After more than 50 years in the business, Paul Harvey remains the most listened-to voice in American radio.
By Marc Fisher
Marc Fisher, a Washington Post columnist, is a regular contributor to AJR.
PAUL HARVEY SITS DIRECTLY ACROSS THE broadcast desk from me as he prepares for his big, 15-minute midday newscast. Even seated, he is erect, almost military in his bearing. He has spread his script before him, each page of yellow copy paper containing a single story, a few lines typed in the early light of a day that begins at 3:30 a.m. in the cream-carpeted offices of ``Paul Harvey News" here on Paul Harvey Drive in the heart of Chicago.
In the spare, black-and-white studio, the man with the million dollar voice, a true Voice of America, wears a starched white shirt and tie under a royal blue lab coat emblazoned with the ABC logo. We chat amiably as the engineer in the control room issues the 10-second warning. Harvey and I continue talking. I hold back so as not to disturb his countdown. But he appears to pay the clock no mind, chatting on, stopping only about one-and-a-half ticks before the second hand sweeps past the 12. A brief silence. Then a suddenly booming voice nearly rocks me out of my chair: ``HELLO AMERICANS! THIS IS PAUL HARVEY! SSTTAANNDD BYYY FOR NEEEEEWS!!!!"
I very nearly stand to cheer.
Dismissed decades ago as a clichéd relic of Richard Nixon's Silent Majority, derided by the media elite as a flag-waving, red-bashing dispensary of easy bromides and patriotic pap, ``Paul Harvey News & Comment" remains by leaps and bounds the most popular program on American radio, a daily presence in people's lives, a reminder in these multi-culti times of a society that used to think of itself as one.
Five of the 10 biggest radio audiences each week gather to hear Paul Harvey, whose newscasts air mornings and middays in addition to his recitations of ``The Rest of the Story," those dramatic, if formulaic, historical vignettes in which that failed painter turns out to be...Adolf Hitler, or that 13-year-old boy who got a cash gift from Franklin Roosevelt grows up to be...Fidel Castro. Sixteen stories above a rundown section of Michigan Avenue, on a block of shuttered storefronts and homeless men buffeted by winds off the lake, Harvey, now 80, hones his homilies and sifts the wires and newspapers for the arch, the outrageous and the heartwarming, items he will deliver in his staccato, telegraphic style to more than 1,300 radio stations from rural backwaters to the largest cities.
``Paul Harvey is the Energizer Bunny of this business," says John Butler, operations manager of WMAL, the Washington, D.C., station that sandwiches Harvey's noontime report between the reigning queen and king of talk radio, Laura Schlessinger and Rush Limbaugh. ``There is not a program director in this country who wouldn't kiss you for having Paul Harvey in your lineup. Like Limbaugh, he has an explosive quality on the radio that just does not exist on television."
Harvey's career and influence span the history of radio: He is the last of the wartime generation of radio commentators, a handful of men who wielded the kind of influence that Walter Cronkite would hold over the first TV generation. But Harvey is also a bridge to the new era of radio talkers, people such as Limbaugh, Don Imus, Howard Stern and countless imitators who have stretched the concept of radio commentary from minutes to hours, but remained true to Harvey's basic formula of personalizing the news, turning the events of the day into a longform diary of American life.
The Paul Harvey that sticks in the American mind is the rigid figure of the '60s, the man who defended middle America against the fraying morality of hippies, intellectuals and the Eastern Establishment.
Harvey's offices are a shrine to his fame, his Goldwater conservatism and his 1960s role as defender of the flag and stalwart against the counterculture. There's a framed tribute from Bil Keane, who draws the ``Family Circus" comic panel: In this cartoon, the dad closes a book after reading to his kids, and the caption reads, ``and they lived happily ever after. And now you know...the REST of the story."
Harvey has risen above basic announcing and mere punditry by treating the news as both entertainment and parable. Descended from five generations of Reformed Church ministers, Harvey wonders if he perhaps inherited ``an overdose of righteousness." The pulpit ``is a responsibility infinitely higher than any I aspire to," he says. But his church heritage has had a strong impact on Harvey's journalism: ``I can't separate goodness and badness from any day's news and make sense of it."
