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In 1940, broadcast radio was about as old as the Internet is today — that's when Harvey Hudson first took a part-time announcer's job at WRVA. In no time, Hudson became a fixture of Richmond's airwaves. He plied his trade with man-on-the-street broadcasts, stage announcing for visiting entertainers and gonzo audience-grabbing antics that earned him the nickname "That Character." In addition to WRVA, he has made the rounds at WRNL and WXEX (now WRIC), and in the early ‘80s, he was a co-founder of the TV station that is now FOX Richmond. His current radio show, Harvey Hudson's Passing Parade, airs Saturday mornings on WLEE. In January, Hudson will begin his 70th year in a career that he describes simply as a "love affair."
Q: You've spent almost 70 years in broadcasting, taking you through some major eras of American history. As a broadcaster, what's the biggest moment you remember?
A: In the latter part of World War II, I was at WRVA, and my boss, Irvin Abeloff, called me in and said, "You and your engineer get in a car and go down to Norfolk and report to the Navy, and they'll tell you what's going to happen and what we're going to cover." We always had a [recording] engineer with us; we didn't do anything by ourselves. In those days we had wire recorders — not tape, wire.
When we got to Norfolk, they told us we would be leaving the next morning around 3:00 on a Navy vessel and that we were going out to meet the incoming Navy pilots who protected England. They had saved England from falling, and their job was done. We would record and interview those coming back to our area. It was a proud moment because of these people who had saved England, but really it was one of the most beautiful trips I ever took. Going out, we saw the sun come up out of the ocean — what a sight that is.
Q: What got you into broadcasting?
A: I always wanted to be in it. My father built me a radio set in the early, early days [of the technology], and I put on earphones and I could hear through all the crackling and popping all over the country. There weren't many radio stations then. You could listen to Cincinnati or New York or other places. I fell in love with that. That was in the '30s.
Well, by 1940, I was in it. I was in college at the University of Richmond. Back then, the announcers were very professional in the sense that they had to be highly trained in speaking and being able to do news without "fluffing" — making a mistake. As a matter of fact, it was so strict in those days that if you fluffed on three newscasts, they fired you. It was that tough. Now, the guys on the networks can't go one newscast without fluffing all over the place.
I was born in 1921, so this year in September I turn 88. When I started, I was the youngest announcer in the country at a big station, and now I guess I'm the oldest. [Laughs.] Gone from one extreme to another in a lifetime!
It was a whole different world because the radio was so new and was changing lives, just like television did later. I was so fascinated, that's what I [had] really wanted to do from early childhood. I used to take … the top end of the vacuum cleaner and pretend it was a microphone, and my mother used to laugh at me. I'd make my cousin come and be on my "radio program." I really had a love affair with the industry from early, early days.
Radio was so different than it is today. Anybody who's grown up in recent years usually thinks in terms of disc jockeys and music of some kind. That was not radio originally. Radio was information and very community-oriented, very local with community personalities involved. That was the radio I came into.
When I was hired I was just a part-time announcer. I just made station breaks; every 15 minutes to a half hour you had to say, "This is WRVA, Richmond, Virginia. Down where the South begins." That was their slogan for many years, and it was one of the largest stations in the United States. It was 50,000 watts, and there weren't many of those. There was only one in the state of Virginia, and that was WRVA. So, the part-time announcer made station breaks and we would say such fascinating things as "The following announcement is transcribed." That meant it was already pre-recorded and the engineer — we didn't do anything, the announcer didn't do anything but push a button to cut on his microphone. A complete engineering department handled everything else. Entirely different from later days when the disc jockey was putting the records on and doing his own controls. We didn't do any of that in the early days, fascinating difference.
Those were tremendous times, of course. I went [into radio] in 1940. Of course, in the 1940s, shortly thereafter in a few years, we were at war. I was fortunate not to be on the firing line because I have a bad hand from an automobile accident, and so I don't have a trigger finger. In those days, if you didn't have a trigger finger, you couldn't go into combat, so you were labeled special service.
Strangely enough, in those days, radio was so important, if you were in radio working it was called "special services." And if they left me or if I left them, then I had to report to the government for some other special services. It could also be something else. But I was working at a time when the war was coming and things were going on and … [there were] all kinds of wartime activities. At Fort Lee, all the different forts and places, we were doing programs, entertainment for the troops. We were there all the time.
Radio, all radio, was completely involved with the community. If anything was going on — and what was going on then was mostly military-oriented — we covered whatever happened in the city. Another big program that I didn't start but later did was the Streitman's Street Man. (Streitman's was a biscuit company out of Cincinnati.) You would be out on the street every day, live, outside the Lowe's Theater, where the Carpenter Center is now, and you would have a hostess lady with you and she would get people. And they were fascinated by radio in those days. They would all want to be on it or watch it happening. It was a different time.
In those days, it was fascinating, because announcers were out meeting people in the community on a daily basis. That changed when the disc jockey came along. They did record hops and that kind of thing with the kids. But they didn't meet the rank and file.
