Paul Harvey: Radio broadcaster who became the voice of Middle America
Thursday 05 March 2009
Out in Middle America, everyone knew and loved Paul Harvey. During a long drive, his was the voice that made you stop spinning the dial for a country and western station. His rich staccato baritone delivered the news to millions twice a day, morning and noon, for decades; he was a national institution, an icon of the American way in the American heartland, in America's imagined golden age.
At the peak of a career that lasted for more than 60 years, Harvey's patented mixture of punchy news reports, banter and quirky commentary was carried on 1,300 stations across the country, with an audience of 22 million. One 1985 poll found that the country's four most popular radio shows were all his. ABC radio, the network that employed him from 1951 until his death, rewarded him with a 10-year, $100m contract when Harvey was already 82 years old. If anything they were getting him cheap, given that his shows generated an annual $30m in advertising revenue.
The format for the quarter-hour newscasts hardly varied for half a century. "Hello Americans," they would begin. "This is Paul Harvey. Stand by for news!" Headlines and stories were woven into a daily snapshot of American life. He did not flinch from bad news, but the tone remained upbeat as Harvey sought the brighter side to a story. Along the way, he enriched the language. "Reaganomics," "guesstimate" and "skyjacking" are all coinages credited to Harvey.
The broadcast ended with a segment entitled "The Rest of the Story", featuring arresting anecdotes about a famous person. To keep listeners hooked, Harvey did not reveal the celebrity's name until the very last sentence. A typical offering concerned a subject who wanted to play baseball in the American major leagues, was sent money by President Franklin Roosevelt, and later led a socialist revolution. The mystery man was, you may or may not have guessed, Fidel Castro. By 1976, "The Rest of the Story" had become so popular that it was spun off as a separate show.
Paul Harvey was involved in radio from childhood. At school, his strong, clear voice won him an oratory prize. With the backing of a teacher ("this boy needs to be on the radio") he was taken on as an errand boy by an AM station in his home town of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Two years later he was on the air and getting paid. Next came stints as an announcer with stations in Kansas and Missouri. In 1944, after three years of wartime service in Hawaii, he moved to Chicago where he joined a local station that was bought by ABC in 1951. By then he had dropped his surname – Aurandt – to become plain Paul Harvey.
Harvey earned his money the old- fashioned way, by doing everything himself. He chose the stories for his shows, wrote his own scripts, and read the commercials on air (a disconcerting aspect of much US radio to this day). But he was unapologetic, insisting that he only endorsed products that he believed in.
Each day, he would get up at 3.30am. Having fortified himself with a bowl of oatmeal porridge, he pored over the papers and wire services. To simplify his task, Harvey at one point had a news ticker in his bathroom. The items he selected had to pass an "Aunt Betty Test", named after a typical Missouri housewife (in fact his sister-in-law). If the story was unlikely to interest her, he wouldn't use it.
In a sense, Harvey was a forerunner of Rush Limbaugh and the other kingpins of modern American talk radio. Like them he was a conservative, but without their egotism or partisan edge. His conservatism was based on simpler, age-old virtues of God, country and hard work. If his political leanings were to the right, so were those of the heartland that adored him.
Early in his career he supported Senator Joseph McCarthy's Communist witch hunts. Later, he opposed desegregation busing in schools and backed the Vietnam War. But there were limits: in 1970 Harvey called on Richard Nixon not to expand the war into Cambodia. "Mr President," he said, "I love you... but you're wrong." It was a radio equivalent of the "Walter Cronkite moment" which occurred on television two years earlier, when the legendary CBS anchor returned from a trip to Vietnam and declared the war "unwinnable".
It was no coincidence, therefore, that in 1969 Harvey and Cronkite were joint runners-up in Gallup's annual poll of America's most admired man. One might have been a liberal, the other a conservative, but both broadcasters were masters of their craft, and trusted as few others by the ordinary citizen.
That was one of the few prizes that escaped Harvey. Over the years, he was variously named Commentator of the Year, Person of the Year, Father of the Year, Salesman of the Year and American of the Year. In 2005, one of his greatest fans awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honour. That fan was, you will have guessed, George W. Bush.
Paul Harvey Aurandt, radio broadcaster: born Tulsa, Oklahoma 4 September 1918; married 1940 Lynn Cooper (one son); died Phoenix, Arizona 28 February 2009.
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