``Paul Harvey is such a case unto himself--somebody who tells stories under the guise of giving the news," says fellow radio storyteller Garrison Keillor, of public radio's ``A Prairie Home Companion." ``He is a man after my own heart. I couldn't agree less with his politics, but he really keeps going, completely undiminished. He has a sense of whimsy and of oddity, but his storytelling pretty much does serve his philosophy. It edges close to propaganda."
To be sure, Harvey stays loyal to his Midwestern ideals and conservative politics. ``Our major media, being home-based on Manhattan Island, inevitably distort American reality," he says in his large office overlooking the Tribune Tower and the Chicago River. ``I can stand on Times Square and know this is not America."
And Harvey still sees the culture being sucked down, ripped from its good heartland roots. ``We're not yet spewing vomit in our news, but other TV programs that now dominate the networks are a disservice to Loxahatchee, Kokomo, Kalamazoo and Sioux City. They inevitably corrupt. I don't know of anything that's had a more deleterious effect on our society than the excesses of television--mud, blood and chicanery."
All is not lost, however. Harvey keeps waiting for the ``stomach-turning point," the moment when people will demand a halt to the dumbing down, the greed, the cynicism.
For now, the offices of ``Paul Harvey News" remain an island in a shifting culture. From the Gothic lettering announcing the proprietor's name on the entrance wall to the correct staff of older women whom Harvey still addresses as ``Mrs.," there is a courtly manner to this newsroom perhaps unmatched anywhere else in the industry. Paul Harvey's America is on the run, cornered in a few country clubs and golf communities, chased onto virtual reservations by the forces of coarseness, informality, suburban anonymity and ethnic heterogeneity.
Harvey himself--now slightly stooped and down to a horseshoe of hair but still lean of build and muscular of voice--is a wealthy man who has palled around with the chief executives of his only-in-America success story sponsors--Wal-Mart, Amway, ADM. But Harvey's message resonates at far more humble levels, among the police officers he regularly lavishes with praise and trust, among the veterans he remembers when most of the nation forgets, and among the Scouts, Legionnaires, Ladies' Auxiliaries, gun clubs and history buffs who feel themselves resolutely ignored by a pop culture that insists on edge, cool and novelty.
Like Keillor's ``A Prairie Home Companion," the rise of the mega-churches, the resurgence of the phonics movement and nostalgia for the Reagan administration, the continued popularity of ``Paul Harvey News" reflects an American craving for belonging, an insistent desire for community in a nation that has grown, like its new media darling, the Internet, scattered and rootless.
Like Billy Graham and Muhammad Ali, Harvey is one of the last universals in a mass culture that, but for the occasional Hollywood blockbuster, has frayed into a thousand and one strands. When Harvey turns off the microphone, an era of media simplicity will have come to an end.
A few years back, Harvey dropped his daily TV commentary, and earlier this year he quit his thrice-weekly newspaper column. ``I didn't have anything to say," he readily concedes. ``We're between wars, between crises. It was 600 words, three times a week. I feel like I'm out of jail now."
But Harvey has no plans to quit radio, his first love. ``I have never seen anything ever on television that matches the pictures painted on the mirror of my mind by a really good wordsmith," he says. No lewd Lewinsky lines will be heard on Harvey's newscast, no leering over the latest sex story to snare saturation coverage on sensation-seeking cable news channels. ``I have never pretended to objectivity. I have a strong point of view, and I share it with my listeners. I have no illusions of changing the world, but to the extent I can, I'd like to shelter your and my little corner of it."
PAGE TWO! ``MAE-MI-MA-MA-MU , mae-mi-ma-ma-mu, teetleee, teetleee, too." From his voice warm-ups to his patented summons to listeners coast to coast--``Stand by for news!"--Harvey is a throwback to the newsreel announcers, a reliquary of a time when the American language was far more colorful, richer in both formal expression and slang.
Harvey is perhaps the only great broadcaster as well known for his silence as for what he says. He uses daringly long pauses--he says they developed as ``a lazy broadcaster's way of waiting for the second hand to reach the top of the clock"--to turn even pedestrian prose into a sometimes urgent, sometimes lyrical form of word jazz. ``I've always felt the pregnant pause is more useful for emphasis than shouting, but it can't be done deliberately. It has to just happen."
