Chickenman Turns 50

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Chickenman Turns 50

Postby radiofan » Fri May 13, 2016 7:41 am

CHICKENMAN TURNS 50
By Radio Ink - May 10, 2016

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4-18-2016

BY EDITOR-IN-CHIEF ED RYAN

He was born in Williamsport, PA, in 1933, and by age 16, Dick Orkin was ready for radio. He began as a fill-in announcer at WKOK in Sunbury, PA. After earning his BA in speech and theater from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA, he attended the Yale School of Drama, then returned to Lancaster to become the news director at WLAN in 1959. Orkin would move on to KYW in Cleveland, and in 1967 he took a job as production director at WCFL in Chicago, where he created Chickenman.

Chickenman chronicled the exploits of a crime-fighting “white-winged warrior” and his secret identity, mild-mannered shoe salesman Benton Harbor. It’s a short-form radio series many of you probably remember hearing or even playing on your station. Chickenman’s 250-plus episodes have been syndicated around the world and can still be heard on Internet radio and on some AM and FM stations, making it the longest-running radio serial of all time. At WCFL Orkin also produced more than 300 episodes of another popular serial, The Secret Adventures of the Tooth Fairy.

Inspired by the commercial parodies on Stan Freberg’s and Bob & Ray’s radio shows, Orkin created the Famous Radio Ranch in 1973 to produce his own comedic radio spots. Stationed in California since 1978, the Radio Ranch has produced hundreds of memorable ads for a variety of clients, ranging from Time magazine to First American Bank to the Gap, and has collected more than 200 awards in the process.

Dick Orkin, one of radio’s most creative minds, was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 2014.

RI: How and why did you create Chickenman?

Orkin: In 1966, ABC Television decided they wanted to re-release Batman and Robin, but they wanted to do their own version of it. So they did what is now called the campy version of Batman, which means it was more of a spoof — it was an excess of the radio serial of the superhero.

Soon after that, my program director at WCFL in Chicago suggested that I might do something comparable to that — not necessarily Batman and Robin, but I could choose my own superhero. My first choice, after thinking about it for a while, was going to be Gorilla Man, because when I was born, in 1933, that was the introduction of King Kong. I thought Gorilla Man would be fun, but then it dawned on me that something as scary as a gorilla wasn’t going to work as a nerdy, nervous parody of a superhero, and the idea was to do something funny.

After reviewing a bunch of plausible animals that I could use in a costume for that version, I came up with Chickenman. I said to myself at the time, whatever I do, it can’t be the standard superhero. He needs to be a little on the chicken side — I said, “Aha, chicken!”

RI: So you break out the pen and paper and hit the production studio?

Orkin: Well, they had engineers back then. WFCL was owned by the Chicago Federation of Labor. It was a fairly large station in Chicago and had a lot of competition. They decided that they wanted to do it full-throttle with production. So I took one of the DJs, Jim Runyon, who was the morning man, and our traffic girl, Jane [Roberts] Runyon, who later became his wife, and I just started writing. That’s how it happened. I came in in the morning and took out my typewriter and just started writing episodes one through 260, over a period of approximately four years. They were 2 1/2 to three minutes long.

As an aside, Jane rode a motorcycle around Chicago. Why she did that to check on traffic, I have absolutely no idea. But she looked good on the motorcycle. She wore short shorts. She got a lot of attention, and I think she was on a motorcycle because she looked good and then just happened to stick her nose up in the air and catch the weather and then report it back to the station on the radio.

RI: Was WCFL a music station at that time?

Orkin: WCFL was for the most part a music station. But a contemporary music station. Not hard rock, a soft rock station. They were also looking for comedy features they could run between the music cuts, and that was when Ken Draper, the PD, suggested I do something with a good comedy serial inspired by Batman and Robin. And that’s what I did. Sometimes I wrote two episodes a day.

RI: What was it like to try to get such a long feature syndicated on music stations?

Orkin: Talk radio was coming on; the impulse to do talk on radio in addition to music started around that time. Then they wanted some comedy features. A number of stations, particularly in Chicago, decided to do their own two- to 2 1/2-minute features. Mine was certainly not the first one, but I think it was probably the most widely syndicated once it got on the air at WCFL, and then probably the one that was heard more than any other in the country.

RI: How many stations did it eventually get syndicated on?

Orkin: I would say about 1,500.

RI: What kind of feedback did you get from stations and listeners at the time?

Orkin: From the moment it started on WCFL in Chicago, there was a tremendous response to it. People loved the characters. The comedy I was using was not cartoon comedy. I just had normal people in conversation, chatting about office matters. In this case, the office matters happened to be about fighting crime and evil. There was a commissioner in the office, who was sort of like any other commissioner, except he was a little bit more inept at his job. In fact, he spent most of his time coloring in a coloring book.

Then there was Miss Helfinger, who was the commissioners’ secretary, who was not happy about Chickenman being there, and they were constantly at cross purposes in everything they did. It was an office situation, with normal-sounding people talking about silly things in the office.

RI: Where did you come up with the ideas for the episodes?

Orkin: (Laughing) I think it was probably whatever I had to eat before going to bed the night before. That’s a tough one, because the idea of doing comedy episodes has been something that has been a vital part of my experience ever since I was 16 or 17 years old. Anything that I was asked to tackle, including a Sunday school presentation, I had a tendency, probably because of radio, when I was age 13, 14, 15, to write comedy.

