Arthur Godfrey is largely forgotten now–other than as a question for quiz shows and games. Yet his influence is all around us. Every morning when you listen to the radio in “drive time,” every day and night when you turn to ubiquitous talk radio, you’re stepping into a world that Godfrey pioneered.
Godfrey is the subject of two affectionate New York Times reminisces from Dick Cavett. The accompanying video clips are worth watching. The conjunction of two great communicators is memorable. Even in a time—1972—when the generations were often divided, Cavett’s interviews with Godfrey are marked by mutual affection and admiration and respect.
Arthur Godfrey–who once stood astride American life as a “colossus” in a way all but unthinkable today–holds valuable lessons for anyone seeking to serve effectively as a communicator.
1. Always Focus on Those You’re Serving. Cavett explains:
He spoke directly, individually and personally to them. Not to a mass audience, but to them, right there in their home. This was Godfrey’s genius insight. For months in the hospital after the car crash that broke nearly everything, he had only his radio as companion. And something always seemed wrong. Why, he wondered, didn’t it occur to someone somewhere in broadcasting to talk to him?
What was really a revolutionary insight was born as the thought: who the hell is “ladies and gentlemen of the radio audience” supposed to reach? And who out there feels greeted by, “Hello, everybody”? Who feels included in “all of you out there in radio land”? Had it never occurred to anyone, he wondered, to talk only to him? Had they never heard of the magic word “you”?
When Arthur got back to work, he launched his revolutionary notion by saying into the microphone the simple phrase “How are you?” And a nation of listeners felt, for the first time, “That man is talking to me!”
2. Live Your Values. Cavett reports: He had vowed he would never praise any product he didn’t totally and genuinely believe in….
Godfrey was innovative in the evolving mass media of his era, including the jump from radio to television that so many were unable to achieve. A constant was his heartfelt determination to advocate what he believed in–which occasionally brought him into public controversy, as in some environmental issues of the early 1970s—made him extraordinarily effective. It enabled him to reach listeners at a deeper level, drawing more deeply into himself.
3. An Established Relationship of Service Can be Compromised by a Single Lapse, a Single Action Understood to be Inconsistent with One’s Declared, Shared Values.
Cavett refers to the famous incident involving dancer Julius LaRosa, a Godfrey discovery and television audience favorite in the early 1950s. Controversy erupted when Godfrey appeared to fire him, rather heartlessly, on the air.
The fundamental issue was that many in the television audience henceforth saw a disappointing side of Arthur Godfrey that many of his critics long seen or sensed: superficially warm, ultimately cold to the point of ruthlessness. Though he would remain a major force, it’s fair to say that he never regained the depth of affection from that American that he had enjoyed up to that moment.
Whether or not Godfrey objectively deserved the opprobrium heaped on him after this episode, he can fairly be faulted for not grasping the point of view of his audience and preparing accordingly, with their reaction in mind. Likely from some variant of that most treacherous lure, pride, Godfrey had moved from serving his audience to serving himself.
Today, with ubiquitous cameras able to capture our every moment—from our best to our worst—it’s serviceable to recall and learn from Godfrey’s fateful moment, where is public image was belied by the “private” person underneath…. Just ask Mel Gibson….or Tiger Woods….
Arthur Godfrey | Lessons from a Past Master