Paul Harvey Remembered

A reporter and country recall the radio legend

Paul Harvey died this weekend.

When I heard the news, it blew me back in my chair.  Not only was he just one of those people who I thought would always be there, he was one of my heroes.

An entire generation has now probably grown up with little knowledge about Paul Harvey.  I can truly say to all of you, you don’t know what you missed.  Before there was an internet, or Facebook, or email, or iTunes, or really even television as we know it, he was, without question, the most listened-to person in the world.    He was heard on 1200 radio stations, via the ABC Radio network, and some of those stations joining the network, just to be able to send out his broadcasts; 400 more outlets, via Armed Services Radio.

Paul Harvey was not just the most listened to voice in America. He WAS the voice of America.  You see, we often forget, that this is a nation which doesn’t just live in Chicago, and New York, and Los Angeles.  By and large, we are a nation which lives in Decatur, and Davenport, and Paducah.  Millions live in wonderful places like Danville, Illinois, and Lexington, Nebraska, and Artesia, New Mexico.  Millions more in tiny communities like DeSoto, Missouri,  Prairie City, Oregon, and St. Albans, Vermont. 

And Paul Harvey mattered to them. 

He came out of their radios every morning and every day during the noon hour.  He told them what was going on in Washington, but he also told them what was going on in towns just like theirs.  He celebrated 50th anniversaries, and outrageous bumper stickers, and little old ladies who thwarted crimes.  Sure he would tell you about Congress.  But also he’d remember a town council meeting in Ellsworth, Maine.

And could he ever write!  “Hello, Americans, this is Paul Harvey.  Stand by...for NEWS!”  Paul Harvey could get to the heart of an idea quicker than anyone else in our business.  “For country superstar Crystal Gayle, Labor Day...will be ... labor day!”  One sentence, to say what the rest of us said in 20 seconds of copy. 

My friend Dick Helton, in our days at WBBM radio, used to say the ultimate Paul Harvey story was:  “John Smith of Cincinatti, Ohio, decided to have a cigarette before bed last night.  He was 62.”

I remember, growing up in Oklahoma, seeing his commentaries on television.  One, especially, when I was 12 years old, extolled the virtues of a young man who dreamed of flying.  The last line:  “And tomorrow, that young man, will set foot....upon....the Moon.”

What does it say to you that I can still quote it?

We lived in the same place, the two of us, here in Chicago, but I only saw him twice.  The first was during my very first visit to Chicago, while still in college, to attend the National Association of Broadcasters convention at McCormick Place.  Paul Harvey was the keynote speaker.  For me, it was like seeing Elvis.  Later, I actually got to stand in the control room of his fourth floor studios at Michigan and Wacker, and watched him do his program, during the predawn hours on a day in the early eighties.  If I had gotten to watch Monet paint, I could not have been more excited.

You will see some accounts of the life of Paul Harvey, which will call him a “conservative broadcaster.”  I don’t think that’s accurate, or fair.  He spoke from the heart of middle America.  When they waved the flag for the boys in Vietnam, he did too.  When they decided they had had enough, it was Mr. Harvey who told Richard Nixon, via his giant audience, that it was time to bring those boys home. 

It was one of the reasons he did his shows from Chicago.  He had his finger on the pulse of the Americans at the feed store, and the Wal-Mart, and the Office Max.  If Paul Harvey said it, it was Representative government speaking, in its truest form.  All of those folks in his audience didn’t have their own shows.  So he spoke for them.  Those clueless guys in Washington?  The ones who spent millions on focus groups?  All they really needed all those years...was a radio.

He started his national broadcasts in 1951.  And except for brief periods when he was on vacation, or under the weather, he didn’t stop. 

Until now.

Paul Harvey left us this weekend.  And personally, and professionally, a piece of me goes with him.  He was living history.  And he was a large part of the heart and soul of our industry.

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