04 March 2009

Paul Harvey

News of the death of broadcaster Paul Harvey makes me homesick for a kind of radio and a kind of America with which, paradoxically, I’ve never felt completely at home: unrefined, corny, and conservative in a way that for all its benevolence and restraint is also complicit with some of the worst excesses of the 20th century. In short, everything I’ve tried to get away from since I was 18. Harvey was a voice for the Silent Majority, and just as his Birch Society brand of politics enabled McCarthyism and other Cold War crimes, so his broadcasting — with its seamless combination of news, opinion, and advertising — pointed the way to the rise of talk radio.

His style wasn’t merely distinctive, it was odd, with its sometimes herky-jerky cadences, its somehow tinny baritone, and those unpredictable … pauses and … OUTBURSTS?! For many of us, he was a figure of fun. A friend from school used to insist that Harvey’s program couldn’t be understood properly unless one were high.

One day at CBS, someone made a joke at Harvey’s expense, and Dan Rather wheeled on the joker. “Do you have any idea how many people listen to him?” Dan said. He had a point. Especially in a democracy, the will of the people must be respected, and Harvey earned and kept the loyalty of millions. Dan had to give the guy credit, even if he did work for ABC.

To some degree, the men were kindred spirits. Both were Baptists of modest origins, and champions of the everyday American; they considered soldiers and cops heroes just for wearing a uniform, and they sought out news stories that reinforced this attitude. Both worked hard to keep character in their language, Harvey through coined words (among others, “guesstimate” and “Reaganomics” are of his own invention) and Dan through folksy metaphors known as “Ratherisms.” And both believed passionately in the power of radio.

They grew up in an era when radio’s dominance seemed unassailable, and because there was so little else — no television, no Internet — radio’s impact was clearer to appreciate. By listening to a disembodied voice, thousands of miles away, a boy could be transported; he could take part in heroic struggles; he could share a joke or a song with people he’d never met. Radio was like a train whistle in the night, an invitation to explore. I saw that, every day when Dan sat at the microphone on my desk and broadcast his radio report, he became that boy in the dark again. Even as the corporate geniuses of CBS whittled away at our air time, Dan wouldn’t relinquish the program. So long as he had radio, he maintained his connection to the past, and the chance that he might inspire some other kid, as Murrow had inspired him.

At his best, Paul Harvey was a newspaper columnist who happened to publish his work on the air. Though he called himself a newsman, he was one mainly in the sense that William Safire was: gathering, rather than reporting the news, then commenting on it. He did his own writing, and he managed to achieve perfect clippability: the telling of a story in such a way that the reader (or listener) wants to clip it and send it to a friend, or tape it to the refrigerator door.

By linking his program to advertising and incorporating the advertisement into the body of the report (something Dan would disapprove of), Harvey did very well for himself, and people noticed. This kind of radio could be hugely profitable: just a guy and a microphone, broadcasting his opinions and making millions. Along that paradigm, when the Fairness Doctrine was abolished, talk radio began to dominate. Whereas Harvey’s commentaries lasted a few minutes, we soon had blowhards whose programs lasted hours. Now, when the commentator runs out of steam, he takes a call. It’s so simple, so lucrative, that everyone does it: liberals, conservatives, idiots. They’re all over the airwaves. You may not remember the day, but it’s true: public radio stations in America used to play music.

This has meant the rise of some awfully tedious radio, but it’s also meant the survival of radio itself. In the car, as in the 1930s, there’s not a lot of other entertainment available, so people keep tuning in. Twenty years ago, a lot of people predicted the death of radio; they predicted the same fifty years ago, too. Yet radio continues to prosper. Of all the media being hammered now by digital technology, only radio seems unthreatened. (At least for now.)

Paul Harvey worked in other media, too: he had a television program for a while, and he also wrote a newspaper column, as it happens. But it’s for radio that he’ll be remembered, and those curious Norman Rockwell canvases that he painted for the ear. At first they’re charming, sentimental yet accurate reflections of American life — yet they wind up telling us more about ourselves than we ever expected.

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