82.1 F
San Fernando
Friday, Jun 9, 2023

Still Cluckin’

Anyone who has tuned in a radio in the last 50 years has likely heard the work of Dick Orkin. His commercials for The Gap, Time Magazine and Boston Market aired from coast to coast. The radio serial “Chickenman,” a spoof on crime-fighting superheroes he created in the mid-1960s for then-Chicago superstation WCFL-AM remains in syndication and available for downloads through iTunes. In the San Fernando Valley, Orkin owns Famous Radio Ranch, a recording studio used for voice-over work for radio, television, audio books and video games. While the management of the studios is handled by his son, Harris. and brother, Sandy, Orkin remains active writing and producing radio commercials. “It’s not that difficult to do the work I do,” the 80-year-old said. “I see no reason to sit around and watch television.” A native of Pennsylvania, Orkin graduated from Franklin & Marshall College and attended the Yale Drama School. His radio advertising career began in the early 1960s and by 1973 he had started the Radio Ranch in Chicago. The firm moved west a few years later, eventually settling into Sherman Oaks. His approach to writing commercials is to begin with events and characters from his own life, mix in complications and create drama. “We begin with our own likes and dislikes,” Orkin said. A multiple award winner, Orkin is an inductee in the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame. He took time at the Ranch to discuss the value of radio commercials, what makes for a good voice-over artist, and, yes, future plans for “Chickenman.” Question: What makes for a good radio commercial? Answer: Credibility, truthfulness about the characters. Rather than have a cartoony effect they need to have some semblance to the way people really are. More than anything else, the listener needs to be able to identify with the character in the commercial. So they say, “I know that guy, I know that woman.” How have you gone about to bring that truthfulness? We draw as our source our own lives, our own experiences. My two sons, my daughters, my family, my own life serves as the largest source. They become part of the cast of characters that people all of our advertisements. They have to or it doesn’t ring true for us either in the writing or the performance. Do advertisers still see a value in radio commercials given the onslaught of online media? Yes. I was reading a piece on how this has been a good year for automobile dealers. One of the lucky recipients for their advertising is radio. It was at one time television but television is more and more expensive for almost everyone. Why is radio advertising valuable? It is inexpensive. It allows you frequency that is far less expensive than television. Also radio has a unique ability that many advertisers have taken advantage of and that is the capacity to reach out and touch people emotionally. If you are driving in your car and you’re alone that radio voice or voices become companions. There is a connection between the driver or the listener at home or in their basement or at the beach or shopping. What is your role at Famous Radio Ranch? Radio Ranch is everything. I own all of this. The studios and all the activities that take place in the studios from engineer to equipment is still all mine. Other people are running it now. I decided it was too much to run the studios and create radio commercials at the same time. My son (Harris) with my brother Sandy handle all of the studios. Where did the name Radio Ranch come from? After all you grew up in Pennsylvania and spent part of your career in Chicago. That wasn’t me. That was my brother (Sandy) who was crazy about Western movies. He came out ahead of me and he decided the western theme would be fun. He went out and found these photos that are in the studios that were blown up. I didn’t care because I also loved the cowboy stories. They were important to me but I never thought of making it the theme, but Sandy did. Are the studios always booked? There is something always happening. That’s why I split it off. My son, Harris, writes and produces video games. He’s now working for Sony and they are doing a project that is so huge it’s going to take two years to finish. The studio will be used for that. (Then) there are the auditions, the callbacks, the recordings, plus books. I never realized to what extent people were interested in recording for books but apparently it’s a big business. We rented out the “A” studio for books. The Radio Ranch was one of the largest creators of radio commercials. Is that still the case? We don’t have any competition. We devote our activities at the Radio Ranch to doing great commercials, humorous commercials for the most part. To the extent that people heard our commercials for Time magazine, for The Gap, for major advertisers across the country they would say I want a commercial like that. Since there were not that many people doing humor commercials or that type of production, yes we had an awful lot of business. I suppose at one time we might have been described as one of the most successful of the creative production companies. We were not the only one or the largest one. We continue to be one of the few in the country still doing it. They do it locally or regionally, but nationally I am not aware of. Is it still a lucrative business? Oh, yes. I