I had two encounters with Larry King, the legendary radio and TV talk show host who died today at age 87.
The first occurred in the late ‘70s at a broadcasters convention. King was riding high. His all-night national radio show was rapidly growing its list of affiliate stations, eventually topping out at more than 500.
The then-fabulous radio station where I worked (WJBC in Bloomington, Ill.) had been among them, replacing a talented local broadcaster’s overnight music show with King’s eclectic mix of interviews and listener calls.
The decision to substitute syndicated programming for local, all-night programming was controversial among listeners. King had his fans, but WJBC listeners had also grown accustomed to being able to turn on the radio in the middle of the night, confident they could instantly learn if a thunderstorm was particularly threatening or why there were a lot of sirens on a nearby street.
We solicited listener opinions about the programming decision. This, of course, was long before digital communications and Twitterati existed. Instead, listeners—hundreds of them, as I recall—took the time to mail us a letter or postcard defending the King show or demanding a return to the local Jim Browne Show.
Local won out. After the King show had been on WJBC for just two or three months, the station became the first affiliate to cancel it, even as it was adding dozens of new affiliates across the country every week. Which brings us to the broadcasters convention, where I found myself in a fairly large circle of King admirers crowded around him at Mutual Radio’s booth on the convention floor.
I’m not sure what prompted me (maybe it was so I could tell this story one day), but in introducing myself, I told King I was with WJBC, the first station to cancel his show.
He poked his long, boney finger into my chest and loudly proclaimed in his gravelly Brooklyn voice, “That was your first mistake!”
About a decade later I was careful not to remind him of our severed relationship when I was a guest on his heralded TV show, broadcast from CNN’s studios in Washington, D.C.
My appearance there had been arranged by St. Martin’s Press, publisher of the first paperback editions of my Reasonable Doubt, the book about the Hendricks family murders. I was there with Laverne Hendricks, mother of the man accused of brutally killing her three grandchildren and daughter-in-law.
I don’t remember being particularly nervous, but I do recall being a bit awed when we sat down in front of the set’s color-dotted map of the world on chairs that had held the bodies of some of the world’s most famous people. And across the table, in front of the old-time microphone, was King, suspendered with rolled-up shirt sleeves.
He was famous for not reading the books of authors he interviewed, believing a more spontaneous approach produced better interviews. So I wasn’t surprised when he immediately turned to me to tell the facts of the Hendricks murder case. It was then that I realized the producer’s phone interview of me a few days earlier was really a test to see if I was capable of explaining the story in an efficient yet compelling way.
The interview went well—and long. We were originally scheduled to be on for half of the 60-minute show. We instead went more than 35 minutes. And as we left the set, the next guest—actress and singer Pia Zadora—let us know she was unhappy that we had gone “overtime”.
“The Larry King Show”, which ended in 2010, ranks as CNN’s highest-rated and longest-running talk show, seen in 130 countries. Our appearance there extended Reasonable Doubt’s stay on The New York Times best-seller list.
King had insatiable curiosity and the ability to ask questions in a way that satisfied it. He was, after all, the guy who asked Richard Nixon, “When you drive by the Watergate, do you feel weird?”
He must have been hard to live with. Eight marriages to seven women (twice to the same Playboy bunny) would seem to attest to that.
They say he interviewed more than 50,000 people over the years. Paul McCartney, Barack Obama, Howard Stern, the Dalai Lama, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor and, yes, Steve Vogel.
He probably didn’t remember me. But I remember him as one of broadcasting’s leading practitioners, a master interviewer who once put his finger into my chest.