CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Considering he still climbs up the front stairs to work every day at age 90 and weighing the 69 years he has invested into a career in radio, the reason Paul Howard gives for first seeking a job on the airwaves back in 1947 doesn’t meet expectations.
“I was lazy,” he said this past week.
As a young man just entering the workforce after service in World War II, he imagined the luxury of a deejay’s lifestyle: “Those guys sit on their ass and come on every 15 minutes. That’s the life for me.”
It has been his life, but he has put significantly more effort into his chosen profession than young Paul Howard might have imagined.
Howard is now an institution at West Virginia Radio Corporation, where he is addressed alternately as “PH” or as “The Hall of Famer,” a reference to his induction into the West Virginia Broadcasting Hall of Fame a decade ago. He jokes that he got career advice from Guglielmo Marconi himself, the Italian who developed radio transmission back in the late-1800s. “This is gonna be BIG, Paul” is what he says Marconi told him.
Howard’s most impressive feat might be coming back to work at all this year.
About 5 p.m. March 7, after a day at work, Howard had parked his car in the garage at home, exited the vehicle and collapsed. He got up, went to get the mail and collapsed again. His neighbors quickly responded and called for an ambulance.
The scare turned out to be kidney stones — painful but manageable — but Howard developed complications that sent him to physical rehabilitation, where he had to work to regain his walking ability. His health turmoil kept him out of the office except for a celebration of his 90th birthday this past Oct. 13. The conference room celebration included cake, pizza, champagne and admiration.
Howard finally got clearance to return to his job as an advertising salesman at West Virginia Radio Corp. on Nov. 23.
He emphasizes how grateful he is to friends, family and coworkers who have helped him through his illness and now his return. Many have watched out for him or offered favors to make life easier. As an example, Chris Lawrence, host of “The Morning News” and “West Virginia Outdoors” served as Howard’s designated driver to the annual company Christmas party a few weeks ago.
Howard isn’t able to drive out to sales calls any more, but that hasn’t diminished his effort.
“I have to do it by phone or by computer,” he said. “They know me well enough that I can just call them up about something.”
Some of Howard’s advertising relationships go back decades. They say it’s hard to imagine life without him.
“We certainly knew of him because he’s a bit of an icon in the radio industry,” said Steve Pugh, whose family owns Pugh Furniture in Charleston. “The first thing that comes to mind if you say ‘Paul Howard’ is a gentleman. He’s a true gentleman in the old style sense of the word.
“It’s a pleasure to be associated with Paul. If anything transcends time and changes, it’s Paul Howard. He is one of the constants in life. He is a wonderful constant to know. We’re happy that Paul Howard is in our lives.”
Pugh’s wife, Beth, said Howard provides a personal touch. For instance, Howard knows she is a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan. One of Howard’s brothers lives in Wisconsin, so every time Howard went to visit he would bring back team sportswear and collectibles.
“He’s very dear to us,” Beth Pugh said.
Other than that, she doesn’t have much to say, “other than I think he’s the most elegant, wonderful person in the world.”
Howard was raised in New Brighton, Pa., just north of Pittsburgh. His father was a carpenter and his mother managed the produce section at the local grocery store. Howard was one of six siblings, although there was a seventh little sister who died in infancy.
In high school, Howard, who was then 5-foot-11 and 130 pounds, tried out for football his senior year but didn’t make the travel squad. As he tells the story around the office, his coach advised him, “Howard, unless you want to stay in shape for the Army, I suggest you drop out.”
In 1944, he did wind up in the Army, an infantryman in Europe. “I never fired a shot. Thank goodness.”
By 1946, he had returned home as a 19-year-old with a full head of black hair and limited skills: “I didn’t have any,” he said. He was a loyal listener to legendary Pittsburgh radio station KDKA and heard a pitch for a radio announcing school with lessons at night for 13 weeks. At the end, participants had to take a qualifying exam.
“Well, of course everybody passed,” Howard said. “Nobody flunked.”
He gained a 5-minute acetate recording of his work and a reservoir of raw — very raw — ability. His voice was high pitched and his delivery was hesitant. “I was terrible,” he said.
But he got his foot in broadcasting’s door when a fellow graduate of the program told him about an opening in Flat River, Missouri, a town so small it’s no longer on the map.
Howard started work there in August, 1947, working 3 to midnight, seven days a week and earning 70 cents an hour.
He stayed two months.
That was enough experience to land a job closer to home in Bellaire, Ohio, which is across the Ohio River from Wheeling, West Virginia. He spent 11 years there as the morning guy, broadcasting what he calls “high class, acceptable stuff,” like cascading strings compositions by Mantovani, a popular entertainer of the 1950s, and more orchestral selections by musicians like Guy Lombardo
“I didn’t even appreciate or understand the music we were playing,” Howard said.
