In 1991, two days before the Arkansas Razorbacks played the Texas Longhorns in Little Rock, Craig O’Neill — then a morning disc jockey at KURB-FM, 98.5 — made perhaps his greatest prank call. Adding a little good ol’ boy charm to his baritone, O’Neill called the University of Texas athletic department pretending to be Gilbert McElroy, groundskeeper at War Memorial Stadium.
“We got a small problem up here, and I just wanted to know how to handle it. … Last night, our boy that marks the field on the AstroTurf, the sun was going down, and it was getting real dark and, naturally, we don’t want to have to turn the lights on to mark the field, and his deadline was last night. … he didn’t realize what he was doing, and he was puttin’ y’all’s name in our south end zone, and he added an extra S.”
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“… How do you mean?” asked the Texas athletic department official.
“What I mean is, it’s T-E-X-A-S-S, and we don’t have enough time to take that off. …”
(Audibly, in the background: “Son, see if you can find the coach. Right now. Right now, go get him!”)
“If you can’t straighten this off, I think we’ve got a serious problem here.”
“Well, one thing we can do is put two lines down the middle of that S and make it a dollar sign. What do you think of that?”
“I guess anything is better than nothing, but I think that’s a pretty poor solution to this problem. Can’t you just white the whole thing out? Just white it out. Just paint the whole thing out.”
“Well, it may not be dry by gametime. If your boys score or our boys score, they are going to get that paint all over them. Also, that can cause welps to break out on your skin. You ever rubbed up against that stuff?”
“We certainly don’t want to say ‘Tex-Ass,’ do we?”
“No sir. … I think our dollar sign idea is our best bet.”
“That doesn’t sound like a reasonable solution.”
“Well, it does to me.”
“… Is this the best you folks up in Arkansas can do?”
“For right now, it’s the only thing — unless you think we ought to add an extra “s” to Arkansas. Make it even.”
By the time “McElroy” reveals that it’s a gag, the UT staff member’s so relieved he can’t muster up the energy to stay mad.
There’s a deliciousness to a prank phone call when it’s carried out nimbly. In the hands of a committed improviser like O’Neill, it’s a high-wire act for the delight of comedy voyeurs: Can he keep them from hanging up? Can he stomach the ruse if the person on the other end is excruciatingly polite? Can he string them along to comic effect without eliciting tears — or a police report? Among the most beloved subjects of those KURB prank calls: LaShonda Reed, whose irritation at O’Neill’s shiftless “cable man” character crescendos to the verge of eruption until the reveal, after which follows a few beats of silence, then Reed’s final admonition: “Craig, WHAT are you doing, you honky fool?!”
Now, that prank caller is one of the most recognized faces in the state, and one of the most revered figures in Arkansas media. He’s established a record as a tireless advocate for youth literacy. He’s raised millions of dollars for Arkansas nonprofits. He played a character called “Bull” in “Pass the Ammo,” a 1988 satire starring Bill Paxton and Tim Curry. He DJed a birthday party at the White House for Hillary Clinton. His famously large lips have been embroidered on a ballcap promoting the TV station he works for. There’s a Craig O’Neill bobblehead.
And, lest anyone think he can’t take what he dishes out, O’Neill was a prominent and ruthless contributor to the script for his own charity roast (or “toast,” as the program reads), a 1988 ball to benefit the Pulaski County chapter of the American Diabetes Association. Johnny Carson dialed in remotely, and then-Gov. Bill Clinton decreed O’Neill the official “Arkansas State Pest,” adding that, “When Hillary and I found out he was a product of Arkansas schools, we decided to make education our No. 1 priority.”
“He’s just so disarming,” KTHV, Channel 11 (“THV11”) news anchor Dawn Scott told us. “He’s like, ‘Here I am. Don’t take a shot at me; I’ll take a shot at myself first.’ There’s a trust that comes with that, in a weird way. You wouldn’t think a jokester would evoke so much trust in people. But I think because he’s so real, they do. I feel like in our world today, people want authenticity so badly. They want real and they want authentic. And he is that. He’s the embodiment of that.”