Spiced in with the pauses, quirky news items and telling anecdotes, Harvey types into his scripts--he still bangs out every word on an IBM Selectric rather than the ``confuser" that sits idle in his office--classic stock phrases, radio headlines that at once alert and charm: ``Stateside Politics! Sportlight on Louisville! Today's Golden Rose... Agronomics! Shop Talk!" Foreign stories get an aural dateline: ``Manila, Philippines!" Harvey is credited with inventing words such as ``guesstimate," ``trendency" and ``snoopervision."
``It's sad, but radio has homogenized the country in our pronunciation of words," Harvey says. ``People from Memphis, for example, used to taste our language with such succulence, oh my!" With Charles Kuralt gone, only CBS Radio's Charles Osgood, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and some of Dan Rather's curious Texas formulations enrich broadcast news English with anything beyond standard phrasing.
If Harvey sounds as if he is selling the news, that's no accident. News never comes first on a Harvey broadcast; the sponsor does.
His sales spots--delivered live, often almost entirely ad-libbed--have a personal, honest feel about them, a freshness that stands in stark contrast to the cynicism and irony that Madison Avenue specializes in these days. ``If the father in your family owns a truck," Harvey tells his audience, ``have I got a Father's Day gift for you. Get him a load handler. A LLooaad-HANDLER. I know it; I've done it."
Even off the air, Harvey sells. He has removed his ABC work coat and donned a burgundy sport jacket with a pink pocket square. No one else is in the room, we're chatting before lunch, and I ask about his sales philosophy. No microphone is hot, but he launches into a hard sell nonetheless:
``I have never been able to sell with anything other than left-brain logic. Some of these television commercials now are so cute, you have no idea when they're over what they're trying to sell. But I have to believe in, I have to use, I have to be enthusiastic about anything I sell. I found a bread now that I hope will sponsor `Paul Harvey News.' God, it's good; everybody should try this bread. It's a multi-nut, nutritious bread. Just look on the label"--he rises, steps to his desk and fishes around for a label he's brought from home--``and there's everything you could possibly want in a slice of bread, or anything you'd want in a breakfast. Some people go out for breakfast and just order toast and coffee, but that's all right, if your bread is this Brownberry Nut Bread. Good grrrracious, two slices of that and your coffee, and it's as good as a bowl of oatmeal."
The baker of this particular bread has no financial relationship with Harvey whatsoever. No matter. Harvey is, for all his political passion and newsman's energy, a natural pitchman, a combination that was as common in his day as it is anomalous now.
``Some of the best news some days is in the body of a commercial," Harvey says. ``There really is a battery that will outlast your car. There really is a preventative for osteoporosis. There really is a way to fill your home with symphonic sound from a gadget the size of a bread box."
Harvey is a believer in great products, great ideas, great men. He has surrounded himself over the years with iconoclasts and individualists such as financier Warren Buffett, retailing revolutionary Sam Walton, Billy Graham and even Ronald Reagan--a decision Harvey readily admits was a violation of a career-long refusal to socialize with political figures.
``I always felt that a newsman should keep a little airspace between himself and the newsmakers," he says. ``It's hard enough to be objective about people from a distance. It's utterly impossible if you call that person by his first name. But I was so appreciative of Ronald Reagan that I abandoned that reservation for the duration of his administrations. Our home in Phoenix is just across the golf course from where he and Nancy used to stay with her parents, where he would walk over to the Little Shop, the drug store counter at the Biltmore, and just be one of us. I never felt I had to be objective with Reagan. That great grin just said, `Everything's OK, don't worry.'
``I mentioned that to our current president, and he tried to get that grin, but every time he uses it, some media person erases it."
PAGE THREE! HEROES HAVE ALWAYS WON TOP billing on ``Paul Harvey News," especially heroes in uniform. Ever since 1946, when Harvey hosted ``Jobs for GI Joe," a phone-in employment service program on CBS Radio in Chicago, soldiers, firefighters and police officers have showered Harvey with awards and plaques as he has showcased their accomplishments.
To his critics, Harvey's knee-jerk support of men in uniform is of a piece with his rejection of the forces of modernity--a simplistic, boosterish approach that hearkens back to the era of American Babbitry, a Calvin Coolidge view of the world from the top down.
