RADIO, the station owners love to tell us, is enjoying a glorious revival, from the walls of kitchens and bedrooms to car stereos to the earphone-pinched heads of pedestrians and cyclists. But back in the golden-throat, soap opera and live-music heyday of network radio, no one gained more fame, sold more products or played more questionable ukulele than Arthur Godfrey--all with a disarming folksiness and studied irreverence that won millions of fans and a matching number of dollars for CBS.
Mr. Godfrey, who died yesterday in New York at the age of 79, constantly defied the customs and upset the stereotypes of big-time radio. When pear- shaped tones were the order of the day, Mr. Godfrey first mumbled, rambled and chuckled his ad-lib way to popularity here in Washington, as the morning man on WJSV, which was to change its name to WTOP and keep on carrying him for 34 years. And behind the plain old Virginia country-boy character --"Howahya, howahya, howahya"--was a savvy, hard-nosed entertainment executive whose humility disappeared with the sign-off of each show.
It was probably this streak of rebel, thumb-the-nose talk-radio that appealed to so many listeners. Whether Mr. Godfrey was poking fun at sponsors, music or "All the Little Godfreys," as his network cast was patronizingly called, people bought him and whatever he was selling for more than a generation.
Even after CBS radio and then CBS-TV made him undisputed czar of the air waves, Mr. Godfrey kept his Leesburg, Va.-Washington connections, for a while doing his WTOP morning show from a New York studio before running to another studio for his network audience. The CBS series continued every day for 27 years, and the Godfrey style has been imitated ever since. "You have to talk to that one person," Mr. Godfrey used to say of his microphone approach, describing the audience as "one person sitting in a room . . . if there's two, they're probably fighting."
But they weren't touching that radio dial.