You know this voice. Deep and flat, with hollow authority and exquisite timing, it wheedles, whines, pontificates. It moans, chuckles, trembles, pleads, patronizes. In recent months it was hard not to hear it on the radio, selling Edwardo's pizza ("This man is lying through his flossed teeth"), First American Bank ("I want you to name this the Bob and Maggie Gazinski Bank!"), or Empire Carpets in miniature dramas that left you smiling in spite of yourself.
But unless you're an advertising professional or radio aficionado, you may not know that the voice belongs to Dick Orkin, who writes many of the scripts he performs. Orkin came to Chicago from Cleveland in 1967 and produced and wrote for WCFL during its rise to the AM radio heights in the late 60s. It was there that he created his best-known character, "Chicken Man."
"I believe he's in a class with Mel Brooks and Stan Freberg," says Mike King, now owner of Audio Recording Unlimited, who worked with Orkin in Cleveland and Chicago and remains a good friend. "It takes an incredible amount of discipline to do what he does for as long as he has."
In the past 17 years, Orkin's spots have won well over 200 broadcasting awards. More to the point when you're in the selling business, his commercials not only generated a surprising number of calls for First American Bank, but also prompted one customer who had been on his way to close a loan at another bank to pull into First American instead.
(Restaurant clatter in the background)
"This is our favorite restaurant, Phyllis, what's the occasion?"
"I have something . . . very important to tell you, Brad."
"This is the hardest thing I've had to do in my life."
"Oh, no, Phyl."
"Believe me, it's the best for both of us."
"You met Mom and everything, hon."
"You know how you've always resented my being witty and bright and urbane, Brad?"
"Oh, no, I don't anymore."
"And how stupid you felt because I was so well-briefed in the daily events that affect our lives?"
"I loved it. I love stupid."
"Well, I know how it must be resolved."
"Don't say it, Phyl."
"Yes. I'm giving up Time magazine."
"Ohhhh (utterly blank). What?"
"Yes, Brad, Time and Time alone gave me the je ne sais quoi that you never approached."
"I flew to it each week and filled my cup from the depths of its lively literary basin."
"I've been without it a week already."
"Time, the weekly newsmagazine?"
"Ask me what's going on in business, medicine, religion, art, or education."
"What's going on?"
"I don't know! I haven't the faintest idea!"
"Oh, Phyllis, you mean--"
"Yes. Without Time I'm the same empty-headed dimwit you are."
(In a rush) "Oh, I do love you."*
This spot ran a full 15 years ago. What makes it memorable? Partly it's the writing (though seeing it as a script tends to exaggerate that aspect). Partly it's the fast-paced, expert delivery of the lines by Orkin (Brad) and his partner. But mostly it's the characters and the attitude toward the product.
Attitude first. Like many of Orkin's spots, this one has a distinctly flip attitude toward the product being pushed. Some of its humor derives from the implication that Time's readers would be exceptionally dopey without it, and that at least one reader would rather give up the magazine than lose the attentions of a total dweeb. Orkin--who since 1978 has run his own radio production company in Hollywood, Dick Orkin's Radio Ranch--is serious about selling the product. He just has a different approach. "There was a tendency in the past to come up with the ideal consumer, a kind of perfect person that the audience would aspire to be--something like the woman showing her husband this perfectly clean kitchen at the end of a long day. Today people respond to situations and characters that they can identify with, that are less than perfect."
But not all advertising agencies respond that way. If your agency were in charge of promoting Time and you were anxious to have your client placed in the best possible light at all times, this kind of spot might make you nervous. In fact, Orkin has found it easier to use his spots when he's working directly with clients, rather than through an advertising agency. "The Time magazine spots are a good example. There we started working through Young & Rubicam in New York, and we did OK. Then the Time executives got involved. Before we knew it, they were handling it all directly, and we started doing much better work.
"Agencies tend to be very protective of the client. Sometimes they get overly concerned about maintaining what they call 'brand image': 'Is this the kind of person who'd be reading Time?' That's the kind of profound question agencies ponder, and sometimes as a result they so sterilize the characters you can draw upon that there's nothing left." (Another maker of TV and radio commercials backs that claim, saying, "It's interesting to watch the suits when you start doing something strange. They'll put ideas down before the client ever hears them.")
