The ad of the night during the Super Bowl was the Ram Trucks ad featuring radio commentator Paul Harvey. The audio was taken from a speech Harvey gave at the national convention of the Future Farmers of America in 1978. (If you missed it, you can see it or read the text here—and ponder the notion that the best ad on TV last night was actually a radio commentary.) To people of a certain age, Harvey’s voice, with its unique inflections, was instantly recognizable. Younger viewers likely wondered: who is this man and why is he speaking so strangely? After Harvey’s death in 2009, I wrote about him, and it seems like a good idea to repeat it today, with a couple of slight edits.
Harvey’s 15-minute noontime news broadcast has been a radio fixture across the country for over half a century. He also did a five-minute morning broadcast, and since 1976, a feature called “The Rest of the Story.” He might be the last of the broadcasting generation to come of age in World War II, a generation that once included Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and others. Although he’s rarely mentioned in the first rank of radio legends, his shows are appointment radio heard by millions every day.
You could tell he was an old-timer from that cadence of his. Go ahead, read this aloud right now like he would: “Hello Americans, this is Paul Harvey . . . stand by for news!” As a radio listener, I heard Harvey practically from day one. He was based at ABC in Chicago, and WLS ran his commentaries well into the 1970s. One morning somebody (maybe Charlie Van Dyke, during his early-70s term in morning drive) remarked that the upcoming edition of Paul Harvey News would be a landmark in the history of radio because he wouldn’t end it with his signature “Good day.” And sure enough, at the close of the five-minute broadcast, Harvey said, with a little extra pause and a special inflection, “Paul Harvey . . . good night?” I’d love to know the whole story—why he did it, if somebody put him up to it, or whether I hallucinated the whole thing.
After I became a regular Harvey listener again in the 80s (when my station picked up the rights to his broadcasts), I made an oddball connection between Harvey and Rolling Stone magazine, which I had begun reading regularly at the same time: Despite coming from opposite sides of the political and cultural spectrum, neither seemed as good when consumed regularly as they did in small, scattered doses. Although Harvey, as an old-school news reporter, tried to remain at a respectful journalistic distance from his subjects, he venerated Ronald Reagan, who embodied Harvey’s own vision of America perfectly. I later learned that Harvey had supported Joe McCarthy, and he stuck by Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War until 1970. I once wrote him a letter complaining about a lengthy broadcast in the closing days of the 1992 presidential campaign in which he used the anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis to suggest that the election of Bill Clinton would be an intolerable risk to American security. His sponsors included Wal-Mart and Amway.
In recent years, Harvey’s America became openly Republican: Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, and Mike Huckabee substituted for him, as did former White House Press Secretary and Fox News anchor Tony Snow. [After Harvey’s death, Huckabee became his permanent replacement.] Yet Paul Harvey News remains the most popular single program in American radio. I don’t want to believe that means American radio listeners prefer the immigrant-bashing, history-distorting, faith-based nonsense peddled by Republican slicksters to more sensible, reality-based views of the world. I’d prefer to think it means that Americans think their country is still a place where Boy Scouts help little old ladies across the street, ruggedly independent shopkeepers fly the flag outside their storefronts, and good Samaritans are everywhere. . . .
As a young broadcaster in the early 1940s, Paul Harvey was a newsman at a station in Kalamazoo, Michigan. There, he worked alongside an aspiring sportscaster from St. Louis who was gaining experience in the provinces in hopes of landing a job in his hometown. The sportscaster’s name: Harry Caray. It’s a wonder the building was big enough to hold the talent and aspirations of both, giants-in-the-making who would eventually stand astride the world of broadcasting, and whose legacies remind us now that we shall never see their like again.