Being Craig O’Neill is not always easy, Randy Hankins says, but somebody had to do it.
Hankins became O’Neill back in 1972, and he’s borne the name through a hall-of-fame career in Little Rock radio and TV. But his first radio job — and that name — could have been someone else’s.
“The man who named me at KARN-AM [program director Fred Gooding] said that ‘Randy Hankins’ sounded too country,” O’Neill says over coffee at a Little Rock Starbucks. “He’d worked with a guy in Seattle named Craig O’Neill, and he’d already hired jingle singers to record intros singing ‘Craig O’Neee-uhhlll,’ and that had cost a fortune. So whoever he hired was going to be Craig O’Neill.” He laughs in his boisterous baritone, familiar from three decades on radio and nearly 20 years as a TV sports and news anchor.
“Now I get called Randy at home, and by family and old friends. Or lawyers.”
O’Neill admits he’s been cussed out more than once, often for the prank calls that made him famous at KLAZ-FM in the late 1970s. But he was also loved as an emcee at galas and charity balls before retiring from those events in 2017.
“I think you can be edgy if the good works you do bail you out,” said O’Neill, who’s 68. He now plans to retire as weeknight anchor at KTHV, Channel 11, in early 2020. The station estimates O’Neill hosted 9,000 charity events over the years, helping to raise more than $40 million for good causes in Arkansas.
A voracious reader who recently finished Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” O’Neill hopes to write a book in retirement, and to keep reading.
He reads aloud to schoolchildren in a project he calls “Craig’s Reading Road Trip,” with stops at schools and libraries. “When I’m reading to second graders, I’m doing improv and stand-up comedy. I’m killing out there. Nobody does schtick like me, and I’m completely comfortable in front of the audience. I could jump up now and entertain this Starbucks.”
O’Neill was honored in February with a Diamond Award from the Arkansas Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, given for enhancing the state’s image. The occasion led O’Neill to recall his old radio routines, complete with prank calls, character voices and dispatches from his putative hometown, “Rooster Poot, Arkansas.” But O’Neill was actually born at St. Vincent Infirmary on Oct. 19, 1950, and except for his college years at Arkansas State University has been a lifelong Little Rock resident.
“The radio-TV program drew me to Arkansas State,” O’Neill says. “My degree is a BS; how appropriate is that?” he said, chuckling. “But I was born and raised here, and went to Central High.” He graduated a decade after the integration crisis.
At ASU, O’Neill met his wife, the former Ruth Jane Fryer, an artist, but he remained an Arkansas Razorback fan. That passion paid off years later, in 2000, when O’Neill became sports director at KTHV. “In college, my wife would get mad because ASU would be playing and I’d be listening to the Hogs on the radio.”
As a youth he lived and died with the Razorbacks, who won the national football championship in 1964. “Now, after all these years, I’m able to accept a bad year, or even terrible ones like we’ve had lately, with the knowledge the Hogs will win again,” he says.
O’Neill strayed only once from the microphone.
After a few years at KARN, trailing in the ratings behind Arkansas radio legends like Brother Hal, Sonny Martin, George Jennings and Ray Lincoln, O’Neill followed the money. “Everybody said the only way to make cash in radio was in ad sales. I did that from winter 1975 to February 1978. “There’s a great word to describe how I was in sales. That word is ‘sucked.’” So he was soon back on the air at KLAZ.
“The program director, Ken Dennis, had been at one of the dances and seen how much fun I was having connecting with people,” O’Neill said. “So he hired me, and I never looked back.”
His second prank call was a breakthrough. “It was to Union National Bank, and I did an Arab voice wanting to buy the bank. This was 1978, and that one scored.” Then came “22 years of pranks and character voices that put me on the map.”
Highlights? “We played Hillary’s surprise party at the White House,” O’Neill said. “Second, they roasted me for the Diabetes Association in 1988 and I actually had a 10-minute phone call with Johnny Carson, who was always my idol. Well, until I read a book about what he’s really like … but that’s another story.”