"We did one spot for Time in which a man went to a foot doctor," says Orkin. "The agency said it wouldn't work, because Time wouldn't be read by someone who went to a foot doctor. We were astonished. If it had been a fortune-teller or something a little shadier, we could have understood. Two years later we proposed the same spot to Time, and they didn't raise that question at all.
"In general, it's easier to work directly with clients. They want spots that are funny, that work, that sell the product, and so they tell us whether it's funny or not. They don't give us 30-page memos on being off-target or 'inconsistent with the philosophy.'"
In the 15-year-old Time spot the characters are also memorable--especially Brad, an early version of Orkin's stock character, a hapless fellow who, with minor changes, is reincarnated endlessly in the Radio Ranch world:
as Normie, the henpecked son who can't understand the concept of "choosing" between two photo-developing plans offered by a drugstore chain;
as the clueless doctor who moonlights as a waiter when he can't afford the interest on his credit cards, and who's instructed by a restaurant patron on the uses of home equity loans;
as Bob Gazinski, who thinks he's driving a hard bargain with a bank teller when the bank already offers everything he can demand, and who has an original way with cliches ("I've got them eating out of my hat!" he crows to his nonplussed wife);
as the unfortunate visitor to Philadelphia who finds that every tour of the area consists entirely of a visit to a newly refurbished suburban car dealership;
as the even more unfortunate grandson who takes Grandma to Disneyland, only to find her adamant about going on the newest, most frightening ride there; and
as the evasive nephew who uses his hot date's cordless phone to beg off dinner with Aunt Edna, only to discover that the phone transmits telltale sounds all too well. ("What's that sound?" demands Aunt Edna. "A butter knife cutting through duck pate? Being spread on a round salted wheat cracker, no rye? . . . You dickens, you're not in your office!")
Occasionally Orkin plays opposite this character, as in one commercial for a physician-referral service, in which Walter asks his boss (Orkin) to recommend a dermatologist, only to have the boss tell all on the company intercom: "Walter has just confided in me that his rash is both personal and embarrassing."
Who is this character? A straight man? A loser? An escapee from a Woody Allen movie? Well, not exactly. "You may think he's hard to identify because you are identifying yourself in that person," Orkin says. At least that's his objective. "If we [Radio Ranchers] bring our own lives to this, then to the extent that we do that, people are going to say, 'I know that guy.' He has a touch of pomposity, he's easily deflated, he's perplexed by things, tossed back and forth, confused about who in the hell he's supposed to be. These aren't cardboardy characters. Our people are very real."
Certainly, part of him is Dick Orkin. "I do get cliches and idioms a little bit wrong. I do that all the time. It reminds us of how desperately we all try to measure up."
Orkin's Radio Ranch has started offering daylong workshops in its creative technique. As Orkin writes in Sound Management, "We begin with our own experiences, our feelings, our anxieties in relation to a product or service or, more important, to the 'living experience in that part of our lives' where the product or service naturally touches us." In his view it's hard to create something interesting without getting personal. "When my father was living," he told a Lancaster, Pennsylvania, journalist, "I actually used his name (Sid) in commercials. He loved it--in spite of the fact that the man I was characterizing was stiff and pompous. It was dead on him, but he just never recognized it. My mother doesn't recognize herself either."
Does Orkin ever feel limited by the constraints of advertising, of always having to sell something? "No, not at all," he says, sounding a bit surprised at the question. If anything, he adds, selling provides a framework within which he can do his best work. And to those who would argue that selling limits him whether he knows it or not he says, "That's like saying an apple can't be a really good apple because an orange tastes better. I would argue that some of our executions hold up as well as executions in noncommercial formats. But it's not really fair to compare them with a novel, or with Garrison Keillor's show. They're something different."
"Good humor plays over and over, like a Marx Brothers movie," says Ron Britain, now of WJMK FM, who worked with Orkin during his Chicago years. "It's a service--making your fellow man laugh and in a small way lift their spirits. I believe it's a great contribution to mankind."
"Your ad agency is highly recommended."
"Oh, thanks. What do you sell?"
"Fruits and vegetables. Here, I brought some along."
"Oh, great. We'll do some TV spots."
"Oh. I'd rather use radio."
"TV is--too expensive."
"Anyway, people don't have to see my fruits and vegetables as long as they can hear them."
