“Hello, Americans. This is Paul Harvey. Stand by for . . . news!”
His voice was arguably the most recognized in the history of radio. His broadcasting career lasted over three quarters of a century, from his days as a high-school intern at KVOO in his native Tulsa, Oklahoma, until 2009. Yet few of the scores of millions who listened to him for decades ever heard his real voice. The slight twang and flatness of his broadcast voice were vintage Oklahoma, but in person and in television and radio interviews, Paul Harvey let his high, almost nasal, on-air voice drop down into its normal mellifluous baritone.
Many a later announcer would have given his left hand to come by the deep registers of Harvey’s conversational voice naturally, but Harvey was a product of early AM radio, and a broadcast voice in an upper register stood a better chance of cutting through the frequent static. By the time technology cleared up the airwaves, Harvey’s peculiar intonation was as much a part of his persona as was his use of his middle name as his last.
Paul Harvey Aurandt was born in Tulsa on September 4, 1918, and he died in Phoenix, Arizona, on February 28 of this year. But most of his life in radio was spent in Chicago, where he moved in June 1944 at the insistence of his wife, Lynne. A St. Louis socialite who was close to three years older than her husband, “Angel” had big dreams for the man who proposed to her on the very day they met. More than one profile of Harvey through the years referred to Angel as his Col. Tom Parker. The closest many of his listeners got to hearing Harvey’s off-air voice came on July 19, 2008, his first day back at the microphone after Angel’s death that May: “The loneliest days of my loneliest winter are still very much with me. . . . Paul Harvey News will not be the same as when he had Angel’s 24-hour perspective. I will do my best with what remains, but it will be something less.”
Harvey developed most of his catchphrases in his first year or two at WENR, the ABC affiliate in Chicago: “For what it’s worth,” he would begin the final story of almost every broadcast; “Now here is a strange” would precede the day’s oddest news; “And now you know . . . the rest of the story.” Thirty years after he began using the latter, Harvey debuted The Rest of the Story as a separate afternoon broadcast in 1976. The idea, like the decision to take Paul Harvey News & Comment national in 1951, was Angel’s, and Paul Harvey, Jr., the couple’s only child, did most of the research and writing for the broadcasts, which featured little-known or long-forgotten episodes in history.
Harvey’s staccato style gave a sense of urgency to his news broadcasts, yet each was exquisitely paced, down to the second. His mixture of commentary with news is said to have inspired a later generation of conservative talk-show hosts; but never having to fumble for words, pause to collect his thoughts, or waste time until a scheduled commercial break meant that Harvey often delivered more of substance in his 15-minute midday broadcast (and sometimes in his 5-minute morning one) than Rush Limbaugh does in a three-hour show.
Some rank-and-file Republicans today are looking to Limbaugh to provide the leadership their party is lacking, but 40 years ago, Paul Harvey had earned the title “The Voice of the Silent Majority.” Though generally portrayed in obituaries as a loyal Republican, Harvey always maintained an independent streak that testified to his Oklahoma roots. Most famously, he reversed course on the Vietnam War, of which he had been a staunch supporter. Addressing President Nixon in an open letter on his May 1, 1970, midday broadcast, Harvey declared, “Mr. President, I love you . . . but you’re wrong.”
Harvey cheered on Pat Buchanan’s insurgency against President George H.W. Bush in 1992 and not only supported George Wallace’s campaign for president in 1968 but would have accepted the vice-presidential nomination if Wallace hadn’t offered it in the end to Gen. Curtis LeMay. (Years later, Harvey gave some unsolicited advice to Gen. Colin Powell, noting that LeMay “said yes to the vice presidency, and disappeared, and was never heard from again.”)
In his broadcast tribute to Angel in 2008, Harvey reflected that “The years don’t always add wisdom, but they always add perspective.” His own journey proved him at least half right. He boosted George W. Bush’s war in Iraq; his love for animals took him beyond fundraising for the Humane Society into support for PETA; he adopted a Goldwater-style libertarian stand on abortion; and in the last decade of his life, a longtime flirtation with Seventh-Day Adventism apparently culminated in conversion to this peculiarly American religion.
Yet his idiosyncrasies were as much a part of what made him an American icon as was his ability to connect with everyone from farmers who would stop their tractors in the field at noon to corporate executives who would listen to his broadcast while eating lunch at their desks. Till the end, his voice was heard by 22 million people per week—a number that Rush Limbaugh only briefly approached in 2003. His passing marks the end of an era in radio—and of a certain independent streak in the American character.