The folksy radio broadcaster who spoke to the heartland
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
Paul Harvey was America’s most listened-to radio broadcaster, with an audience of some 25 million people on more than 1,200 stations nationwide. Known for his staccato delivery, his taste for homespun news, and his conservative views, he spent more than 50 years connecting with what he called a “vast, decent, middle-income, middle-IQ audience.” In 1969, he tied for second place with Walter Cronkite in a Gallup poll to determine the most admired men in the country. He died last week of unspecified causes.
Born Paul Harvey Aurandt in Tulsa, he was “the descendant of five generations of Baptist ministers,” said the Chicago Sun-Times. Fascinated by radio as a child, he got his first job at 15 when a high
school teacher brought him to local station KVOO-AM and declared, “This boy needs to be on the radio.” Starting as a gofer, Harvey worked for several stations. After serving in World War II, he returned to broadcasting in 1944. “After President Franklin Roosevelt died, he delivered a famous obituary beginning, ‘A great tree has fallen.’”
Harvey settled in Chicago, where he commenced a routine for his five- and 15-minute newscasts that began at 3:30 a.m. and never varied, said the Chicago Tribune: “Brush teeth, shower, shave, get dressed, eat oatmeal, get into car, and drive downtown,” always in jacket and tie. In his studio, high above Michigan Avenue, he would pore over wire-service reports, letters from listeners, and scores of newspapers, then pound out his scripts with a typewriter and yellow copy paper. “Hello, Americans,” he’d begin. “This is Paul Harvey! Stand byyy for newwws!” He regaled listeners with human-interest tidbits dramatized by pauses long enough, one colleague said, to “drive a truck through.” A typical example: “New York City. Last year. 8,064 people bitten by dogs. 1,587 people bitten [pause] by people.” Harvey invented or popularized such catchphrases as “guesstimate,” “Reaganomics,” and “skyjacker,” and he’d end each broadcast with, “Paul Harvey. [pause] Good day!”
“For millions, Paul Harvey in the morning or at noon was as much a part of daily routine as morning coffee,” said The Washington Post. Listeners loved his offbeat departments, among them “The Rest of the Story,” which featured vignettes with twist endings, such as the one about “the 13-year-old boy who received a cash gift from President Roosevelt”—that boy, we find out later, was Fidel Castro. “One of radio’s most effective pitchmen, he kept sponsors for decades, a tribute to his uncanny ability to inspire trust in his listeners.”
Harvey regularly inveighed against big government, forced busing, and welfare cheats, said the Los Angeles Times, while praising the flag, God, and rugged individualism. “I have never pretended to objectivity,” he acknowledged. In the 1950s he lauded Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusades; during the countercultural 1960s, he bemoaned “homosexuality, left-wing radicals, and black militants,” saying that he felt like “a displaced person” in his own country. But Harvey was no doctrinaire conservative. He supported the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights, and in 1970 “shocked many of his listeners with his most famous broadcast. In the wake of Richard Nixon’s expansion of the Vietnam War, Harvey said, ‘Mr. President, I love you, but you’re wrong.’” His pronouncement yielded 24,000 outraged letters and thousands of phone calls—including one from the White House.
Harvey, whose last broadcast was in January, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. He preferred to leave the discussion of his legacy to others. “What makes Paul Harvey tick?” he once asked rhetorically. “That question is better asked of the listeners. If I thought too much about it, it might be self-defeating.” His wife of 68 years and longtime producer, Lynne, died last year.
Continue reading for free
We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.
Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.