It would be hard to find a well-known politician or celebrity that Larry King hasn’t interviewed in his 49 years in radio and television; he has talked with more than 40,000, according to his CNN biography.
Yet reached by phone at his Los Angeles home, King still talks excitedly about his upcoming shows. “This week, we’re going to San Quentin for two shows,” he says. “I’ll be talking with 10 convicted murderers about life in prison. That fascinates me.”
King’s passion for exploring new subjects and getting people to talk about their lives goes a long way toward explaining the 2006 Century Award he’ll be receiving at this week’s Promax/BDA conference.
“Larry really put cable news on the map with his interviews,” says Jonathan Klein, president of CNN/USA. “Before Larry King Live, Ted Turner thought the news would be the star. Then Ted hired Larry, and he became a star. Larry’s eclectic range of interests, his passion for his work and his ability to connect with people added a certain magic and a new dimension to cable news.”
Says King, “I love the variety of my show. I would hate it to be all politics or breaking-news events or even sports—and I’m a sports fanatic.”
King’s lifelong love affair with radio and television began when he was a child in Brooklyn during the Great Depression of the 1930s. “Ever since I was five,” he recalls, “all I ever wanted to do was be a broadcaster.”
There were obstacles, however. King’s father died when King was only nine, and the family spent two years on welfare. After high school, King worked a series of odd jobs to help support his mother as he tried unsuccessfully to break into broadcasting. No luck. Many advised him to find a more practical career.
Finally, after moving to Miami when he was 22, King got his first break at a small radio station, WAHR(FM), where he cleaned up and did odd jobs until he was given his first show May 1, 1957. It was a success. An equally successful television show on WPLG Miami followed three years later.
By 1978, King had a popular national radio show on Westwood One, and in the 1980s, Ted Turner was on several times as a guest. The founder of CNN was so impressed, he hired King to host Larry King Live in June of 1985.
Larry King Live remains CNN’s most popular program and has earned its host an Emmy, two Peabody Awards and 10 CableACE Awards. The show attracted a CNN-record 16.1 million viewers for Al Gore and Ross Perot’s 1993 debate over NAFTA.
Despite his influence and enduring popularity, King’s straightforward, non-confrontational interview style has become something of an anomaly on cable news.
“There is a lot of screaming and yelling and jumping on people in cable news today,” King says. “I’m not a fan of that. I still think there is a place for long-form interviews with an interviewer who asks good questions without taking a stand and who listens to the answer.”
Over the years, King hasn’t forgotten his hardscrabble childhood and has been active in helping less fortunate people. After suffering a heart attack in 1987, he set up the Larry King Cardiac Foundation, which has helped more than 60 needy people get various heart procedures they otherwise could not afford.
More recently, King set up a $1 million scholarship fund at George Washington University’s School of Media and Affairs for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“My family was on relief for two years after my father died,” he says. “Today we call it welfare, but then it was called relief. I never went to college, but I was able to break into this business. Today, you can’t do that. I felt it was really important to help kids get the education they needed to get started.”