Paul Harvey: A Legend Looks Back (11/02/06)
By Joe Howard, Editor-In-Chief
His is the most recognizable voice in all of radio. Throughout a career that has spanned more than 70 years ó and still counting ó Paul Harveyís trademark style and uncanny ability to convey personal warmth to an audience of millions has made him one of Americaís most beloved personalities.
When considering interview subjects for this special issue of Radio Ink, his was the first name that came to mind. Indeed, there are precious few people whose memories go back as far, or whose contributions have meant as much to radio. Incredibly, Harvey has been involved in radio for almost 75 years, nearly three-quarters of the time covered in this centennial edition.
Harvey wakes up when most of his listeners are still lost in blissful slumber to begin preparing his daily Paul Harvey News and Comment, now in its 55th year. Meanwhile, the combination of son Paul Harvey Jrís expert writing with the elderís delivery ó lively when itís appropriate, somber when it isnít ó has endeared The Rest of The Story, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year, to listeners nationwide. All told, Paul Harvey is heard on more than 1,000 stations by an estimated 25 million people each day.
While his place in the annals of radio history has been secure for years, Harvey explained in this rare interview that his drive and desire to get behind the mic is just as strong as ever. In fact, listeners concerned that the broadcasting legend may be looking to slow down neednít worry; Harvey says he has yet to find anything heíd rather do than wake up and take to the nationís airwaves each day. And millions of radio listeners are better for it.
RADIOINK: What are the key developments or events that have signaled great change in radio throughout your years in the business?
PAUL HARVEY: When I started at KVOO in Tulsa, a person wasnít hired as a newsman or a news writer or a news commentator or a news anything ó we just did everything: announcing and selling and sweeping out at night and helping in any way we could.
I was still in high school. These were the rip-and-read days ó you tore a story off the AP or UPI or INS printer and you were allowed to call yourself a news reporter. You started a beat, and any free time was spent at the local city hall. After you got enough miles on you to accumulate a degree of confidence on the part of your employers and the fraternity in general, you were allowed to call yourself a news analyst. These were very specific differentials: You were hired as a reporter and advanced to analyst. Then, when you became sufficiently venerated, you were allowed to call yourself a commentator and actually comment on the news ó but that was a very rare privilege reserved for a very few other commentators.
Today, we take youngsters out of journalism school, or with no schooling at all, put them on the air, and between recordings let them take callers and comment on everything imaginable. That has diminished the importance of this phenomenal opportunity to enlighten. That would be the number one change. From my own perspective, that change has been less than desirable.
However, when Iím at a speaking engagement, there is usually a local beat-pounding reporter whose first question is: How can we do our jobs better? Now thatís a wholesome sign. A few years ago, we overthrew the United States government, for better or worse, and the generation that was in journalism school then got a better understanding of the awesomeness of that sharp pencil that we wield. They became more appreciative of their responsibility. That canít be anything but good.
The other change? I like Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys better than some of todayís music.
RI: What aspect of the news business has improved since you started?
PH: The degree of responsibility that is reflected in our newsrooms now is entirely salutary. In those old rip-and-read days, when we tore a piece of paper off a machine and announced that the king of England had abdicated, we had nothing to contribute to that story. Today, in a similar situation, we would have much perspective to contribute.
RI: Have you learned any lessons over the years that have guided you to be successful in radio? Has the medium itself matured?
PH: There is a constant maturing of the medium itself, which will leave one behind if he isnít careful. In numbers and political influence of course, radio is monumental compared to how minuscule it was in the beginning. There was nothing else in those days; no alternative. Newspapers were so limited and limiting.
Itís interesting to realize each generation of enhancement. When radio went network, local stations were written off as insignificant, yet local stations became more significant, not less. The newspapers feared for their very lives when we began to do a professional job of covering news, yet radio helped enhance interest in news and subsequently in newspaper subscriptions. When television threatened radio, I did not panic, realizing that each in its time somehow has built upon the other. In the very early days of ABC, it was radio that paid for the development of the fledgling television business, until one day the tail was wagging the dog. Doesnít this kind of evolution have parallels in every business?
In retrospect, it is so obvious that tomorrow always has been better than today, without any exception. And yet, when weíre in the midst of a significant transition, as we are now, as radio moves into the celestial realm, weíre not able to see the benefits.
RI: Is emerging media just another step in the journey for radio, or are the current threats more dangerous than the previous ones?
PH: Iím less than enthusiastic about the Internet because of the potential for misuse. It seems frighteningly undisciplined right now. But I am disinclined to criticize any status quo if I canít suggest an improvement, and Iím not sure to whom I would want to allow censorship or constraint or manipulation of the new media.
RI: What discipline have you followed to keep you on the straight and narrow over the years?
PH: I pray a lot. I lean very heavily on a search for guidance beyond my own intellect.
RI: Were there any pieces of advice or people who helped you along the way?
PH: There have been so many. The first that comes to mind is a school teacher in Tulsa Central High School, dear Isabel Ronan. She took me by the hand and marched me down to KBOO, and said this young man ought to be on the radio. She just wouldnít accept no. So I did my school chores in the daytime and hung around the radio station so many hours at night that they finally put me on the payroll to limit those hours. The first income was negligible, but I thought I was the king of the world.
