The art of communication

By Donna Lampkin Stephens

Craig O’Neill has been communicating with Arkansans for 50 years, and through radio, television and speaking engagements, he has perfected his art.

O’Neill, 10 p.m. anchor on KTHV, Channel 11, is one of the state’s most recognizable faces and voices. But over the years, his own communication style has evolved.

“When you first start in communication, when I started in radio/TV, you’re just looking to make a name for yourself, whether it be a stunt or a joke or a personal appearance,” he said. “You want to put yourself on the radar. And then the older you get, the less that becomes the goal, and instead you replace it with benevolence.

“The whole aim has changed.”

Photo by Mike Kemp

O’Neill is the stage name for Randy Hankins. A 1968 graduate of Little Rock Central High School, he was a radio deejay  from 1968-2000 before making the move to television.

His early inspiration?

“I wanted to be the next Johnny Carson,” he said, referring to the long-time host of NBC’s The Tonight Show. “He was so cool. He was funny, and he was sophisticated, and he dressed well and had a great voice and made people laugh. Even when he bombed he was funny, and I loved that. Watching him in 1965, that was what I was going to be after graduation. He had started out in local radio, so boom — I said, ‘That’s what I’ll do.’”

His radio career started at KBTM in Jonesboro while he was studying TV/Radio Communications at Arkansas State University. After entering the 501 market at KARN-AM 920 in 1972 (when he became Craig O’Neill), he had memorable stints at KLAZ-FM, KKYK-FM and KURB-FM before moving to television as sports anchor at KTHV in 2000. In 2008, he became news anchor. 

Throughout his career — and his life — laughter has been a constant.

“I am addicted to it,” he said. “I have to have it. I like to get it early when I’m giving a speech, and sometimes that involves resorting to jokes I’ve told for 40 years, knowing I’ll get the laughter. It’s like a preacher who has a sermon that really works, and you go back to it again and again.”

Until the advent of caller ID, a major source of laughter was the prank radio calls he perfected. He recalled his first two tries failed as he was unable to get David Pryor or Jim Guy Tucker, who were in a run-off election for U.S. Senate, on the phone. But a couple of weeks later, after posing as an Arab sheikh, complete with fake accent, calling Union National Bank wanting to buy the bank, he was off and running.

“That one scored,” he remembered. “From then on, I just went. If I ever meet the man who invented caller ID, I’m going to hit him. I mean, full-bore Will Smith.”

In the early years, he said, his speeches on the civic club circuit consisted mostly of jokes and skits.

“Then around 1996, with the wonderful book ‘The Artist’s Way’ by Julia Cameron, I began to change,” he said. “I still use humor — I have to have it in my diet. But when I became news anchor and things became more serious, I began to preach more.”

He’s also learned how important listening is to communication.

“To be a better writer, you need to be a major reader,” he said. “To be a better speaker, you need to be a better listener. The art of speaking comes from the art of active listening. And some of the funniest moments in my career have come — they’re all impromptu — when you’re paying attention to what’s happening in front of you, to what’s being said.”

He said the hardest interview he’d ever done was over the phone with the singer Olivia Newton-John in 1974, shortly after she hit the charts in the United States.

“She’d just started to make it big, and the interview was terrible,” he remembered. “She would give four- or five-word answers. I asked, ‘Who inspires you?’ and she said, ‘There’s just so many people to name,’ — and with that amount of energy. You can tell if someone wants to be with you by the energy they give you back.

“She was young and just starting to make a name for herself, and she couldn’t quite grasp how some deejay in Little Rock was wanting to talk to her.”

Over the years, he followed her career and saw her become more engaged in interviews after she was diagnosed with breast cancer “I saw those and said, ‘I’d like to try that interview again.” (Newton-John died a few days before this interview.)

Craig O’Neill was on the road with his Reading Roadtrip program on Aug. 4 at the Des Arc Public Library.

During his career, O’Neill has emceed countless fundraisers, given who-knows-how-many speeches and deejayed any number of high school dances. But he came to realize the dates on his calendar he looked forward to the most were his visits to schools to read to elementary-aged children.

“More and more, when I would leave a school, that’s when I felt the best,” he said. “You go into a school and stand in front of 40 or 50 second-graders with a book in your hands. They’re clean slates. There’s all this potential that’s sitting right there in front of you, and you cannot wait to see if you can reach out and impact that potential.”

A few years ago, he gave up the fundraising dates to focus on the reading. The purpose behind his literacy efforts is to show kids the joy of reading. “This is a borrowed concept, but it’s so true, that with a book you have a best friend that is always going to give you its best,” he said. “With a book, you find something about yourself, and with a book you are never alone. And that’s what I’m trying to impart. My whole point is, go to a book if you want to have a great time. And if you’re talking about the joy of reading, you’ve got to be joyful.”

Statistics show the importance of children reading at grade level by third grade.“If they’re not, then that’s a prison bed,” O’Neill said.

He recalled one library visit where a woman brought her daycare children to hear him read. She told him afterward she had been one of those kids several years earlier.

“She said, ‘When I was in third grade, I was in foster care, and they’d taken me out of the foster home I loved and put me in another, and they changed my school,’” he recalled. “She said, ‘My first day at Terry Elementary, I was upset and angry and hated being there. And you came and you made me laugh and took me to places I didn’t think I’d ever see again.’”

He incorporates his joyful hobby into his duties at KTHV with the Reading Roadtrip segment. “I don’t know if it’s going to move the needle, but the greatest thing I hear is from a parent who tells me, ‘After you came to the school, over the weekend my child reached for a book and not a phone.’

“You live for that.”

Donna Stephens
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