(Just the slightest pause) "Whaa?"
"When we play music on them."
"Are you kidding?"
"No. See, I put an all-produce band together just for our radio commercials."
"Oh, come on now."
"Hand me that squash there."
"How'd you do that?"
"Practice. I'm also proficient on three leafy vegetables and two tropical fruits."
"It's economical to advertise on radio. And I can target the people who like to listen to fresh fruits and vegetables."
"This, uh, band you--"
"Seven rutabagas, five cucumbers, and a bass broccoli."
"So we'll play our theme song, 'Yes, We Have No Bananas,' and then we'll eat our instruments. OK?"
"You'll buy radio for us, then?"
"Sure. Listen, could you, uh, teach me--"
"Oh, sure. Here, start with the celery."
"You--you don't blow on celery. You strum it."
(Soothing harp roll)
(Under his breath) "Beginners."*
That spot, done for the Radio Advertising Bureau in 1985, shows why some people, Dick Orkin emphatically included, love radio. It could never be produced for TV. It wouldn't even come close to working, because it depends on the audience's involuntarily imagining those sounds coming out of a squash or a stick of celery.
RAB's slogan at the time was "Radio: It's Red Hot," but of course it's not. Only about 1 advertising dollar out of every 14 is spent on radio, and that tiny slice of the pie has grown only from 6.6 percent in 1988 to 6.8 percent in 1990. Only two or three undisputed national media stars have made their names exclusively in radio since the 50s--and one of them made it on noncommercial stations.
Orkin and his 15 or so employees at the Radio Ranch do nothing but radio (well, a bit of TV voice-over on occasion), and it is one of the two or three biggest radio production houses in the country. So it's not surprising that Orkin is a sworn enemy of what he calls "media-ism": "discrimination by major buyers, especially at the agency level, against radio. These are people born into the TV generation, and they don't grasp the enormous opportunities in radio for using the imagination. They weren't around for Orson Welles's War of the Worlds broadcast or to hear the extraordinary things Arthur Godfrey did on radio for Lipton's noodle soup.
"In The Pulse of Radio magazine this week [January 6], the executive vice president and U.S. director of media services for J. Walter Thompson, Richard Kostyra, says that radio doesn't appeal to all the senses! In October of 1990 that agency devoted a task force to radio because it wasn't being used creatively. Now, two years later, he says, 'Television is dealing with more emotions and more senses than any other vehicle--sight, sound, motion, and emotion. Therefore, it makes it easier to sell.' The agency takes with one hand and gives with another!
"Most advertising people would deny what this man is saying. But these words and this attitude get filtered down--even though hundreds and hundreds of people have gotten an extraordinary impact from radio. At a time when media costs are very high on TV and businesses are struggling to stay alive, they don't have radio recommended to them. I very much resent that."
Ironically, the high cost of TV sometimes works in its favor, says Orkin, since agencies can keep more people employed by doing labor-intensive--and location-intensive--television. As he tells Broadcasting magazine, "In a typical large agency, the television guy gets to travel to Fiji if he's going to film Fiji. In radio, Fiji is in the studio." So whatever costs more is worth more, right?
Peter Orlik, professor of broadcast and cinematic arts at Central Michigan University and author of the textbook Broadcast/Cable Copywriting, also points out, "In a lot of people's thinking, radio is inexpensive, so that's where they put their hack writers." Of course, that makes for some truly awful radio commercials. "But I find that if you can do radio--if you can communicate with listeners in this very compressed audio-only medium--then we can teach you to do print and TV. It doesn't always work the other way around. I've had TV or print people who had to have a camera, or who wrote dialogue that was just frozen on the page."
As a professor, Orlik practices the opposite of media-ism: "Over half of our basic copy writing class is radio," he says. That's partly because it's good training, partly because it's good economics ("I regularly have more job offers for radio copywriters than I can fill"), and partly because radio is no longer the integral part of our culture that it used to be. "The U.S. is the only country that really opted out of radio drama when TV came in. Consequently, when you go to a country with a well-established state-run system, one that didn't give up radio as a separate art form--Canada, Great Britain, Australia, South Africa--you'll find a higher quality of commercials as well.
"To a degree, we've had to recover some of the audio heritage we lost. When I started teaching in the mid-60s at Wayne State University, more than half of my class could remember when there was no TV. Now none of my students remember that, and it becomes more and more difficult to get them to think in audio mode."
