Sunday, March 01, 2009

Paul Harvey, RIP

Paul Harvey has died.

And radio will never be the same.

The legendary broadcaster, who delivered radio news and commentary in a style that was uniquely his own, died Saturday in a Phoenix hosptial. He was 90.

ABC Radio, which carried Mr. Harvey's broadcasts for almost 60 years, announced his passing last night. Network President Jim Robinson described the radio icon as "one of the most gifted and beloved broadcasters" in our nation's history, a voice that "became a trusted friend in American households."

Former President George W. Bush praised Harvey for his commentary that "entertained, enlightened and informed." Paul Harvey received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Mr. Bush in 2005. Mr. Harvey is one of only two radio journalists to win the nation's highest civilian award; the other was Lowell Thomas, the globe-trotting newscaster whose career spanned the first 40 years of the medium.

But such accolades don't begin to capture Paul Harvey--or his legacy. Mr. Harvey was fond of saying that he "grew up in radio newsrooms," beginning in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Originally hired as a station janitor at KVOO, he was eventually allowed to read commercials and handle other on-air assignments.

By 1940, he had moved to St. Louis, working as roving reporter for KXOK. One day, a young school teacher named Lynne Cooper came to the station for a news program. Harvey met her and was instantly smitten. A dinner invitation was extended--and accepted; he proposed to her after only a few minutes of conversation. She finally said "yes" a year later.

The relationship between Mr. Harvey and his "Angel" was more than a marriage. It was a full partnership that had an enormous impact on both his career and the future of American broadcasting. Bruce DeMont, director of Chicago's Musem of Broadcast Communications, notes that Lynne Harvey played a major role in her husband's succeess. She was his producer for many years and developed ideas that became trademark radio shows, including the highly succesful feature "The Rest of the Story."

In 1944, it was Mrs. Harvey who suggested a move to Chicago, after her husband's discharge from the Army Air Corps. It was a bold (and risky) move. In those days, Chicago was home to scores of radio programs and the networks maintained expansive broadcast facilities in the city. While Chicago represented the big time for an aspiring broadcaster, success was anything but assured.

Mr. Harvey later remembered that Chicago had "hundreds" of unemployed announcers when he arrived in town. As an outsider--competing against more established talent--he faced long odds. But he soon found employment, hosting a jobs show for returning veterans on Chicago's WENR (now WLS).

Hoping to capitalize on his growing popularity, the station soon offered him a newscast. Despite intense competition from other stations, Lynn Harvey urged her husband to take the 10 p.m. slot. It proved to be a fortuitous decision; within months, his program was the number one newscast in Chicago, and Mr. Harvey was on his way.

During those late-night broadcasts, Harvey perfected a unique, personal delivery style that was vastly different from other radio news programs. During that era, news broadcasts were often delivered by staff announcers, reading wire service copy in a "voice of doom" baritone.

Mr. Harvey preferred to write his own scripts, creating a folksy, conversational tone that captured--no, commanded--the audience's attention. Decades before there was "appointment TV," Paul Harvey's broadcasts became "appointment radio." Three times a day, kitchens, garages, offices, dorm rooms and workshops across America fell silent, as listeners tuned in for his morning or noon newscasts, or "The Rest of the Story," which typically aired in the late afternoon.

What they heard was a masterful blend of radio performance and the written word. His broadcast opening (Hello Americans, this is Paul Harvey...stand by for news!) and closing (Paul Harveyy...Goood Day) became part of the cultural landscape and he added such terms as "Reganomics" and "skyjacker" to the lexicon.

More amazingly, Mr. Harvey remained at the top of a fickle business for seven decades. ABC began carrying his broadcasts nationally in 1951 and Harvey remained the network's biggest--and most profitable--star until his death. He signed his last contract with the ABC Radio at age 82, for a reported $10 million a year. Paul Harvey earned millions more from books, speaking fees and a syndicated TV commentary that aired for years on stations around the country.

Yet he remained (by all accounts) a modest, unassuming man. As a celebrity, he was practically invisible. Aside from an occasions awards dinner or industry function, Mr. Harvey was rarely seen on the social circuit. Away from the microphone, he spent most of his time with his wife and son (Paul Jr.), best known as the writer for The Rest of the Story, and the announcer heard at the beginning and end of his father's newscasts.

Harvey was not without his critics. Decades before Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity hit the airwaves, Paul Harvey was assailed for his unabashed conservatism. Others claimed that he wasn't really a journalist because he read commercials for his sponsors.

In response, Mr. Harvey said that he was "fiercely loyal to those who put their money where my mouth is," noting there was always a clear divide between the news and advertising on his programs. "And now, page two (or three)," was the trademark segue to the next commercial break. Always a gentleman, Harvey never complained that other newscasters--notably Charles Osgood of CBS--didn't receive the same treatment for reading their own commercials.

Paul Harvey's personal life was also remarkably free of scandal, despite his years in the public spotlight. Esquire magazine once reported that Harvey received a dishonorable discharge from the Air Corps, but that claim was disproved by AP reporter. In the early 1950s, Mr. Harvey was arrested after climbing over the fence of a Chicago nuclear plant, checking out a tip about security problems at the facility. He was released and the incident was quickly forgotten. After that, Harvey's name rarely appered in the headlines, save announcements of his latest ratings triumph, or some sort of industry award.

Toward the end of his life, that remarkable voice began to lose some of its resonance and health issues forced him to miss more days of work. But there was still magic in that staccato style, impecably turned phrases and those perfect pauses that drew listeners closer to the radio --and the man behind it all. Anyone who has ever slaved over a hot microphone could only marvel at his consummate skill.

In a medium defined by shameless imitation, Paul Harvey was an original. We will never see another broadcaster like him. His beloved industry--and the world--will be poorer for it.

He is already missed.

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