Consider, for example, the “faux funeral” thrown for O’Neill at Roller-Chenal Funeral Home in 2017, part of an obituary writing exercise for journalism students. After judging the contest, O’Neill, nodding to the pile of funeral programs printed for the workshop, quipped, “You could reuse these. Save some cash,” the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.
Scott didn’t necessarily regard O’Neill’s humor the same way 20 years ago, when he made the transition from radio to TV. For many in Central Arkansas, inviting Little Rock’s goofball DJ to the TV newsroom seemed, if not an outright stunt for ratings’ sake, at least risky. Whether his booming bass timbre would translate to gravitas in front of the green screen was questionable. And could he muster up a modicum of restraint, or would THV11’s sportscasts take a turn for the slapstick when O’Neill launched into his time-tested parody of Roger Miller’s “Chug-a-lug?”
A Northwestern alum who’d go on to win an Edward R. Murrow Award and a regional Emmy for her work on the Arkansas foster care system, Scott had been tasked with introducing O’Neill as the station’s newest sports guy on a Jan. 1, 2000, broadcast, when the Arkansas Razorbacks faced off against the Texas Longhorns at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. “Full disclosure,” Scott told me, “I thought to myself, ‘What are we doing? Are we gonna turn this place into one big joke?’ ”
But then, something sort of remarkable happened. O’Neill surprised everyone. He didn’t shoehorn a stand-up routine into his sportscast. Nor did he transform superficially into some Walter Cronkite knockoff. He just put on a suit, paired it with tennis shoes and began shapeshifting into the TV version of the Craig O’Neill that we know now, and he made us feel like that version had been there all along.
Not that it happened overnight — O’Neill had grown accustomed to filling four-hour blocks on the radio, and the TV scripts he wrote in the aughts had to be cut down substantially. THV11, for its part, made room for O’Neill to do his “wacky sports anchor” thing: A holiday promo spot from that era positions O’Neill as the leader of a group of Christmas carolers who, instead of singing the likes of “Silent Night” whip out plastic Hog Hats and burst into “WHO LET THA HOGS OUT?! WHO?! WHO?!,” a parody of the Baha Men’s turn-of-the-century dance hit. The commercial’s tagline: “Sports is fun again!”
Two decades later, on the nightly news, O’Neill — promoted from sports anchor to news anchor in 2008 — and Scott finish each other’s sentences. If one of them gets lost on the teleprompter for a moment, the other picks up the thread. “He knows where I’m going with something, I know where he’s going with something,” Scott said. “It’s weird.”
O’Neill, a native of Little Rock, got his start on Sept. 3, 1969, when he strode into KBTM, a small Jonesboro station near Arkansas State University. He was a sophomore at ASU, slated for a TV/radio communications major, but a clear star in the school’s theater department. By this point, KBTM seemed to O’Neill like the break of a lifetime. He’d aspired, after all, to be “the next Johnny Carson” ever since his days at Pulaski Heights Elementary School. O’Neill had gotten the attention of station owner Alan Patteson, and scored shifts working the afternoon slot and jockeying up the religious programming on Sunday morning. Newly equipped with an outlet, O’Neill let loose with the litany of untested jokes he’d been carrying around for years, dosing his drive-time blocks heavily with patter — puns, topical material, nascent impressions of celebrities. “I just remember that first month,” O’Neill said, “I thought I was gonna do it all.” Patteson, O’Neill recalled, “called sometime within that first month and said, and I quote, ‘I’m spending a dime of my own money to call you on a payphone to tell you to shut up.’ ”
He didn’t shut up, but he toned it down enough to skirt being fired. O’Neill married his college sweetheart, Jane, and moved back to Little Rock in 1972, where he took a job at KARN-AM, 920. He’d spend six years there, two in advertising sales, and he’d get a lasting alias. O’Neill’s real name is Randy Hankins, which his manager at the time thought sounded “too country,” O’Neill told the Arkansas Times in 2011. “He had worked with a guy in Seattle named Craig O’Neill and thought that was a cool name, so he gave it to me.”