And Harvey wouldn't find much to disagree with in that analysis--older, simpler times were just better, he says. But there's more to his politics than mere hero worship. And as he ages, his views have evolved and the country has moved to the right, leaving Paul Harvey--once the definition of arch-conservative--smack in the middle of the road.
Cops can still do little wrong in Harvey's mind. That's in good part a legacy of the tragedy that struck 3-year-old Paul Aurandt (Harvey was his middle name until he moved to Chicago). His father was a police officer in Tulsa when he and the chief of police were hijacked and Harvey's father was killed by assailants who were never caught. ``I've never known a policeman who was paid enough money for what we expect them to do," Harvey says now.
But if his benign view of law enforcement is unblemished by time, Harvey's politics have softened considerably. In the '50s, he was an unapologetic McCarthyist until be broke with the Wisconsin senator over his hysteria. In the '60s, he proudly called himself a ``native-born American" who ``never left my country. It left me." In 1968, he came in a close second to Gen. Curtis LeMay in the race to be George Wallace's running mate on a third-party presidential ticket. Hardcore Harvey railed against homosexuality, left-wing radicals and black militants. (When a civil rights activist accused police of trying to ``get the Black Panthers," Harvey responded, ``I should hope so!")
But in 1970, he began his broadcast one day with ``Mr. President, I love you...but you're wrong," a harsh attack on Richard Nixon's war policies that triggered an avalanche of more than 24,000 letters and cries of outrage from veterans who considered Harvey a traitor to the cause. Some said Harvey's about-face was cynical, a personal decision driven by his wife's opposition to the war.
Over the years, Harvey would prove there was more to his evolution than family concerns. He became an advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights, and he criticized the Christian right for seeking to impose its views on others.
``Things get less black and white as we mature," he says now. ``I believe that men and women of honor seeking ultimate truth inevitably gravitate toward middle ground. I believe there is less left-right polarization now than at any time in our history."
Harvey still believes the United States has devolved since the 1960s, that education has diminished, along with morality and community. But he says he has grown ``less dogmatic." He considers Bill Clinton ``like a repentant drunk. They're the nicest guys in the world when they're trying to make up for their excesses." But Harvey also thinks the president is a smart, assiduous fellow who has done an excellent job--a conclusion he likely would not have permitted himself to make about a Democrat earlier in his life.
That said, Harvey remains true to the notion that the business of America is business. He laments the loss of the Mom and Pop pharmacy to a chain drug store in his suburb of River Forest, but says, ``Some truths are inexorable. Big fish eat little fish."
Harvey's wife Angel--a sight to behold in a canary suit with matching shoes and her blond hair teased into a sweeping bowl--is producer of the radio show and business manager of the couple's various projects. Over a lunch of calves' liver (``How would you like it done?" the waiter asks. Harvey: ``Do it. Done.") and Senegalese soup with mango chutney, the Harveys debate America's progress.
``Don't you think you'd like to go back to Smalltown USA with the little family-owned shops?" Angel asks.
``I'm glad we still enjoy it on reruns," Harvey quips.
PAGE FOUR! AFTER THEIR RITUAL lunch at the Tavern Club, atop the building from which he broadcasts, the Harveys return to the office, check in with their assistant and summon their chauffeur.
``Come on, little one," Paul Harvey says to his wife, and they step out into the sunshine. They'll be home by 2. Harvey plans a round of golf. Later on they'll watch some TV before turning in around nightfall. At 3 a.m., the alarm will sound, and the newsman will begin work on another edition of ``Paul Harvey News & Comment."
If all goes well, Harvey says, newspaper editors across the belly of the nation will have called in or faxed ``the kind of Main Street USA stories that Paul Harvey likes to use." Harvey will fire up his Selectric, scan the wires and pick out just the right item for his trademark closer. The rest is in the delivery.
``For what it's worth, Mark Hatterer of York, Pennsylvania, gave mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a dog. I said, Mr. Hatterer gave mouth-to- mouth resuscitation.... To a dog, after the dog had nearly drowned...in a septic tank. The dog was drowning in a septic tank when Mr. Hatterer rescued it. After a veterinary doctor pronounced the Scottish terrier out of danger, Mr. Hatterer said, `You know...I, I hope I don't ever have to do that again.'... Paaaul Harvey........ Gooood-DAY!"