As he’d expected, he wasn’t exactly working up a sweat.
“It wasn’t tough because you sat in the studio and you’d say, ‘This is Paul Howard. Top of the morning. The temperature is this.” Then a producer would play a commercial on a big disk.
“There wasn’t too much to do. It was an easy life,” Howard said.
In 1959, he moved to Akron, Ohio, where a position had opened up as an understudy to a popular local deejay. When the star stepped aside earlier than expected, Howard felt he still wasn’t ready for the limelight. “Whoever took over for the living legend is not going to be good enough,” he said.
Howard moved on again, this time to Charleston, West Virginia. “I came from Akron because they wanted a rock ‘n roller, and I was it,” he said. His first role here was as program director and morning deejay for Capitol Broadcasting’s WCAW, which was a 50,000-watt station, and sister station to V100.
“WCHS was our competitor,” he said. “They were No. 1. They were tough competition.”
When Howard first came to work, the Capitol Broadcasting stations were located in the old Kanawha Hotel building. They eventually moved to Kanawha City. Along the way, in the 1960s, WCAW changed its format to country, a successful switch. “We were pretty popular,” Howard said.
While he was in Charleston, Howard got some advice that would alter the course of his life. “Why don’t you get into sales and get in where you can make some money?” suggested Norm Posen, sales manager for Capitol Broadcasting. “Come on and I’ll show you how easy it is.”
Howard suspects Posen took him out and showed him the fruits of advertisers who were already loyal. “Of course he took me to the easy ones.” But, Howard concluded, “If it’s that easy, I might as well get into it and make some money.”
So he shifted to broadcasting in the morning and taking on sales in the afternoon. “I enjoyed it more than I thought I would,” he said. “Your day is completely different. It’s a challenge to show how they (advertisers) can increase their sales. Every day is different.”
In 1970, Capitol bought a station in Spartanburg, S.C., and Howard moved again to be general manager there. “I didn’t ask for it,” he said, “but I was flattered that they felt I was qualified enough to go run it.”
He remained there until 1981 when he was transferred back to Charleston as general manager of WCAW. Eventually, he tired of the complications of management. By 1986, when he was 60 years old, Howard asked to move into advertising sales full time. “I decided, ‘I’ll lay back,'” he said. “I enjoyed calling on people. ‘That’ll fit me right.’ Eventually I built up a pretty good account list, some of which I have today.”
Life still had more changes ahead, though. In 1993, West Virginia Radio bought Capitol Broadcasting and Howard found himself working alongside those he had competed against for years.
Over all that time in communications and advertising, Howard has gained some wisdom. Foremost, he said, is being straight with people.
“Your advertiser has to trust you. If he trusts you, he’ll trust you with his money,” he said. “You are in front of them to help their business, not to help you make a sale.”
That attitude leads to lasting trust, said lawyer Harvey Peyton, who first encountered Howard in the 1990s when he was looking to boost name recognition for his Nitro-based law firm and received some advice to look into sponsoring a program called “Ask the Expert.”
“He will not hoodwink. He can say ‘I’ve got this proposal I want to make to you,'” Peyton said. “It’s refreshing to deal with someone who is that straightforward. He writes well. He writes all the copy for our ads. He doesn’t have any pride of authorship. He’s the most thoughtful, considerate to everybody here in the office. I think the world of him.”
Admiration of Howard extends to the current advertising staff, said senior account executive Vicki Shumate-Jackson, who has been Howard’s co-worker for the past 22 years.
“People in the industry know he’s the Hall of Famer,” Shumate-Jackson said. “Until recently, he was the first one in. He’s always available to do what we need to do.”
Howard’s recent comeback from illness exemplifies his hard work and determination, she said.
“You would have thought at his age, it would have knocked anybody out but it didn’t him. He doesn’t know he’s 90. In his mind, he’s not. He works because he loves to work, not because he has to work.”
Howard continues to seek out new ideas. He is an admirer of a resource called “The Idea Bank,” which provides potential advertising leads. Howard notes that the driving force behind “The Idea Bank” is no longer around. “He’s no longer in radio; then again, he’s old.”
He maintains his relationships with longtime advertisers, but he is also willing to cold-call those with potential. He’s already lining up those who might be interested in the Ladies Totally 80s Slumber Party, which will be at the Charleston Marriott in March. If he sends a potential advertiser an email about the promotion, he might begin, “Hi, I’m Paul Howard. I’m inviting you to join…”
Howard would like to go on this way for as long as he possibly can. He lost his wife of 55 years, Cassie, in 2005. Now the relationships he has developed with advertisers and in his workplace drive him to keep going.
So, as 2017 begins, advertisers can expect another year of hearing Paul Howard’s voice, letting them in on the latest deals.
“I probably never will retire,” he said.