Along with the moniker, O’Neill would assume a morning shift at KLAZ-FM, 98.5, in 1978, where he honed the prank call shtick, and then join KLAZ newsman Eric Brown in leaving KLAZ for KKYK-FM, 103.7, in 1981. O’Neill would stay at KKYK until 1991, and spend the following decade at KURB-FM “B 98.5,” where he’d pull off the ”T-E-X-A-S-S” stunt, among dozens of others, some of which have been compiled and preserved on CD, with O’Neill narrating interludes between tracks.
Last year, O’Neill celebrated his 50th year in broadcasting. “He was a force in this radio business,” Bob Robbins of KMJX-FM, 105.1 “The Wolf,” said in a tribute video THV11 aired to mark the anniversary. “Be honest?” Robbins said of O’Neill’s crossover into TV: “I was real happy. I thought, ‘He won’t be competing against me now.’ ”
That a young O’Neill would find his way into ASU’s radio and television department — and into a career in media — is, in a lot of ways, inevitable. He has the sort of wide-open facial features that opera directors and Shakespeare companies seek out, capable of telegraphing explosive emotion and subtle mood shifts alike. He’s a sharp listener. He can shift tones elegantly, delivering a headline about a body dumped along a rural road seconds before pivoting gracefully to a feel-good piece about a police officer standing in for a second-grader’s late father at a daddy-daughter dance.
“His voice is deep and commanding,” Scott noted. “You listen when he talks.” He’s funny and wildly improvisatory, but able to exercise careful control over how he uses humor — doing a tightrope walk to maintain the artifice on a prank call gone rogue, opening the goofy floodgates when he emcees at a fundraising gala, reining things in when he’s delivering the evening headlines.
In his early radio days at KLAZ, O’Neill jotted down all his jokes and skits on 8.5 x 11 sheets of looseleaf paper. Most were factoid-based, written out in full in elegant cursive: “There are seven strains of caterpillar in Florida that like poison ivy. Researchers say they may eventually reduce the world’s supply. So go out and get that poison ivy while you can!” Lots of them were localized for Arkansas audiences: “Sixty-five percent of high school students of today do not know who the governor of their home state is. … When I went to school you were made to recite all the state officials, from governor on down. But now 65 percent … If our governor, Richard Pryor, knew that, he’d be appalled!” Others were rehearsed enough that he’d use a sort of Craig-specific shorthand: “Close encounters of the third grade,” “I can talk to animals,” “trying to pull the wool over our sheep,” “I’ve invented freeze-dried butter.”
Those comedic sensibilities began to take form over “tuna fish in a can,” he said. “Packed in oil. On Wonder bread.” O’Neill’s parents divorced when he was 12 years old, and he and his siblings lived for a time with their grandparents. He found comfort in listening to the radio and, like most kids that age, found comfort in snacking while he did it. “The trouble is,” he said, “my grandfather — who did the cooking — was an Army retiree, and protected the pantry like it was Fort Knox. I had to wait for him to go to bed at around 10:15 at night to get the tuna fish and the white bread. Well, if you’re gonna have a snack, you’ve gotta have something to watch. So I would sit and watch ‘The Tonight Show’ with Johnny Carson. And within two weeks, three weeks, I had forgotten about the tuna fish and the white bread. I wanted to be Johnny Carson.”
