think it was probably whatever I had to eat before going to bed the night before. That’s a tough one, because the idea of doing comedy episodes has been something that has been a vital part of my experience ever since I was 16 or 17 years old. Anything that I was asked to tackle, including a Sunday school presentation, I had a tendency, probably because of radio, when I was age 13, 14, 15, to write comedy.
There were a lot of comedy features on radio, particularly at night. I was so inspired by radio, and I knew that ultimately I would like to do that someday. It wasn’t difficult to pick up the idea of doing comedy on radio.
In the case of Chickenman, there was a television serial called Highway Patrol, with Broderick Crawford. Do you remember that?
Orkin: Well, very few people do. Broderick Crawford played a very serious highway patrolman who was so pompous and so serious that he knew how everything was going to work. He was an extreme version of a detective or a policeman, except he was extraordinarily pompous and sure about everything he said and did. That show, more than anything else, I laughed instead of taking it seriously, so that probably was the beginning of the Chickenman idea for me — that is, to get someone to take himself so damn seriously that he never does anything really correctly. That was Benton Harbor, a shoe salesman on the weekdays and fought crime and/or evil on the weekends.
RI: Were you surprised at how many stations you were able to get the show syndicated on?
Orkin: Yes, in the very beginning I was, because I had expected that maybe 20, 30, 40 stations might be interested in Chickenman. Little did I know that the syndicator out of Dallas, Spot Productions, had the capacity to syndicate the series all across the country. After that, we had other syndicators, and we managed to constantly promote it and syndicate to stations everywhere, including Europe. It was translated into several other languages, German, Dutch. It’s in Australia right now, and it’s very big in Australia.
RI: It was on cassette back then, correct?
Orkin: Yes, it was on cassettes at that time, not discs, not CDs. Sometimes it was reel-to-reel. We had big reel-to-reel sets that we would send out to some stations from WCFL.
RI: Even though there hasn’t been a new episode in 45 years, are there stations still playing Chickenman today?
Orkin: Yes. I think there’s about 30-35 stations.
RI: Did Chickenman make you money?
Orkin: Oh, yes. We did very well.
RI: After Chickenman, you launched the Radio Ranch.
Orkin: Yes. When I left the radio station and we stopped producing Chickenman, I opened a company with a friend, Barry Stone. He and I went into business together with a company called Creative Monopoly, where we sold in Chicago to retailers as well as large corporations. Skil Saws was one of our clients. Before we knew it, we were in the business of writing and producing radio commercials.
Orkin: WCFL decided they were going to change the format, which left me with very little to do, including Chickenman. I decided that it was time to leave. I created Chickenman while at WCFL radio, but then decided when they changed their format to open my own business with several friends, the Creative Monopoly. That company remained around for about four or five years. Then I decided to continue on my own when one of my partners moved to San Francisco.
I continued doing the commercial work at the Radio Ranch with Bert Berdis and Christine Coyle. After Bert decided he wanted to go into movies, he left me after about four or five years, and then Christine Coyle and I continued doing all of the work, both writing and producing the Chickenman series.
RI: How big did Radio Ranch get for you?
Orkin: Eight or nine people. We had at least three engineers at various times of the day. It was almost a 24-hour operation because there was more than just producing commercials. There was also an audio studio. Someone who was doing a book would come up there and record in one of our studios. They could record their own essays, their own blogs. There’s a lot of podcasting going on. The studios we used were more than just simply the commercials performed by Dick Orkin.
RI: How big was the Radio Ranch in terms of clients?
Orkin: I think that we had about 150 clients.
RI: Are you paying much attention to radio these days?
Orkin: To be perfectly honest, there isn’t that much on radio that interests me today. I try to pay attention to stations doing more than playing music, as I think almost everyone does. Although you can find stations throughout the country playing radio serials like Chickenman or Tooth Fairy or Mini People, that are all serials that I did, you won’t find many. Still, for the most part, it’s music and talk radio. The talk could be politics, the talk could be international issues, sports, any number of things. That represents a great deal of radio today.
To be very honest with you, please forgive me, Radio Ink, but I’m not a big listener to radio because I’m not that interested in the music. If it’s talk, I’m interested, and I do spend time with that. But for the most part, you’re hearing music on the radio stations. There was a Detroit Free Press writer who was traveling around the country on vacation and listening to radio. He came to the conclusion that all radio sounds the same. That was the complaint he made in his column. I’m not so sure that’s changed very much.
RI: What’s your opinion on how commercials sound on the radio today?
Orkin: The biggest problem is that the selling of it is the key, not the business of content. All they want to do is get it on the air. If somebody can write a piece of copy, write it quickly, then radio promises, and has always promised, it can put advertisements on the air very quickly — faster than television, faster than print. And as a result of that, you’ll get your message to the public faster than other media. That’s still pretty much how radio works today.
