Will the Real Craig O’Neill Please Stand Up?

Words by Dwain Hebda
Images courtesy Randy Hankins

Feb 1, 2024 | Featured, People

After growing up in Little Rock, attending college in Jonesboro, a fifty-plus-year career on the air in central Arkansas radio and television and nine thousand charitable event appearances (give or take), there are few places Craig O’Neill can go in the Natural State where he’s not recognized by sight or sound.

But mention Randy Hankins and most faces outside of O’Neill’s closest inner circle take on a blank look of puzzlement. It’s one of the few secrets he’s retained in a life lived in the public consciousness.

“I’m Randy Hankins,” O’Neill says. “In 1968 I’m Randy Hankins. In 1972 I get the job in Little Rock and my program director said, ‘Randy Hankins sounds too country. I want you to use the name of a guy I worked with in Seattle named Craig O’Neill.’

“So basically, that’s how I got it. That and [the program director] had some company in Dallas produce a jingle. At that time, I was going to be the night guy and they had to sing somebody’s name. He told them, ‘Sing Craig O’Neill and whoever I hire, I’ll give him that name.’ I literally got my name for a song.”

Craig loves the story, or at least telling it, and the punchline draws out a hearty and sincere laugh even after who knows how many recitations. He is one of those unique people who has the ability to bring everyone along for the ride on a laugh and yet somehow make the person across the table feel like they’re the only one getting in on the joke. It’s an old broadcaster’s technique – talk to the thousands behind the camera as if talking to one person – and Craig does it as masterfully as one would expect of the legendary media figure he is.

“My family would tell you I wear them out,” he says. “At a party, my wife will not send me to the bar to get her a drink because I will work the room there and I will work the room coming back. And Jane, my wife, will only use ‘Craig’ in public to get my attention. At home I’m not Craig, I’m Randy. Out in public I’m Craig. It always comes out this way, ‘Oh, Craaaaig…’”

Regardless of who is blooming at any given moment these days, be it Craig or Randy, the taproot of this broadcasting icon remains firmly entrenched in Arkansas soil. Born in Little Rock and raised largely in a single-parent household, Craig can’t remember a period when he wasn’t on in some way.

“There were four kids. I was the oldest,” he says. “My mother was a teacher at Hall [High School]; she taught art. She was known for being unpredictable. I had a brother a year younger who was a great writer, still is. He was the writer in the family, I was the performer. My youngest sister was a horse person. She loved horses. And the sister above her, the one that was three years younger than me, was artistic, very talented in so many different ways.

“We didn’t compete. We fed each other’s talents, although I didn’t recognize my sisters’ talents as I did my brother’s. I would do a stupid impression and my brother would go, ‘Gol’, that is so good!’ So, he was my big booster.”

Craig’s father relocated to Houston after the divorce and while the two would reconcile and become close at the end of his father’s life, Craig had to develop ways to cope with the loss of an intact family unit. It’s not hard to see that humor was one such mechanism.

“When you are the child of a divorce there’s a level of guilt there and you learn to sublimate your anger,” he says. “What happens in that process, you become introverted in your thinking and creativity. Show me a man who’s a comedian and chances are they are a passive-aggressive because they’re using laughter to get around confrontation and to escape.

“But I don’t want to sit here and say there are psychological issues at work,” he quips. “The greatest sound to me is somebody laughing.”

Craig left laughter in his wake wherever he went in life, from attending Little Rock Central High School and Arkansas State University to the radio and television airwaves that would be his life’s work. And like all good comedy, for everyone who got the joke – there were plenty who didn’t. From time to time his humor and pranks would drift him into hot water, be it with a school administrator who didn’t like a ribald skit or a listener or viewer who got their hackles up over an on-air stunt, such as Craig’s legendary prank calls during his radio days.

“The pranks? Oh, heck yeah, I had one man threaten a lawsuit,” he says. “I think I’m still breaking the law because in Arkansas, I’m not sure, but I think you have to let them know they’re being recorded. One of those, ‘Your response is being recorded for quality control purposes.’ I think I was supposed to do that, but I didn’t in twenty-two years of doing them. I would say, ‘We recorded this. We’d love to use it on the air,’ so I think I’m OK.

“The thing is, they were not confrontational. They were just situations that were wonderfully improvisational. I absolutely loved them.”

Whatever hard feelings someone might have had over being the subject of a prank, Craig has long since paid the penance due in part to his voluminous community service. Starting during his radio days and continuing until just a few years ago, by his count he had emceed more than nine thousand events and raised north of forty million dollars for everything from promoting literacy to fighting hunger to cancer treatment.

“I got pies in the face. I got dunked. I rode bicycles,” he says. “Did the first AIDS event. It was just embracing people. Beginning in 2018 it became all children’s literacy. The grandfather in me came out, I turned everybody away and just went to schools.”

“In south Arkansas we are extroverted. ‘Come on down! How’s your mama? How’s your dog?’ North Arkansas, more analytical, more businesslike, little bit quicker. Still inviting, but not like south Arkansas,” he says. “If you want to meet people that are of like mind, go to one of three places: Stuttgart, DeWitt or Warren, and you’ll see what a Southern extrovert is like. If you’re not invited to something by the time you leave town, something’s wrong.

One of the greatest things about celebrity is the opportunity to do things ordinary people never get to do. Craig’s roster of such experiences would fill volumes — leading a conga line made up of the leader of the free world, the First Lady and assorted cabinet bigshots through the White House during a party; riding a monster truck with Bozo the Clown; dancing on the Ellen show; and initiating the now-traditional “First down!” call during a stint as the Razorbacks’ home stadium announcer, just to scratch the surface.

And when he called it a career on December 29 of last year, the sum total of those experiences came to a head with people from across the state sending in their good wishes and thanks during his final 10 pm broadcast.

“Starting January 1, 2000, ending January 1, 2024. How easy is that?” he says with a broad smile. “The only downside was I started at a bowl game, and I wanted to end with a bowl game, but no. Thanks, Sam Pittman. Way to go. You ruined my career!”

In retirement, Craig plans to continue his literacy work for Arkansas students, is pondering a book and contemplating a YouTube channel or podcast or both. There’s too much he’s soaked up from the places and people he’s seen in the process of telling stories for him to just go quietly into the night. Even today, he’s liable to whip out a pocket-sized pad of paper and jot down something that captures his interest, all the better to feed his appreciation for the tone and timbre of the place that raised him and the people who embraced him.

“I never chafed against anything in my career. If you recognized me, if you laughed at my jokes, if you mentioned something on the air, even if you came up and confronted me, I embraced it. I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve been able to see and do and I’m looking forward to what the future holds.

Do South Magazine

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