Q: In all these decades of broadcasting, is there anything you never get used to?
A: What I loved then and what I love now is the exposure to the people. Whether it was doing a man on the street or going out and introducing Sunshine Sue and her gang on the air, you were always involved with people. In [the ‘40s], a lot of our work was involved with raising war bonds, so we were out with officials and personalities to do that. So from the beginning my fascination was working with and being exposed to and trying to entertain people. One minute you were with a governor, the next minute you were with a general and the next minute you were with somebody who just stopped by your broadcast.
In those days, also, there were studios. WRVA had one studio that held a hundred people. Another one held 50, and a couple of them held 25. There were always people coming to broadcasts in the studio. Even today, the broadcasts that I do, "Harvey Hudson's Passing Parade", are about people. We talk about old times and places and people. And we play the music of the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s. But it's aimed at what is now the senior market. Of course, when I started, we were all young. But to me answering the telephone and talking to people and then as part of that program, I'm out making talks to groups. They're senior groups — everything from church groups to polio survivors. What I liked about it in the beginning is still a focus of what I do. I still enjoy that part of it.
When you've spent 70 years in all aspects of the business, there's so many stories and memories. I started as a part-time announcer; I became a senior announcer. Then I did special events, then I later was a disc jockey. I bought the first records WRVA had because in those days they were "transcriptions" — very highly sensitive discs that were usually 16 inches. You had a library of transcriptions, and they were everything from pop bands and singers (what we called hillbilly in those days, later called country) trios, musical singing trios … we had everything, and these libraries were brought up to date and replenished each month, all the time, by the companies that you rented them from. And then the disc jockey started to come in. So, I bought the first records for WRVA from the Virginia Record Shop and Gary's Records.
Q: Was there ever a time you almost quit broadcasting?
A: Only temporarily. In the mid '70s, I had done it all and I had become a manager. I was a radio manager, and I was a TV manager at Channel 8 [WXEX at the time]. I had to take over a troubled situation and a lot of unhappiness in this particular station. I was used to people, and I liked people. And I liked the show-business aspect of it, but when it came down to trying to help labor and management get together, it was very difficult. The only thing you would do was work on the legal and public relations part of it. So, in 1975, that was settled, and unfortunately, the management I was taking care of won. But you never really "win." And it had taken all the love I had had for the business away. And so I said that's enough, and I left, I quit. And I decided to get out of the business. For about a year, I tried thinking about other things, but stations kept coming with ideas and they wanted me to start a talk program — WRNL did — so finally I did that. … They wanted me to create a program. I said, "How much are you going to pay me?" And they said, "We don't have any money to pay you. We hope to get some sponsors, some advertisers." I said, "Who's going to do that?" They said, "Well, we were hoping you could do that, too." [Laughs.] But they did me the greatest favor at that point in my career. I learned that if you wanted to keep going, you had to learn to sell and you had to be responsible for your sponsors. And I've been doing that ever since.
Q: Do you still flip through the radio channels in Richmond? What do you think about what you hear?
A: To me radio was and still should be about local community. Local people, local community. Even in the early days the network programs came on, but there was a tremendous number of local programs. Today, a radio station is after this age range or that age range, and it's all records. It's missing what it had originally, and it's going through difficult times today because of that, as well as cable and satellite media. I don't listen as much to radio because, to me, so much of it is a jukebox — nothing wrong with a jukebox but that's not what I thought it was and should be. The personal touch and the really personal people are gone to a great extent from it.
Q: Your voice is familiar and famous to a lot of Richmonders. Has your local prominence ever been a challenge in any way?
A: It's never been a problem. First, let me say, people ask me about the business, about what I like and don't like. I had a love affair with this business. I was in love with the business, and I never lost it. It's changed like all love affairs change somewhat, but the only way to say it is a love affair. I didn't even get married until I was 61. I met a girl who later I married, but most of the people I met, I realized, I loved this business more. Very selfish, I'm sure, but I loved it. So, being out in the public or being around you thrive off of that, and even at this stage in my life it's wonderful to constantly be talking to or seeing or doing programs for people who remember you or who … have rediscovered you along the way. So, being out in the public has never really been a problem. It's what you wanted in the first place. The old ego takes over — whether you like it or not, whether it's right or wrong. The ego takes over.
Q: You have a name in common with another radio celebrity, so I gotta ask: Have you ever been mistaken for Paul Harvey?
A: Paul Harvey was on the network affiliated with my station — he was a news commentator, a very famous one. I never met the man, though I always wanted to. His network broadcast was on my station, during my program. So, people would say to me, "That was a great story you had this morning!" I would say, "What story was that?" And they would describe one that was a Paul Harvey story or a newscast. That went on for a long, long time. And even today, someone will say, "I always loved your news broadcasts." [Laughs.] I never told them or said, "No, that wasn't me." I just sort of let it sit there.