And when they do become audio-literate, it's usually to get an entry-level radio job with hopes of moving up to the tube. Orkin says, "I think if advertising people were forced into a corner and had to tell the truth"--an Orkinesque scenario in itself--"they would say, 'Television looks better in my book.'
"Ask a typical agency writer or producer whether they'd rather work with some of the finest motion-picture people in the world, or with a few voice-over actors and a producer. There's a genuine mystique in being part of television."
For Orkin, radio has always had the mystique. In the early 1950s, as a deep-voiced 16-year-old (and the son of a major advertiser), he got his first radio job filling in for vacationing on-air personnel on WKOK in Sunbury, Pennsylvania. Radio jobs kept him going through high school and college (Franklin and Marshall) and graduate school (Yale School of Drama). "From the very beginning I've had the same approach to humor and to radio, and that was largely shaped by people like Jack Benny. His early shows were all dialogue and drama. He wasn't funny if he wasn't interacting with somebody." Neither was Orkin, though the interactions didn't always advance his career. As an undergraduate DJ on WGAL (Lancaster, Pennsylvania) he was fired for conducting interviews with imaginary people in the building's ancient elevator.
Once finished with school, in 1959, Orkin became news director of Lancaster's WLAN, and five years later he was hired as news and public-affairs director by KYW, the Westinghouse station in Cleveland. Jim Stagg, who worked with him there and in Chicago, says, "I think KYW was one of the first stations to hire someone with his [theater] background and expertise to be involved in production--as opposed to an engineer who would just produce a spot by throwing some canned music under the copy being read. Dick was someone who had some kind of thought and concept of what you wanted people to walk away with."
In 1967 Orkin, Stagg, and practically everyone from KYW moved from there to WCFL in Chicago. Here Orkin was producer and public-affairs director. "CFL was on its way to number one," recalls Mike King fondly. "It was a massive high to work there. We were young, and broadcasting was so much less structured then."
In this freewheeling atmosphere Orkin invented, produced, and starred in the superhero parody "Chicken Man" ("He's everywhere! He's everywhere!"), still his most famous creation, though he did many other serials, including "Amazon Ace" and "The Tooth Fairy." According to Radio Ranch records, the adventures of the feathered crime fighter have been heard on more than a thousand radio stations, and are still being broadcast in about a dozen markets such as Odessa, Texas; La Grande, Oregon; and Wingham, Ontario.
In everyday life Chicken Man is mild-mannered Midland City shoe clerk Benton Harbor . . . but on weekends he becomes the "white-winged warrior," striking terror into the hearts of criminals everywhere with a deadpan self-parody that's instantly recognizable even if you only know Orkin from recent commercials: "Halt, cowardly criminal, for you have come to the end of your diabolical and cruel scheming ways." Like other superheroes, Harbor has a "secret contact procedure" in case the police commissioner must reach him during the workweek. One classic episode starts when a shoe-buying customer inadvertently utters the secret phrase.
The parody seems a little broad after a quarter century, and Orkin says that Benton Harbor, though recognizably the ancestor of his current stock commercial character, is "a little cardboardy." It's still good fun though, and New York City's Museum of Television and Radio recently announced plans to enshrine the crusading capon's 300 two-and-a-half-minute episodes in its History of Radio collection. Orkin took the occasion to publicly deny rumors that Benton Harbor roughly resembles the personality of his creator: "This is, of course, nonsense. The resemblance is not even close to rough. It's precise."
In 1971 Orkin left WCFL to go into the advertising business for himself. After the first two years he and his partner Bert Berdis specialized entirely in radio until 1981. Since Orkin had long been producing commercials for his employers as well as free-lancing on the side, the move wasn't much of a shock--"just a different environment to do what I'd been doing all along." His first office was on East Superior, "a crazy building with an old-fashioned elevator. I think it's a parking lot now."
Sonia (gushing): "Gee, Lyle, no man has ever made dinner for me before."
Lyle (monotone): "It was nothing, Sonia. I've been in the kitchen preparing this stuffed pizza all day."
Narrator (Orkin): "This man is lying. All he did was stop at an Edwardo's restaurant and bring home one of Edwardo's ready-to-bake delicious stuffed pizzas."