wouldn’t stay in it if it wasn’t. I promised myself I would retire around age 73, 74 and that never happened. There is still someone who calls, emails, contacts us in some way and insists we do commercials for them. How much do you charge for the commercials? The cost is dependent on where they are going to use it, how long they are going to use it. It could start somewhere around $1,000 and could go up to $10,000 to $15,000. And you are still doing the voices? I don’t do all the voices but I do an awful lot of them. My daughter (Lisa) does a lot of them as well. We have about 12 to 15 regular voice-over people who have been with us for years. What was your career turning point? No question about it was deciding to do radio serials. How did that come about? I was in Chicago and the program director wanted me to do a radio parody of the “Batman” television serial. That began it all for me. I decided to do a humor version; we could do anything we wanted to. I created Chickenman, the wonderful white winged warrior. It was syndicated very quickly out of WCFL. Before I knew it, it was on several hundred stations around the country. It played everywhere. It was on so many stations that I was running out of ideas for “Chickenman” so I moved over to “Secret Adventures of the Tooth Fairy.” The “Tooth Fairy” became larger than “Chickenman” for a period. Unlike “Chickenman,” which lingers and continues to be played, the “Tooth Fairy” had a shorter lifespan. “Chickenman” is still being syndicated after almost 50 years. Surprising? Yes it does. The humor sustains. It is as relevant today as it was then because I was careful about not getting too contemporary. I stayed away from local references that would date it. The only thing I did not stay away from was space travel. He did occasionally encounter a space vehicle and that became part of the series. Other than that it was simply about a man who was struggling to be a superhero and finding great difficulty in that. Ever consider doing another radio serial? I am about to take “Chickenman” and do a parody of the docu-dramas. I am going to suggest there are moments in Chickenman’s career where there was something suspiciously corrupt going on between the (police) commissioner and Chickenman. I am going to do some contrived documentaries while poking fun at the documentaries. Any other projects you are working on? I am writing a podcast that may turn into something else about Moses. The more material I read about Moses and commentary on (Biblical books) Numbers and Exodus I came to the conclusion that Moses was an odd character. I am going to set it in modern times because that sounds far more interesting to me. When it comes to your career in radio who are some of your influences? (Comedy team) Bob and Ray, obviously. I wouldn’t say influences but contemporaries of mine, (Jerry) Stiller and (Anne) Meara. They were good friends when I was on the road far more than I am now. They were doing commercials and we were doing commercials, and we would spend time comparing notes. You list Joseph Campbell as among the people who have influenced you the most, why is that? He, along with C.J. Jung, believed there was a dialogue that goes on in the lives of most people that evolves into extraordinary drama. Most mythologies, said Campbell and Jung, came from that type of thing. People always come to the sane places in their conflicts and their dialogues and that is where the greatest myths come from. If you read any Campbell you will find that kind of thing in there. Jung especially used it in his own analytical work. They both had a tendency to like the sound of real people in real situations. They thought that far more interesting truths about life came out of that kind of relationship. You call yourself a newshound and an avid reader. What are your viewing and reading habits like? I listen to MSNBC religiously every night. To get a chuckle I’ll watch Fox. Any of the guests who have written a book I will go to. The one I am finishing now is on the last Obama campaign (“Double Down” by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann). What radio stations do you listen to? I spend most of my time listening to the National Public Radio stations. I am far more caught up in NPR because I am interested in the news aspect. I do love Garrison Keillor and “Prairie Home Companion.” I think that is the most inventive and most fun program in American radio today. What motivates you? Doing something creative; having fun with something. Like the Moses story. That came about when I read a book about Moses that promised to be a story contrary to Judaic and Christian beliefs. What advice would you give someone starting in voice-over career? There’s a commonly accepted understanding that voice-over is about the voice. I usually try to find an Everyman. I’d rather have people who don’t have theater experience but at least have the capacity to make their talk conversational. If they have a conversational tone in their performance or their acting they are fine. I don’t care about the voice. The voice is the last thing I care about. They want someone who sounds like a real person because the real person has a greater likelihood of attracting listeners. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space reasons.

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Featured Articles

Related Articles