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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Radio personality Paul Harvey celebrates a birthday today. At age 89 he is still doing three broadcasts each weekday and two more on Saturdays. He has the biggest audience of any radio personality. That's a lot of revenue for Harvey, the ABC radio network, its parent company, and the stations that broadcast his show. With so much money riding on the continued good health of someone of such elevated years, many in the radio industry wonder what comes next.

Nate DiMeo reports.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Mr. PAUL HARVEY (Broadcaster): Hello Americans, this is Paul Harvey. Stand by for news.

NATE DiMEO: Talk to Paul Harvey's admirers in the radio industry and they will inevitably gush about his abilities as an on-air storyteller, the economy of his sentences, the conversational tone, the signature pauses, the way he can go from reporting a tragedy...

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Mr. HARVEY: Gunfire, most all night at Karbala...

DiMEO: ...to a lighthearted animal story...

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Mr. HARVEY: Rex IV, the Mexican sniffer dog, the Belgian sheepdog...

DiMEO: ...to an advertisement.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Mr. HARVEY: This year, send your favorite student back to school with the award-winning Bose Wave Music System.

DiMEO: And he weaves them together seamlessly, in a way that makes the listener feel that the war and a Mexican dog and the consumer product are important to Paul Harvey and his audience. It's a skill Harvey has mastered over the course of 74 years on the air.

Mr. ERIC RHOADS (Publisher, Radio Inc): When you have that kind of longevity, you're a household name. Everybody knows who you are. That translates into dollars.

DiMEO: Eric Rhoads is the publisher of the industry trade journal Radio Inc.

Mr. RHOADS: He is one of the most important radio personalities in America from the standpoint of generating advertising revenue for the ABC Radio Network and also for the local stations who all sell advertising around his broadcasts.

DiMEO: He's so important that Harvey was awarded a 10-year $100 million contract in 2000. You usually hear about that kind of money when it's a 25-year-old shortstop. Harvey was 81 when his 10-year deal kicked in.

Seven years later, the question of what happens if something happens to Paul Harvey is an urgent one. Peter Smyth is the CEO of the radio conglomerate Greater Media.

Mr. PETER SMYTH (CEO, Greater Media): It is a pressing business question and I think that, you know, ABC is a great company and I'm sure that they constantly think about who is the replacement for Paul Harvey.

DiMEO: Over the years there have been several fill-ins. His son, Paul Jr., is a familiar voice of the show's 22 million regular listeners. At one point an official successor was named, but Harvey outlived him. Last year, ABC tapped a voice that was familiar to fans of C-Span, or more likely "Law and Order," former Senator Fred Thompson.

Mr. FRED THOMPSON (Actor): Many young people today have no idea of the scale of World War II and I expect that explains why some are impatient regarding the war on terror.

DiMEO: Industry observer Tom Taylor says Thompson was a surprising choice, but a very good fit. He says Thompson and Harvey share similar homespun appeal and a small government, personal responsibility conservatism.

Mr. TOM TAYLOR (Editor, Inside Radio): If he does come back, if he's not in the White House on January 20th, 2009, then he comes back a much better known personality.

DiMEO: For now the radio industry is left without an heir apparent. Wall Street analysts I spoke with say that that spells trouble for Citadel Broadcasting, the company that bought ABC Radio Networks early this year.

Harvey brings in as much as 60 percent of the network's revenue, but Eric Rhoads of Radio Inc. says that Citadel is big enough to weather the hit if the Harvey revenue stream dries up for a while, and really...

Mr. RHOADS: Ever since I've been in the business, Paul Harvey has been a little bit of an old guy. So nobody expected him to last, to be 89, frankly, and of course he's proven us all wrong.

DiMEO: Harvey will be 91 when his current 10-year contract ends in a couple of years. Admirers aside, there are many people on the money side of the radio industry who hope he's up for another 10.

For NPR News, I'm Nate DiMeo.

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