KING, LARRY

U.S. Talk Show Host

Larry King, television and radio talk show host, claims to have interviewed over 30,000 people during his career. In 1989, the Guinness Book of World Records credited him as having logged more hours on national radio than any other talk show personality in history.

His nationwide popularity began with his first national radio talk show, premiering over the Mutual Network in 1978. In 1985, the Cable News Network (CNN) scheduled a nightly one hour cable-tv version of King's radio program. Larry King Live became one of CNN's highest-rated shows and positioned King as the first American talk show host to have a worldwide audience. Currently, the program reaches over 200 countries with a potential audience of 150 million.

Called cable television's pre-eminent pop-journalist, King is characterized as "interviewer," not "journalist." Described as having an "aw shucks" quality, he is an ad-lib interviewer who claims not to over-prepare for his guest. "My lack of preparation really forces me to learn, and to listen." His guests are given a wide range of latitude while responding to questions that any person on the street might ask. Rather than acting as an investigative reporter, King prides himself in asking "human questions," not "press-conference questions." He sees himself as non-threatening, non-judgmental, and concerned with feelings.

King's radio broadcast career began with a 1957 move to Miami, Florida where he worked for station WAHR as a disc jockey and sports talk-show host. He changed his name from the less euphonious Larry Zeiger when the general manager noted that his name was "too German, too Jewish. It's not show-business enough...."

After a year, he joined WKAT, a station that gave DJs a great deal of freedom to develop their personalities. King took advantage of the opportunity by inventing a character called "Captain Wainright of the Miami State Police." Sounding like Broderick Crawford, Wainright interrupted traffic reports with crazy suggestions--like telling listeners to save a trip to the racetrack by flagging down police officers and placing their bets with them. The Wainright character became so popular that bumper stickers appeared with "Don't Stop Me. I Know Capt. Wainright."

In 1958, King's celebrity status led to his first major break as host of an on-location interview program from Miami's Pumpernik Restaurant. He interviewed whoever happened to be there at the time. Never knowing who his guest would be and unable to plan in advance, he began to perfect his interviewing style, listening carefully to what his guest said and then formulating questions as the conversation progressed.

Impressed with King's Pumpernik show, WIOD employed him in 1962 to do a similar radio program originating from a houseboat formerly used for the ABC television series, Surfside 6. Because of the show's on-the-beach location and because of the publicity it offered the television series, Surfside 6 became an enormous success. WIOD gave King further exposure as the color commentator for the Miami Dolphins' broadcasts. While riding a tide of popularity during 1963, he did double duty as a Sunday late-night talk show host over WLBW-TV. In 1964, he left WLBW-TV for a weekend talk show on WTVJ-TV. He added newspaper writing to his agenda with columns for The Miami Herald, The Miami News, and The Miami Beach Sun-Reporter.

Of this period, King said he was "flying high." Unfortunately, his life flew out of control. He ran up outrageous bills and fell $352,000 into debt. Still worse, he was charged with grand larceny and accused of stealing $5,000 from a business partner. On 10 March 1972, the charges were dropped, but the scandal nearly destroyed his career. It would take four years before he worked regularly in broadcasting again. King candidly presented this period of his life to the public in his book, Larry King.

From 1972 to 1975, King struggled to get back on his feet. In the spring 1974, he took a public relations job with a horse racing track in Shreveport, Louisiana. In the fall, he became the color commentator for the short-lived Shreveport Steamers of the World Football League.

In 1975, after returning to Miami, he was re-hired by a new general manager at WIOD for an evening interview show similar to his previous program. Over the next several years, he gradually recovered as a TV interviewer, a columnist for The Miami News, and as a radio commentator for the Dolphins. Still deep in debt, he claimed bankruptcy in 1978.

In the same year, the Mutual Broadcasting Network persuaded him to do a late-night talk show that debuted on 30 January 1978 in 28 cities as the Larry King Show. It was first aired from WIOD, but beginning in April 1978, originated from Mutual's Arlington, Virginia studios, which overlook the capital. Originally, the show's time slot was from midnight to 5:30 A.M. and divided into three distinct segments, a guest interview, guest responses to callers, and "Open Phone America." King greeted callers by identifying their location, "Memphis, hello."