No doubt some of Carson’s cadence and swagger made its way into O’Neill’s delivery, but their extracurricular activities share little resemblance. Carson was a drinker; O’Neill’s never touched the stuff, save for the time he got queasy from a sip of communion wine. When Carson wasn’t doing comedy, he avoided large parties. O’Neill, on the other hand, emceed 9,000 of them over the course of nearly five decades, fundraising at galas and charity balls in his trademark tuxedo and Air Jordans. Estimates of what he raised hover around the $40 million mark. When he received an honorarium for the work, he’d send it to AR Kids Read, or to Hearts and Hooves — an organization that teaches children and adults with disabilities to ride and handle horses. O’Neill got so many T-shirts from Arkansas nonprofits as tokens of appreciation that he lined his collection up as a stunt in 1998. They stretched across downtown Little Rock’s Broadway Bridge, and then some.
O’Neill “retired” from emceeing fundraisers in 2017, shifting his energies in the last three years to conducting a “reading tour” at local schools, donning character voices and trotting out his best dad jokes multiple times a week to read books to kids in Wooster, Sherwood, Lake Village, Brinkley and elsewhere.
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).”
These days, O’Neill keeps three journals. The first is a notebook into which he writes stream-of-consciousness-style every morning for three pages without stopping — a practice he’s engaged in since 1996, when he read Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” Jane does it, too, and evidence of the creativity it must foster fills every inch of the couple’s home in the Heights. There’s a fairytale front door, a piano and an heirloom squeezebox, an elaborate diorama sculpture Jane built, inspired by Hurricane Katrina and Harvey Fierstein. Craig and Jane bought the place in 1976, for $37,500. They raised their two children there and, along the way, Jane’s vibrant paintings began to take over the walls, washing the rooms in whimsy. Jane’s eyes are the kind that smile, and her art is grounded in images of comfort and peace — a girl daydreaming in a fantastical forest, a round-faced angel cradling a group of women in feathery wings. Out back, Jane’s sculptures liven up the yard, even in the stasis of winter. She offered up an origin story of a particular duo of statuettes. “When we were dating,” Jane told me, “‘Laugh-In’ was real popular, and Arte Johnson would come up to Ruth Buzzi — he was a little old man, and she was a little old lady — and he’d say, ‘Hey, little girl, want a Walnetto?’ And Craig would always say that to me, and on one of our first dates, for Valentine’s, he took the wrapper off of a Hershey bar and wrote ‘Walnetto’ on it.”
“We play off each other,” O’Neill said. “That creative energy that she brings and I bring, it just feeds itself. The sparks are endless.”
The second journal tracks the success of the lottery numbers he plays every week. The third is a log detail of his fitness routine. At 70 years old, O’Neill works out six days a week for 45 minutes a day, doing a mixture of cardio and weights, and tracking his progress by “playing a little game with a chart,” he said. “I just have fun with it.” There’s a joy and a spark to O’Neill’s height and physicality. He’s a fan of costumes; he has his face painted green and dons green Spandex and faux fur to play the part of The Grinch for the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library’s annual Grinchfest. When “The Ellen Degeneres Show” premiered on THV11, O’Neill traveled to L.A. to interview Degeneres on her own set and, in what O’Neill insists is a mistake her crew rues, stole the preshow camera outtakes with a generous sampling of selections from his repertoire of dance moves, Young MC’s “Bust a Move” blaring through the studio’s loudspeakers. It’s unabashedly joyful, the sort of thing a new dad might do to solicit a laugh from his kids — or in this case, a studio audience and subsequent viewers of the YouTube clip, in perpetuity.
Early in his career, though, O’Neill struggled with his body image, something he’s been open about for decades. In an article in Weight Watchers magazine from 1981, O’Neill talks candidly about how easy it is for a radio DJ — especially one whose routine involves getting up at 3 a.m. — to develop an unhealthy relationship to food. Even in the context of a diet magazine, O’Neill manages to pepper his testimony with hyperbole and one-liners: “I had to put on my suntan lotion with a paint roller,” “I never met a restaurant I didn’t like,” “I had to let the sleeves out on my graduation gown.”
All that intention and goal-setting aside, it’s a wonder O’Neill hasn’t pivoted his career yet again, when anyone who knows him well can tell you his compass tends to point soundly toward another medium: books.
