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Paul Harvey

March 03, 2009|Phil Rosenthal

Paul Harvey's career -- his whole life, really -- was packed with the sort of surprises, superlatives, bold statements and seemingly small details that, woven together, also made up a great Paul Harvey broadcast.

All that would be missing would be the distinctively halting pauses of Harvey's delivery, and that's because there was no one steadier or more consistent for decades, right up until the last few years, when the inescapable indignities of age began to catch up with arguably the most popular radio commentator of all time.

You know the rest of the story.

Harvey, whose weekday newscasts and commentaries aired nationally for 58 years, died Saturday in Arizona. He was 90, two years older than commercial radio in this country, and no one had a better, longer run. Station owners may well find it easier to replace their mothers than Harvey.

In spirit, he is reunited with his Angel, as he nicknamed his beloved wife of nearly 68 years and longtime producer, Lynne. She preceded him in death by less than a year, and, between his ailments and hers, he had been off the air quite a bit in the last two years, causing his legion of loyal listeners and affiliates to fray.

Still, Harvey's Chicago-based radio newscasts and commentaries were airing nationally on about 600 stations at the time of his death. That put him in a league with Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, perhaps even ahead, even as it marked a tremendous drop-off from the 1,200 or so U.S. outlets that once carried "The Rest of the Story" and his other programs. Estimates pegged his daily audience at 24 million.

In truth, it's hard to know when his peak was because Harvey was so popular and so pervasive for so long.

The consolidation of the radio business and success of fellow conservatives in syndicated radio hurt him to a degree not because they crowded out his viewpoint or his dramatic flair for telling tales but because carving out time for Harvey's broadcasts would require a station to delay or cut into the syndicated fare, which could be both tricky and awkward. It was easier when more stations aired their own programs.

Back when Harvey was on roughly 12% of the nation's radio stations in the 1960s and '70s, you would have been hard-pressed to find a dot on the map where a local station didn't air him. Sometimes he would air on both AM and FM in a town, sometimes on rock and country stations that had aired him when they had other formats and didn't want to let go for risk of alienating his listeners and boosting a rival.

Harvey, in his own way, was the world's most successful pre-Internet blogger, plucking a series of stories from any and all available sources and putting his own spin and storytelling style on them, telling them in his own voice and unique cadence.

One thing that distinguished Harvey from many of his peers, beyond his unmatched reach and popularity, is he had no problem peppering his copy with ads, reading commercials and moving products. But part of his appeal to listeners was that he wasn't a traditional newsman, and this only made him more valuable to his bosses.

A 2007 National Public Radio report said Harvey was responsible for as much as 60% of the revenue of Citadel Broadcasting's ABC Radio Networks, which syndicated him. Asked by analysts a couple of months later, Farid Suleman, Citadel's chairman and chief executive, called Harvey "a great part of our business" but "not significant anymore to the company in terms of overall profitability."

Shrewd industry observers will tell you that's only because the 10-year, $100-million contract Harvey scored in 2000 essentially gave him about 90 cents of every dollar his show made, which still wasn't that bad a deal for Citadel. The day before Harvey's death, the New York Stock Exchange announced it would be delisting Citadel, whose stock price had fallen below a quarter, meaning its shares will be traded over-the-counter. It is further diminished without Harvey.

All of radio is.


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