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Saturday, February 28, 2009

RIP Paul Harvey

One of the great voices of authentic heartland America fell silent today. Paul Harvey was doing nationwide conservative talk radio for decades before anyone thought of it as conservative talk radio. Everybody recognizes his distinctive, quirky voice with the…….odd pauses and offbeat emphases, but his success was about far more than his distinctive diction.

Paul Harvey put news out there that no other outlet touched. His Paul Harvey News and Comment scoured the wires for random stuff–and ideologically inconvenient stuff– you just didn’t hear on the Big Three mainstream TV news, and crammed it all in to crisp five minute chunks, complete with terse commentary and the occasional wry thwack of sarcasm–and he still had time for the inevitable personalized pitches for Buicks and the Bose Acoustic Wave Radio. Here’s what he had to say about his advertisers:

“I can’t look down on the commercial sponsors of these broadcasts,” he told CBS in 1988. “Too often they have very, very important messages to put across. Without advertising in this country, my goodness, we’d still be in this country what Russia mostly still is: a nation of bearded cyclists with b.o.”

Zing. He was always like that. Paul Harvey invented blogging; he just did his blogging on the radio.

His other program was the famous two-minute cliffhanger, “The Rest of the Story”. What a great and simple concept. The title itself gives away the game: the news you hear is only a scratch on the surface of reality, which has a roomy, spacious Buick Roadmaster trunk full of connections and ironies the network talking heads only hint at. The media isn’t giving you enough of the story, Paul told us, which is something we’d all suspected all along: more is going on out there than they let on.

His radio show wasn’t particularly ideological–you could tell he leaned right but it was mainly through the choice of stories and headlines he picked out. He also had a syndicated column back in the day that my state paper carried, and he was a rock-ribbed Middle American (Tulsa native, in fact) social and fiscal conservative with a heart of gold, a deep love of country, and no illusions about the stakes of foreign policy. He was a Reaganesque thinker, as well as a Reaganesque communicator.

CHICAGO – Paul Harvey, the news commentator and talk-radio pioneer whose staccato style made him one of the nation's most familiar voices, died Saturday in Arizona, according to ABC Radio Networks. He was 90.

Harvey died surrounded by family at a hospital in Phoenix, where he had a winter home, said Louis Adams, a spokesman for ABC Radio Networks, where Harvey worked for more than 50 years. No cause of death was immediately available.

Harvey had been forced off the air for several months in 2001 because of a virus that weakened a vocal cord. But he returned to work in Chicago and was still active as he passed his 90th birthday. His death comes less than a year after that of his wife and longtime producer, Lynne.

"My father and mother created from thin air what one day became radio and television news," Paul Harvey Jr. said in a statement. "So in the past year, an industry has lost its godparents and today millions have lost a friend."

Known for his resonant voice and trademark delivery of "The Rest of the Story," Harvey had been heard nationally since 1951, when he began his "News and Comment" for ABC Radio Networks.

He became a heartland icon, delivering news and commentary with a distinctive Midwestern flavor. "Stand by for news!" he told his listeners. He was credited with inventing or popularizing terms such as "skyjacker," "Reaganomics" and "guesstimate."

"Paul Harvey was one of the most gifted and beloved broadcasters in our nation's history," ABC Radio Networks President Jim Robinson said in a statement. "We will miss our dear friend tremendously and are grateful for the many years we were so fortunate to have known him."

In 2005, Harvey was one of 14 notables chosen as recipients of the presidential Medal of Freedom. He also was an inductee in the Radio Hall of Fame, as was Lynne.

Former President George W. Bush remembered Harvey as a "friendly and familiar voice in the lives of millions of Americans."

"His commentary entertained, enlightened, and informed," Bush said in a statement. "Laura and I are pleased to have known this fine man, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family."

Harvey composed his twice-daily news commentaries from a downtown Chicago office near Lake Michigan.

Rising at 3:30 each morning, he ate a bowl of oatmeal, then combed the news wires and spoke with editors across the country in search of succinct tales of American life for his program.

At the peak of his career, Harvey reached more than 24 million listeners on more than 1,200 radio stations and charged $30,000 to give a speech. His syndicated column was carried by 300 newspapers.

His fans identified with his plainspoken political commentary, but critics called him an out-of-touch conservative. He was an early supporter of the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy and a longtime backer of the Vietnam War.

Perhaps Harvey's most famous broadcast came in 1970, when he abandoned that stance, announcing his opposition to President Nixon's expansion of the war and urging him to get out completely.

"Mr. President, I love you ... but you're wrong," Harvey said, shocking his faithful listeners and drawing a barrage of letters and phone calls, including one from the White House.

In 1976, Harvey began broadcasting his anecdotal descriptions of the lives of famous people. "The Rest of the Story" started chronologically, with the person's identity revealed at the end. The stories were an attempt to capture "the heartbeats behind the headlines." Much of the research and writing was done by his son, Paul Jr.

Harvey also blended news with advertising, a line he said he crossed only for products he trusted.

In 2000, at age 82, he signed a new 10-year contract with ABC Radio Networks.

Harvey was born Paul Harvey Aurandt in Tulsa, Okla. His father, a police officer, was killed when he was a toddler. A high school teacher took note of his distinctive voice and launched him on a broadcast career.

While working at St. Louis radio station KXOK, he met Washington University graduate student Lynne Cooper. He proposed on their first date (she said "no") and always called her "Angel." They were married in 1940 and had a son, Paul Jr.

They worked closely together on his shows, and he often credited his success to her influence. She was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1997, seven years after her husband was. She died in May 2008.

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