‘ACTIVIST NEWSMAN’: Craig O’Neill, disc jockey turned TV anchor turned philanthropist.  Rett Peek

A familiar face to Arkansas television screens will soon be departing from the broadcast world. Craig O’Neill’s retirement is imminent — and he means it this time.

KTHV Channel 11 (THV11), the station that O’Neill has been with for 24 years, announced Monday he would officially sign off on Dec. 29. (He’s announced retirement plans before only to walk them back later, but this time seems different.)

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The THV11 announcement includes a 13-minute compilation of O’Neill’s prank calls, a charming quirk of his personality. It also lists accolades and warm remarks from colleagues.

“Craig’s contributions to Central Arkansas are notable from his undying commitment to improving the lives of Arkansans to his irreverent sense of humor that had us all wanting more,” said Marty Schack, president and general manager at THV11. “He is a treasure to our community and while we may not see him on air after this year, I know that Craig will continue to make an impact on Arkansans young and old.”

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Arkansas Times editor Stephanie Smittle hung out with O’Neill while reporting a 2020 cover story. She told the story of a man who achieved remarkable success through 50 years of journalism. He started at KBTM, a small Jonesboro station, in 1969. In 1972, O’Neill moved to Little Rock and joined KARN-AM 920. He changed his name — he was born Randy Hankins — and ran through a string of experiences working in radio.

O’Neill got his start with THV11 in 2000 as a sports anchor, which turned into a news anchor position in 2008.

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In addition to O’Neills award-winning broadcast journalism career, he was also involved in philanthropy and youth literacy.

From Smittle’s 2020 story: 

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There’s no mention of all that do-gooding in O’Neill’s early “goal setting” journals, though the habits he developed then clearly laid the foundation. Now part of the “Craig O’Neill Collection,” a section of the archives at the University of Central Arkansas, his old journals and radio scripts sit in the same room with Jimmy Driftwood’s Grammy. Typed out on continuous-feed word processor paper — the kind people used before printers became sentient beings — O’Neill’s notes read like a “habits for success” list, with subcategories in which to track progress: “Family,” “Physical,” “Career,” “Intellectual,” “Spiritual,” in that order. 

“To have quiet time with Jane daily,” one journal reads. “To be there every day for the children … when they come home and when they go to bed. To visit with my brother and sisters, grandparents and parents monthly. … To attend church at least 26 times this year and all ecumenical series (unless out of town).”

And: 

O’Neill’s politically progressive leanings are no secret, but like most newscasters, he plays it pretty moderate on air. Still, he thinks of himself as an “activist newsman.” 

“We read these stories,” he said, “but I want to work at making this a better place. I want to fight against childhood obesity, the problems with the environment, misunderstandings on both sides — left and right. I want to fight against brutality. I just want these things to go away.” 

For most of his life, Craig O’Neill wanted to be Johnny Carson. Or, more accurately, Randy Hankins wanted to be Johnny Carson. I asked if he still did. He said no. As it turns out, the long reading list Hankins maintains included a contentious 2013 memoir by Carson’s longtime lawyer and fixer Henry Bushkin, in which Bushkin depicts Carson’s bitter divorces and struggle with alcoholism, and intimates that Carson died alone in a hospital — estranged from family and friends, isolated from the throngs of fans he kept at a distance. “You know, in the end,” Hankins/O’Neill said, “Johnny Carson would probably prefer to be me, rather than the other way around.”

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