O’Neill’s favorite book, he says, is always the last one he read. In late January, he was knee-deep in Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind,” a 2012 barnburner by a social psychologist who catalogued moral systems around the world and boiled them down to six fundamentals that Haidt said could help us understand why liberals and conservatives are so rancorously divided these days. Before Haidt, it was Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon.”
“For most of my career,” O’Neill said, “I’ve been going to schools and doing a little act called ‘The Imagination Muscle,’ urging kids to read.” About 20 years ago, just after he’d started at THV11, he was driving back to Little Rock from Sheridan after a school visit one day when it hit him. “I realized,” he said, “I’m telling these kids to read, and I’m not reading.”
Ever the statistician, he reports that he’s clocking about 42 books a year now, over three times what he logged in those early aspirational journals. O’Neill schedules his reading time like a monk: half an hour every weekday morning, an hour and a half on Saturday and Sunday. “In 2014,” he said, “a co-worker — as a fundraiser for his child at Catholic High — sold me a year’s subscription to Entertainment Weekly. Third issue I got? ‘The 100 Greatest Novels Ever Written.’ I cut it out, put it in a binder, and I started reading at 100. I’m now at Book 50. The No. 1 book is ‘Anna Karenina.’ I looked ahead.”
Haidt’s book wasn’t a pick from that list; his name came up when I’d asked O’Neill how he, as a person whose career has coincided with some of the most earth-shattering changes to communication in human history, felt about social media and the dominance of the smartphone. Technology, O’Neill worries, is outpacing morality’s ability to govern it. He recited Haidt’s definition of a moral system, which argues that cooperative societies work, to a large degree, because we’re willing to suppress some individual inclinations in favor of holding the whole humankind thing together. O’Neill wondered if maybe, just maybe, social media didn’t do such a great job of Haidt’s whole “suppressing the individual” bit. What’s more, O’Neill has tried to flip that script with his Twitter account, which is a series of dispatches called “Arkansan of the Day.”
“Here’s the thing,” he said. “We have a narcissism problem in our country that can get acute, and I regard social media as an outcropping of that problem. So I decided, “What if the only thing you posted — instead of what you had for dinner, the movie you saw, the vacation you’re on — what if you just used it to highlight someone who’s an unsung hero? Or someone who does something special for people? And you only used it for that? What about that? That, to me, is the best use of social media, and in the end, that Arkansan of the Day — even though on Twitter, it’s just a few lines — maybe it can ignite some sense of community.”
In his work, as in his Twitter feed, O’Neill doesn’t have much trouble “looking for the helpers,” to borrow a phrase from another hero of his, Fred Rogers. O’Neill recalled a particularly difficult shift on air in 2014, when powerful tornadoes leveled much of Vilonia, a town still rebuilding itself after a tornado swept through it three years earlier. “When I first got there, it was the day after, and devastation was everywhere. And there were policemen there from Texarkana who had driven up to volunteer to work security in the perimeter of the damage zone. I just choked up.”
I asked Scott, in a separate interview, whether she recalled having seen O’Neill report under pressure. She mentioned, among other instances, that same day in Vilonia, and the comfort she felt when O’Neill came to relieve her from a 12-hour shift of continuous reporting. “We cried on air. People were telling us their stories live. People were being reunited with their pets while we’re interviewing them, and they’re crying, and we’re crying with them. And that’s not fake. I don’t fake that. He doesn’t fake that. … There’s a heart so big inside of that man, and I think that is what drives his storytelling. So it doesn’t matter where you live, whether you’re rich, you’re poor. It doesn’t matter what you come from, he — it’s almost like he cuts through all of that and speaks directly to your heart. And I think that’s incredible. It’s an incredible gift.”
Fifty years in, the retirement question is clearly on O’Neill’s mind; he’s quick to say he hasn’t set a date for his last day at THV11, but that it’s on the horizon.
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.”