I’m sorry to say that, because I wish they would take the time, go talk to the managers of the stores and ask them if they would be interested in having someone talk to them at some length about the problems they’re having in selling products or services. That still doesn’t happen. Someone writes quick notes on what it is the owner of the store or the company wants to talk about on the radio, and it’s talked about in a very banal way. As a result, there isn’t anything very creative about the commercials. It isn’t fun.
Radio commercials should be fun because it gives people a reason to listen to the spot. There should be storytelling commercials. Storytelling, radio still has not been able to succeed at. Television commercials have. They have more money, so that’s a good reason. But there still isn’t a storytelling impulse behind radio. It is strictly talk, the same repetitious talk that you’ve heard for years and years.
Orkin: Oh, yes. Obviously, it would. It would give us something to listen to besides just the music and the talk. Christine and I did workshops for radio stations for years before I retired. We’d go all over the country and show them how to do it. Salespeople, production people, we would talk about how easy it is to come up with an approach to writing effective radio commercials, humorous radio commercials, interesting radio commercials. Not necessarily all humor — you can take a serious subject and use it as a dialogue drama for an effective commercial. But very few people are interested in that because they don’t want anyone to spend the time at the station doing more than simply writing a spot and playing music and putting silly chatter in between the commercials.
RI: Is the radio industry playing too many commercials?
Orkin: Yes, but I don’t know that it’s ever going to change. In order to make money, they’ve got to sell commercials. Instead of copying or cloning or imitating other campaigns, which is pretty much what radio does — seeing the consumer as something you do something to, instead of someone you do something for.
The notion of making yourself the customer is certainly not a new idea. Most great advertising people understood that — Leo Burnett, David Ogilvy, they all said if you can’t become the client, get out of the advertising business. So in our work producing commercials, we took that literally. We called upon our own experience with our families, with our friends — not necessarily with the product, but in the life category of product. Then we used our own experiences to come up with some creative material — our memories, our experiences from our family life — then we used that in a three- or four-stage process to develop advertising ideas.
We explained that and demonstrated that to any number of radio stations. Maybe we visited 100 stations over the country. We demonstrated that. They all said, “That’s easy. We can do that.” But did they do it? No. Because it took time. Management, which was also at the workshops, said, “Yes, that’s something we have to go back and get our people to do.” Did they do it? Two or three might have, but that was the end of it.
The idea is to create an emotional connection between you, the creative person, and the radio audience. Radio just doesn’t want to take the time to do that, for reasons best known to them. Plus, it costs money to take the time to do that. Their job is to get spots on air as fast as they can and bill for them. Radio has not changed since the process began. I’m sorry to say that because I love radio, it’s been very good to me. But that is the way radio manages to this day.
RI: If you had a chance to give advice to all the radio leaders about radio creative, what would you say to them?
Orkin: You need to do something that goes beyond what I call the persuasion model. Radio has been based for years on this notion that you have to say something like, “Buy some today,” or, “Sale, limited time only.” All of those kinds of overused terms are still used as persuasive language to get people to buy. But that’s so overused and so out of style and tone that you have to do something that goes beyond persuasion.
And what we have talked about at the Radio Ranch is how radio has a better chance of doing dialogue stories. It may take maybe an hour to do, as opposed to 10 minutes to write a spot, but only when radio is ready to deal with the fact that most advertising, everywhere in the country — I include print, I include television, I include the Internet — is story-based. People are frightened of story-based advertising because they don’t believe they have the creative capacity to do it, which isn’t true. They do. They just don’t want to take the time to learn it.
RI: What are you most proud of about Chickenman?
Orkin: One of the things that I’m most proud of is the fact that a number of years ago, we gave the whole Chickenman series to American Forces Radio. It has a powerful effect on American Forces Radio and the listeners all over the world, in Vietnam particularly. AFVN, as it’s called, has sent me letter after letter, including the soldiers, the guys in uniform, who would write and say, “It saved my life and my sanity by having Chickenman and the kind of humor that you used in that playing every day on AFVN Radio. And I wouldn’t have made it if it wasn’t.” I still hear it. I still get letters and e-mails.
They took planes, they took tanks, they took pieces of military equipment and gave them names of the Chickenman characters in many cases. The COs in the military didn’t like the idea in the beginning, but then they discovered it was good for morale, so they allowed them to continue doing that. As a result, you could find a plane, a tank, a piece of equipment that was named after a Chickenman episode, a Chickenman character, or Chickenman himself. There are many planes that had painted on the side “Chickenman” or “The Commissioner of the Winged Warrior,” or any of those things. I do have a piece that talks about the effect of Chickenman on the military people, particularly the fighting guys, and how it made a difference in morale.
For more information on the Radio Ranch and Chickenman, go to http://radio-ranch.com.