There were a lot of comedy features on radio, particularly at night. I was so inspired by radio, and I knew that ultimately I would like to do that someday. It wasn’t difficult to pick up the idea of doing comedy on radio.

In the case of Chickenman, there was a television serial called Highway Patrol, with Broderick Crawford. Do you remember that?

RI: No, not really.

Orkin: Well, very few people do. Broderick Crawford played a very serious highway patrolman who was so pompous and so serious that he knew how everything was going to work. He was an extreme version of a detective or a policeman, except he was extraordinarily pompous and sure about everything he said and did. That show, more than anything else, I laughed instead of taking it seriously, so that probably was the beginning of the Chickenman idea for me — that is, to get someone to take himself so damn seriously that he never does anything really correctly. That was Benton Harbor, a shoe salesman on the weekdays and fought crime and/or evil on the weekends.

RI: Were you surprised at how many stations you were able to get the show syndicated on?

Orkin: Yes, in the very beginning I was, because I had expected that maybe 20, 30, 40 stations might be interested in Chickenman. Little did I know that the syndicator out of Dallas, Spot Productions, had the capacity to syndicate the series all across the country. After that, we had other syndicators, and we managed to constantly promote it and syndicate to stations everywhere, including Europe. It was translated into several other languages, German, Dutch. It’s in Australia right now, and it’s very big in Australia.

RI: It was on cassette back then, correct?

Orkin: Yes, it was on cassettes at that time, not discs, not CDs. Sometimes it was reel-to-reel. We had big reel-to-reel sets that we would send out to some stations from WCFL.

RI: Even though there hasn’t been a new episode in 45 years, are there stations still playing Chickenman today?

Orkin: Yes. I think there’s about 30-35 stations. 


RI: Did Chickenman make you money?

Orkin: Oh, yes. We did very well.

RI: After Chickenman, you launched the Radio Ranch.

Orkin: Yes. When I left the radio station and we stopped producing Chickenman, I opened a company with a friend, Barry Stone. He and I went into business together with a company called Creative Monopoly, where we sold in Chicago to retailers as well as large corporations. Skil Saws was one of our clients. Before we knew it, we were in the business of writing and producing radio commercials.

Read the full story and Orkin's comments on radio today at: http://radioink.com/2016/05/10/chickenman-turns-50/

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Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who couldn't hear the music.
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Re: Chickenman Turns 50

Postby radiofan » Fri May 13, 2016 7:46 am

Chickenman episode #1, the origins of Chickenman.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KgMOOPxkYVk
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Re: Chickenman Turns 50

Postby jon » Fri May 13, 2016 8:29 am

This might be a good place and time to try and remember where and when you first heard Chickenman. I may as well start.

I don't believe I actually heard an episode of the original series until long past its prime, when Robert O. Smith was airing them as PD and Morning Man on KTAC-850 Tacoma around 1972 or 1973, after CJJC left the frequency.

However, I was lucky enough to hear CFUN air the entire first side of the Chickenman LP when it was first issued. As part of their Sunday morning comedy show when they started easing back on the paid religious programming that had previously been airing until Noon Sunday mornings.

As a collector of radio station record surveys ("charts"), I am pretty certain that I had heard of Chickenman from ads on the back of charts long before CFUN aired the album.

Speaking with those who listened to Edmonton radio, I understand that Chickenman was aired here soon after it debuted on WCFL Chicago and was syndicated.
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Re: Chickenman Turns 50

Postby radiofan » Fri May 13, 2016 1:36 pm

I first heard Chickenman on KJR or maybe KPUG likely in late 1966. Sometime in 1967, CKLG started running it on Roy Hennessy's morning show and they ran it for a year or so. Later, they ran The Tooth Fairy and then The Stoned Ranger.

In the late 1980's, CFMI ran the original Chickenman series (In a box somewhere I have all the reel to reel tapes from that run).

Also in the 1980's and early 90's, Dick Orkin's Radio Ranch did a ton of spots for various businesses and housing developments in Western Canada.
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Re: Chickenman Turns 50

Postby radiofan » Wed May 18, 2016 7:42 pm

Today I was reminded by someone who worked at CJOR in the mid 1960's that CJOR was the first station in Vancouver to run Chickenman.

They picked it up when it was first in syndication and it ran on Monty McFarlane's morning show.

Maybe it was CJOR that I first heard it on and not KJR or KPUG.
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Re: Chickenman Turns 50

Postby Mike Cleaver » Thu May 19, 2016 9:59 pm

We quickly jumped on the "Chickenman" series at CJOC in Lethbridge in 68 or 69, sponsored of course, by A%W Chubby Chicken. We did a series of remotes with the local A&W, where the franchisee was a huge fan of the station and did many different promotions with us while I was there.
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Re: Chickenman Turns 50

Postby jon » Fri May 20, 2016 11:44 am

Mike Cleaver wrote:We quickly jumped on the "Chickenman" series at CJOC in Lethbridge in 68 or 69, sponsored of course, by A%W Chubby Chicken. We did a series of remotes with the local A&W, where the franchisee was a huge fan of the station and did many different promotions with us while I was there.

This might also explain why Chickenman was heard in Edmonton at the time. CJOC and CJCA had the same owner. And the A&Ws in both Lethbridge and Edmonton may even have been the same franchisee in those years. Earl Fuller, founder of Earl's restaurants, was an A&W franchisee in Edmonton initially (1950s), eventually growing to own about 30 locations, so he may well have owned Lethbridge locations by the time that Chickenman came on the scene.
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