RI: What did they have you doing?
PH: As I said, we did everything, from announcing Bob Wills records and local remotes to selling to sweeping out at night. We would snatch an interview with any individual with any degree of personal interest who came through town. We kept busy with a lot of local activity. It was a very, very good way to grow up in radio; on a small station we learned onsite so much faster, and we learned so many things that they just canít teach in journalism school.
RI: Do you think that kind of beginning to a radio career is possible today ó just marching into a station and learning the ropes?
PH: Yes. The smaller the station, the better. Of course some of our smaller stations are automated now, so except for those, I think itís a good beginning. This is not to disparage our journalism schools; we have some good ones, but for anybody as impatient as myself, the shortcut is practical, onsite experience.
RI: Do you believe that radio is as important to people as it was 50 years ago, or do people take it for granted?
PH: I think radioís importance has been proportionately diminished by television and Internet. I say proportionately because we still have numerically more listeners than ever. The good networks, with a multiplicity of loyal stations, are still powerful as a medium. I am disappointed to see television devoting more than 50 percent of its content to commercials. I am disappointed to see some radio stations devoting more than 70 percent of their content to commercials. That insults the audience. I understand the dollars and cents involved in this multiplicity of dozens and dozens of stations in a single town, so I donít know what to do about it. Inevitably, theyíre going to sacrifice program content to survive. Maybe theyíll reach a saturation point that will be self-limiting. Weíll have to see.
RI: There are those in the industry who would debate you on your 70 percent statistic. With Clear Channelís Less Is More, theyíre actually cutting back on inventory.
PH: I understand Clear Channel is trying to do some interesting adventure. Theyíre trying to do some commercials just seconds or milliseconds long, so theyíll be undetected but influential. That will be an interesting experiment to watch.
RI: Take me through the preparation process for News and Comment and The Rest of the Story. How does it all come together every day?
PH: I get up at 3 a.m. and Iím at my desk by 3:30. I have a little oatmeal on the fly, and start sifting through overnight sources and rough out a first broadcast that leaves here 7:30 Chicago time, 6:30 in the east. I get up every morning with enthusiasm. I canít wait to gobble my oatmeal and get in the car and get down to Michigan and Wacker and see what foolish and/or heroic things hundreds of millions of people have been doing all night so Iíll have something to talk about.
RI: What was the hardest story you had to cover?
PH: The one that got the most response was when FDR died. I wrote a broadcast called ďA Great Tree has Fallen and Left an Empty Place Against the Sky.Ē It was told from the point of view of FDRís dog, his little Scotty named Fala. I was on just one station in those days in Chicago, yet it was an avalanche. I forget the thousands of pieces of mail in the next three days, but it was unprecedented for any one station to get that much mail on one broadcast. Most of it was people wanting copies; a lot of it was just people sharing our tears.
The most important story I ever did from a personal point of view was the birth of my son, which was not an easy birth. There were days when his motherís prospects were marginal, so that was a critical experience personally.
I guess the most important story that any of us ever covered in my tenure was World War II. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ernie Pyle wrote in his own column, toward the end of that grueling war: ďIf I Ö saw one more dead man, I would go off my nut.Ē
RI: Where did the idea for The Rest of the Story come from?
PH: I would tell a news story and then the story behind the story, and I would conclude with ďAnd now you know the rest of the story.Ē It was just a part of a regular quarter-hour broadcast, and it became acknowledged. I would go out on a speaking engagement in Waxahachie or Kokomo or Kalamazoo and find something of local interest, develop it into an OíHenry-type narrative with a surprising finish, and say ďnow you know the rest of the story.Ē Well, my son Paul Jr. liked the idea so much that he wanted to do a series. I couldnít possibly afford any more time than my schedule demands for the regular broadcasts, so he took on the writing, and he has done a wonderfully diligent job of research and writing. Iím so proud of the way he does that. Weíve had storytellers in radio who got careless with the truth toward the end of their tenure, and embarrassed themselves. He has been so meticulous, he demands two independent sources for everything he uses ó three in sensitive subjects. This means that a lot of good scripts have to go in the wastebasket, but he will not take a chance on jeopardizing his veracity or the reputation of the series. Itís developed a following thatís beginning to exceed the news itself in interest. That little Rest of the Story five minutes is wagging the dog. The Rest of the Story, like Robert Ripleyís Believe it or Not, will probably outlast its originator.
RI: Any thoughts about retiring, or are you planning to keep plugging away?
PH: I would love to retire. I would love to change the pace and have more family time, if I could just find something I would rather do. I canít find it. I am so disciplined to sit at this typewriter and paint pictures all morning, I canít find anything more fun. Dr. Will Mayo had a credo that he lived by: Work is the most fun of all. Iíve done it for such a long time that I donít think I could be retrained, even if I played golf like my son plays golf. I donít think I could enjoy that day after day after day. I see contemporaries going to Florida and getting a condo where they donít have a lawn to mow, and they imagine a lifetime of nothingness. They end up talking old, thinking old, walking old, and practicing to be dead. I donít know anything to do but to keep on keeping on.
RI: When you look back on your career, is there one achievement that youíre most proud of?
PH: Getting the right girl to say ďI doĒ!
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