S: "I love this crust."
L: "I rolled it for hours because I am a sensitive, caring new-age man."
S: "And this pizza is just brimming with fresh spinach."
L: "I raised it in my own geodesic dome."
N: "Oh, is this man's nose growing. It was Edwardo's that made the fresh crust just hours ago. It was Edwardo's that stuffed this tantalizing pizza with fresh ingredients like spinach, pesto, mushrooms--and broccoli."
S: "Oh, Lyle, this pizza is just stuffed with cheese."
L: "I fermented the cheese myself as a way of getting in touch with my primal yet feminine side."
N: "This man is still lying through his flossed teeth. All you need to do for great-tasting stuffed pizza is stop by Edwardo's for lunch, dinner, or carryout."
L: "It's an ancient recipe I got from a shaman I saw in the Andes with my friend Shirley MacLaine."
N: "Won't this man ever put a cork in it?"*
The simplest radio commercials--and, as a rule, the most boring--consist simply of one voice talking to you. The Motel 6 spots with Tom Bodett doing his crypto-folksy monologue are about as good as these get. Next up in complexity are multivoice spots, where two announcers, often a man and a woman, take turns addressing the audience.
Orkin's specialty, of course, is the dialogue spot, in which almost nothing is said directly to the listener and we seem to be eavesdropping on a conversation. All the conflict-and-climax conventions of good drama apply, and then some--because it's short, it's audio, and it's advertising. In this world, a hilarious 30-second-spot is no good if the listener remembers the joke and not the product. (Orkin's Time magazine spots succeeded, not because they're still remembered, but because they're remembered as Time commercials.) An audio spot loses its punch if the listener can't figure out who's being eavesdropped on. (The recent Chicago Symphony Orchestra dialogue commercial in which the woman "hums" a passage from Beethoven made great use of the radio medium, but was flawed because the opening dialogue left it unclear why she was talking to this guy about going to the symphony.)
In a dialogue spot, Peter Orlik points out, one character is the seller substitute and the other is the buyer substitute, "and the sale has to be consummated as the climax of the spot." If the sale gets made too early, the dramatic tension is gone. This buyer-seller structure is clear in Orkin's Radio Advertising Bureau spot, where the produce vendor "sells" radio to the agency rep. It's less obvious in the Time commercial--in which Phyllis is actually the "seller" and dim-witted Brad the "buyer"--because the climax of that spot is not his rushing out to subscribe to the magazine, but his realizing that it was really responsible for her being so up-to-date. (Less skilled writers of dialogue, according to Orlik, sometimes unintentionally switch the two characters' roles, allowing the former "buyer" suddenly and rather strangely to start spouting a sales pitch.)
In teaching copy writing, Orlik not only makes his students start with radio, but also makes them start with basic single-voice commercials, moving up to multivoice and dialogue only after they've figured out how to write spoken English. He tries to keep students from mixing the multivoice and the dialogue forms, because that usually disorients the listener--so he's almost reluctant to let his students hear the recent Edwardo's spot.
"In this spot," says Orlik, "Orkin has managed to create a much more complex audio structure, in which you can have both dialogue and direct address onstage at the same time without confusing the listener. Normally you'd get a hopeless muddle of points of view. It's a wonderfully sophisticated technique."
Until 1971 Orkin mostly produced spots performed by others, aside from "Chicken Man." Then he began using his own voice more. His business grew, and in 1978 he and his crew were lured west by NBC's TV newsmagazine show America Alive. "We thought it would be big," says Orkin. "We did eight or ten shows, and it folded." But Orkin chose to remain in LA for climatic reasons: "I had a cold year-round in Chicago." Not a trivial problem when your voice is your business.
While he doesn't miss the midwest weather, Orkin does sometimes miss Chicagoans' mysterious, seemingly intuitive grasp of radio. "There are more voices out here," he says, "but the best radio talent--the most gifted, versatile, interesting radio voices--is in Chicago.
"There's a difference between doing voices and understanding radio. Chicago people seemed instinctively to know how to get four or five feet from the mike and speak conversationally. Out here, people stood four or five feet away and projected. They would come into the studio and look for the camera. They would look at the other actors, and of course when they did that they'd go off-mike. For some reason there are more people in Chicago who understand radio."
* Copyright DOCSI 1992
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Townes.