 

 


Larry King
Photo courtesy of Larry King

In February 1993, King's radio talk show on Mutual (now the Westwood Mutual Broadcasting System) moved from late night to an afternoon drive time reaching 410 affiliates. By June 1994, Westwood also began simulcasting King's CNN live show, the first ever daily "TV/radio talk show." As part of the agreement, King dropped his syndicated radio show, a move that ended his regular radio broadcasting activities.

Larry King's CNN program received a huge boost in 1992 by attracting the presidential candidates. On 20 February his interview with H. Ross Perot facilitated Perot's nomination. Viewers of Larry King Live learned of Mr. Perot's candidacy even before his wife did. Because of King's call-in format, Perot was approachable as he responded to questions from viewers. The interview initiated a new trend in campaigning as other candidates followed suit by side-stepping traditional news conferences with trained reporters in favor of live call-in talk shows. The new boom in "talk-show democracy" invited voters back into the political arena formerly reserved for politicians and journalists, and marked a new stage in television's influence on the U.S. political process. In 1996 King was honored in a special salute ceremony by the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago. -Frank Chorba

LARRY KING (Lawrence Zeiger). Born in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., 19 November 1933. Educated at Lafayette High School. Married: 1) Alene Atkins, 1961 (divorced, 1963); 2) Alene Atkins, 1967 (divorced, 1971), children: Chaia; 3) Sharon Lepore, 1976 (divorced, 1982); 4) Julia Alexander, 1989, children: Andy. Disc jockey and host of radio interview show at various stations in Miami, Florida, 1957-71; columnist for various Miami papers, 1965-71; freelance writer and broadcaster, 1972-75; radio talk show host at WIOD in Miami, 1975-78; host of the Mutual Broadcasting System's Larry King Show since 1978; host of CNN's Larry King Live since 1985; host of the Goodwill Games, 1990; columnist for USA Today and The Sporting News. Member of the Friars Club and the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism. Recipient: University of Georgia's George Foster Peabody Award, 1982; National Association of Broadcasters' Radio award, 1985; Jack Anderson Investigative Reporting award, 1985; International Radio and TV Society's Broadcaster of the Year, 1989; American Heart Association's Man of the Year, 1992; named to Broadcaster's Hall of Fame, 1992. Address: Mutual Broadcasting System, Inc., 1755 Jefferson Davis Highway, Arlington, Virginia 22202.

TELEVISION
1985- Larry King Live

FILMS
Ghostbusters, 1984; Lost in America, 1985

RADIO 1978- Larry King Show

PUBLICATIONS (selection)
Larry King (with Emily Yoffe). New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

Tell It to the King (with Peter Occhiogrosso). New York: Putnam, 1988.

Tell Me More (with Peter Occhiogrosso). New York: Putnam, 1990.

When You're From Brooklyn, Everywhere Else Is Tokyo (with Marty Appel). Boston: Little-Brown, 1992.

On The Line: The New Road to the White House (with Mark Stencel). New York : Harcourt Brace, 1993.

"Live with Larry King." (Interview) Broadcasting & Cable (Washington, D.C.), 13 December 1993.

Unger, Arthur. "Larry King: 'Everyman with a Mike.' (Interview) Television Quarterly (New York), Winter 1993.

FURTHER READING
Meyer, Thomas J. "The Maestro of Chin Music: With a Face Made for Radio, Larry King Has Become America's Premier Yakker on the Airwaves." The New York Times Magazine, 26 May 1991.

"King of Radio: 10 Years and Counting." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 25 January 1988.

Rosellini, Lynn. "All Alone, Late at Night." U.S. News and World Report (Washington, D.C.), 15 January 1990.

Viles, Peter. "Larry King Faces the Day Shift with Mixed Emotions." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 18 January 1993.
Wilkinson, Alec. "The Mouthpiece and Handsomo." The New Yorker, 28 March 1994.

 

See also Talk Shows