Paul Harvey: The End of the Story

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Chris Walker / Chicago Tribune / MCT / Landov

Broadcasting legend Paul Harvey died Saturday, Feb. 28, 2009, at 90 in a Phoenix hospital

"This is Paul Harvey." That clarion Midwestern voice was its own time machine; it carried listeners back to radio days of yore, when a distinctive vocal performance was as important as good looks are in TV news today. The opinions Harvey expressed were old-fashioned as well: politically and socially conservative, the musings of a grandpa who's seen it all — or, as he put it, "In times like these, it helps to recall that there have always been times like these." It is hardly an exaggeration to say that when Harvey died at 90, on Saturday, at his winter home in Phoenix, he took the whole history of radio with him.

Born before the first commercial radio stations went on the air, Harvey fashioned a personality and career that spanned the medium's Golden Age, its postwar retreat into a pop jukebox and its later resurgence as the place for news and talk — exactly what Harvey did for more than 75 years. He spoke with clarion clarity, his voice an elocution teacher's pride, easily parodied but intimate, powerful and oh-so-precise. It was "nee-ews," never the lazy "nooze," and "reck-ord," not "reckerd." For emphasis, he'd add a vowel to a word with abutting consonants ("web-a-site"). Many of his fans were of his generation, but a few young'uns had to be tuning in: his broadcasts reached some 12 million weekly listeners on 1,200 radio stations and 400 Armed Forces Network affiliates. Nor did you have to agree with Harvey to find him a radio entertainer of the highest quality. (Read TIME's "Top 10 iPhone Applications," including Pandora's Internet Radio.)

Paul Harvey Aurandt was born in Tulsa, Okla., in 1918; his father was shot and killed by robbers when Paul was 3. As a kid, he built a radio set to receive distant magic signals, and in high school, a teacher nudged him into a radio booth at local station KVOO. Jobs in Salina, Kans., Oklahoma City and Honolulu followed just before Pearl Harbor brought him to Chicago in 1944. He stayed there, hosting a Jobs for G.I. Joe program, adding his signature phrase "the rest of the story" the following year. He got his own show, on WENR, with his wife Lynne, another radio pioneer, serving as producer and co-writer. In 1951 he joined the ABC network with Paul Harvey News and Comment, a title that stuck for 58 years. Nine years ago, ABC re-upped Harvey with a 10-year, $100 million contract.

A salesman for himself and his vision of the American dream, he was also a master peddler of many products, whose makers were as loyal to Harvey as his listeners were. A skit from the 1984-85 season of Saturday Night Live had Harvey (played by Rich Hall) compulsively peppering his news items with sponsor names. The man remained unapologetic. "Some days," he told Larry King in 1988, "the best news in the broadcast is the commercial. You can keep your natural teeth all your natural life! There is a glove that doesn't wear out! There is a car battery that keeps its promises! That's good news! And I would use those things on the air if they were not in the body of the commercial." The finest huckster is the one who has first sold himself on the product.

In his last years, Harvey's resonance wavered a bit; an occasional vocal crack gave a whimsical tone to the music of his script. But his métier never changed. It remained a mix of headlines, mild fulminations ("Americans, do not protest bone-marrow stem-cell transplants") and lighter-side anecdotes. "Doctors have removed a kidney stone the size of a coconut," he said in late January, adding with a little startle, "seven inches-a across!" He could tut-tut with a smile: "Have you noticed," he asked just before this year's Super Bowl, "some players with hair that sticks from under their helmets?" And he respected his elders, sending best wishes to long-married couples: "Agnes and John Caroline in Lavalette, N.J., are 71 years along the way to forever together."

Such was his authority, among the skeptical and gullible alike, that minor industries sprang up around him. A book version of The Rest of the Story, first published in 1977, hit its 18th printing in four years. And on the Internet, you'll find 65,000 links to what is known as the Paul Harvey riddle: "What is greater than God, more evil than the devil? The poor have it, the rich don't need it. And if you eat it, you'll die." There is no evidence that Harvey ever read this on the air, but it's just the kind of whimsical poser that, because his name was attached to it, attracted a zillion Googlers. He sold concepts too. (Answer to the riddle: nothing.)

The rosy sentimentalist was also a fretful conservative; he backed Joe McCarthy's search for imaginary communists in the State Department. But sometimes he just got fed up, reversing himself on the Vietnam War, telling Richard Nixon, "Mr. President, I love you, but you're wrong." In 2005 he suggested that the U.S. should have used nuclear weapons in both Iraq and Afghanistan; yet as casualties mounted in Iraq, he showed impatience, frustration, a hint that he felt betrayed by the policy he'd supported.

A month ago, Harvey knocked Nancy Pelosi because she "rubber-stamped" the stimulus package. He called on Congress to do its job and not "sit on the economic skillet and let the pork sizzle." This was mild stuff compared with a joke Harvey passed along to his listeners in September 2007 about an imaginary meeting of David Petraeus and Chelsea Clinton. The President's daughter asks the general if he's afraid of anything, and Harvey gives this reply: "I am afraid of three things. I am afraid of Osama, and I am afraid of Obama, and, Ms. Clinton, I am afraid of yo' mama. Heh heh heh. Paul Harvey: Good day!"

It was a similar piece of Harvey hokum that led Keith Olbermann to apostrophize, "Probably time for you to give us your final 'Good day!' " But Harvey was no quitter. He reduced his workload to a few broadcasts a week (his son Paul Jr., a longtime writer for the show, was a frequent guest host), but he would not give up the gig after a bout of pneumonia, or his 90th birthday, or even Lynne's death, in 2007, after 67 years of marriage. "Retiring," he said, "is just practicing up to be dead. That doesn't take any practice." He was still broadcasting the week before he died.

Less a maker of news than a conduit for popular sentiment about the news, Harvey told King, "I don't think of myself as a profound journalist. I think of myself as a professional parade watcher who can't wait to get out of bed every morning and rush down to the Teletypes and pan for gold."

Teletypes, computer keys and maybe radio itself should go quiet for a moment to honor the man who for three-quarters of a century watched the parade and, strutting and smiling, helped lead it.

Read TIME's Report: "Learning to Love Radio Again."