Dick Orkin

Interview by Bill Schenold

Dick Orkin , a.k.a. Chickenman, was a staple of Chicago contemporary era radio. He was a creative genius at Ken Draper's WCFL in the 1960's. I interviewed him late one afternoon at his "Radio Ranch" in Los Angeles.

 

Your career has taken you many places. Let's talk about Cleveland.

In Cleveland I was a "public affairs -- slash -- production director." I landed in that city in 1963 after a stint as an "on air" talent and news director in Lancaster Pennsylvania. I got to Cleveland via Oregon after answering an advertisment in Broadcasting magazine for a position at radio station K-E-X in Portland. K-E-X was a Golden West station; Ken Draper was the recipient of my application there.

By the time Ken got around to opening my application, the station had been sold. Instead of going to work in Portland, he invited me to go to Cleveland -- where I went to work as a public affairs -- slash -- production director.

A sore point of working at the station was that I was not allowed to be "on the air." I had always regarded myself, in addition to being a writer and producer, as an air talent. I had been on the air at a number of stations back east as a disk jockey; I also was a freelance writer of commercials during that time ----- but I really thought of myself as an air talent. Now, when I got to Cleveland they told me I couldn't go on the air. The station designated me as a member of management -- and as such, the union wouldn't permit me to carry an air shift. The reasoning behind this was that if at some point I was forced to make a decision about allegience, I'd have to be on one side or the other. The station didn't want to take the chance.

When I decided to leave Cleveland, because of a complicated switch between NBC and Westinghouse that took place at the time, I told Ken Draper that I would only consider going to Chicago -- if I was going to be on the air, in some capacity. I didn't neccessarily want to be a disk jockey because I was too old to even think about being one -- I couldn't relate to the music. Ken gave me his assurance that if I came to Chicago -- I could be on the air at WCFL.

When I first came to the station I was given the title of public affairs -- slash -- production director. The duties of the position entailed creating promotional and contest related sounds for the station. It was my job to work as a producer, doing something that no one else had ever done in that station before: producing. I worked with several of the greatest production engineers in the industry: Sheldon Post, Mike King and Al Urbanski. My workday consisted of sitting down with records, tapes -- voices, and assembling them into promotional announcements. Among other things, I put together the famous WCFL "Mini-Spin" promos. I created many special event and D.J. promos. But most importantly I'd been hired to be a "documentary producer."

As public affairs producer my job at WCFL radio -- owned by the Chicago Federation of Labor -- was to produce programs that demonstrated the federation was actually serving the labor community. There were many times when I actually wondered whether the station was serving labor. It might have been said that we stretched the point with some of the programs. An example in point: I often wondered what producing a documentary about venereal disease, or divorce, had to do with serving the interests of labor. Somehow we managed to find a way to convince ourselves that it was in "labors" interest to do that. And maybe today -- the V.D. disease is lower -- among laboring people. I don't know.

One of the best things about WCFL -- was the talent on the staff. I got to use the talent on some of the contest announcements and promo's we did. The voices of WCFL were extraordinary: Jim Stagg, Jim Runyon and Barney Pip. I got to work with all these people -- they were "my" repertoire company -- my bag of tricks. In effect "that's" what I had going there: I had my own little showbiz production company. I could call upon the talent in many ways. If I wanted them to be comedians -- that's what they were. If I needed serious documentary announcing -- they offered that. Coupled with an extraodinary staff of radio engineers, I had my own production kingdom at WCFL. I was soley in charge of it, even though the supervision came primarily from the program director -- Ken Draper. Draper inspired everyone at the station -- he had a vision of where radio in the 1960's could go.

How did your "Chickenman" character come about?

Chickenman happened in 1966 when the "Batman" television show hit the airwaves. The word "camp" had suddenly entered our vocabulary. Camp meant a "parody of popular comic book culture." Ken Draper asked me to produce a "spoof of a spoof." Batman was already a spoof of famous comic book super hero's. Draper directed me to use the station's talent to come up with little two and a half minute "features."

Jim Runyon was the late morning personality. Jim featured a traffic reporter on his show whom he called "Trooper 36-24-36." The traffic reporter's name was Jane Roberts -- a well known Chicago live theater actress. Jane also worked in commercials around the city. It was comical in a way -- Jane sat in a tiny little closet that contained all the communications radios. She would listen to municipal traffic channels and coordinate the information for airing on WCFL. She would put on a rather husky, sexy voice and play herself off as Trooper 36-24-36. Jane was the only "female" talent I had available to me. And she was the best at what she did. I chose Jane to play one of the roles in a series I created called "Chickenman."

The Chickenman series was not the only one I created. Draper wanted me to produce a character for each of the WCFL D.J.'s. Barney Pip had one called "The Purple Yoddler." Ron Britain's was called "The Green Hairnet." Each of these series were based upon the personality of each D.J. The one that caught on -- and lasted the longest though -- was Chickenman.

I had great fun doing Chickenman. Jane played the female roles in the series, whenever we had them. Jim Runyon was the announcer for the series -- he did the famous: "well -l-l." Jim was incredible, he would adlib an ending for each episode. Jim made the work enjoyable and fun -- because we never knew what he was going to come up with. His big goal was to break us up at the ending and make us laugh.

I only intended the Chickenman series to run for a period of two weeks -- but obviously it lasted much longer -- it went on for four or five months. Suddenly a syndication company from Texas came in and asked if they could distribute the program nationally. Naturally, we said "yes." It was then that we formed an actual company, at the station, to continue producing the series. Chickenman was produced under the stations production banner for the next five years, then I bought the show just prior to leaving WCFL in the early 1970's. I continued to produce and syndicate it on my own.

Were the years at WCFL the best of your career.

Well, I wouldn't describe them as "the best years." There have been moments since then that would at least take an equal position in terms of "golden memories." WCFL without a doubt was one of the highlights of my broadcasting career. It was the vitality, creativity and extraordinary enthusiasm -- the sense of going against a "giant" in our city at the time, namely WLS, that provided the drive and initative for me. We were attempting to do the impossible in a short period of time. It was more than just a creative challenge -- it was an athletic event for all of us. For Ken Draper, who was a big sports fan, and supervised us -- I'm sure it was just that. We were the guys coming out of nowhere -- and suddenly barreling ahead with the ball -- and doing some extraorinary things that no one ever counted on us doing. I think (don't hold me to this) at one point we beat WLS. That was an extraordinary achievement because at the time WCFL's ratings were lower than those of the Moody Bible Institue. So, we were doing something more than exciting creative things -- we doing things in terms of a competitive way. Radio back then was a very competitive thing. We were all young back then -- so we enjoyed the competition. At WCFL we were very consious of being "first" with new records and artists, and made the most of it when we did. We wanted to be "first" with interviews of groups -- and did. There was more to the station than "creativity" -- we had "activity." We never would have pulled off all we did without the stations on-air talent. It just wouldn't have happened without their input.

Is there anything you'd like to say to your fans in Chicago?

Yes. Continue to crush crime and or evil in the streets, alleys -- or wherever you see it. And someday -- Chickenman shall return.

 

Copyright 1985 Dick Orkin

 

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