(NOTE – One of my first celebrity interviews when I joined the old Tampa Tribune in May 1983 was great fun: I spent a couple of hours chauffeuring legendary talk show host Larry King around to media appearances and then waited with him at Tampa International Airport for his plane to depart. He was in town to address the 63rd annual Florida Library Association Conference and Trade Show. Unfortunately, the audio has not survived the years as well as Larry did. — Bob Andelman)
Ruth Hoover heard radio talk show host Larry King talking all last week about a planned appearance in Tampa this past Thursday.
“I’d liked to have seen him,” said a disappointed Hoover, a regular listener of King’s for the last few months. “My husband had open heart surgery, and I’ve lost a lot of sleep because of that, so I’ve been up a lot of nights. (King) is very educational. A lot of things he says are controversial, like not believing In God or Christ, but you overlook that.”
Hoover is just one of the millions of listeners who tune into King from coast-to-coast. Locally, the late-night program Is heard on WPLP (57 AM) every Monday through Friday night beginning at 11.
LARRY KING interview excerpt: “When I was a kid, I’d ask questions of people and they’d always answer. At baseball games, other kids wanted autographs from the ‘players; I wanted to talk. I walked down the street once with Leo Durocher. I asked him, ‘Why did you bunt? Why did you do this?’ and he answered. I think it comes from being sincere. If you’re sincerely interested in the person, you should have no problem. Nobody can teach you that.”
King was in town as the keynote speaker of the 63rd annual Florida Library Association Conference and Trade Show at the Airport Holiday Inn. The appearance coincided with his 29th anniversary in broadcasting, a career that began in Miami on May 1, 1957.
“I had a great time (giving) the speech,” King said early Friday morning over coffee at the hotel, his resonate, familiar voice causing sleepy heads to turn in recognition. “I kid, tell old stories about what’s happened at other speeches – it’s just shtick. (The librarians) were fun, a very alert, very responsive group. I never plan, never know what I’m going to use. I always work on instinct, same as on the radio show. I always trust my instincts.”
With the responsibility of three-hour nightly radio shows, plus a one-hour nightly television program on CNN (“Larry King Live”) and a Monday morning column in USA Today, King is cutting down on his personal appearances by raising the ante from $5,000 to $10,000 per rubber chicken chitchat.
“I can’t be all work – I like baseball too much,” he jokes.
His love of sports brought King — a 20-year veteran of Miami sportscasting – into a whirl of controversy during the last NFL season.
As a special reporter for NBC’s “NFL ‘85” pre-game show, King played gossip, soothsayer and know ‘it-all. Critics and sports writers were not impressed with his “scoops” and “exclusives.”
“I had three sources around the country from Pro Football Weekly,” he explains. “NBC gave them to me. They wanted to stir things up a bit. I thought it was a riot. I live in Washington, where sources and rumors are used all the time.
“Every sports writer printed what I made, so I think there was jealousy,” he continues. “I think I was regarded as an invader. ‘Who was this guy on our turf?’ “
King won’t return to the program next year, although he says he was invited back at a higher salary. Instead, he’ll do work for NBC during the World Series and Breeder’s Cup. He won’t miss the football, he says, because the format was wrong for him.
“I much prefer interviewing people,” King says. “I would have rathered gone on and said, ‘I think the refereeing stinks in this league.’ Let me do it like in USA Today: ‘I hear that …’ or ‘This Is my opinion …’ “
Backbiting and all, the professional road hasn’t always been as relatively smooth as it is now for the former sportscaster turned multi media pied piper.
As recently as 1978, King – who is the first to say he doesn’t handle money well – was finding his way out from under an estimated $300,000 in debt. He was 44, bankrupt and at the end of his third marriage.
That year, the Mutual Broadcasting Network invited King to Washington to do all-night radio – a sort of never-closing convenience store for entertainment and commercials – beginning at midnight and continuing into the wee hours of the morn ing. Starting with 28 stations – there are now 292 – he became a best friend to long-distance truckers, lateshift employees, insomniacs, college students and the elderly.
“The Larry King Show” developed a reputation for attracting celebrities, politicians and sports heroes who might otherwise prefer not to talk to the press. With King, listeners could call in from anywhere and talk to him or his guest. King says he prepares as little as possible for guests and their topics. He does not spend all day at the studio lording over the production staff, he says, and has little-to-nothing to do with the selection of guests. He has no research or personal assistant, either.
Someone with less gusto might come over the airwaves sounding poorly with so little preparation, but King’s trademark is his permanent cool.
“You have it or you don’t,” he says. “It’s partially eye contact, a certain manner I’ve always had. When I was a kid, I’d ask questions of people and they’d always answer. At baseball games, other kids wanted autographs from the ‘players; I wanted to talk. I walked down the street once with Leo Durocher. I asked him, ‘Why did you bunt? Why did you do this?’ and he answered. I think it comes from being sincere. If you’re sincerely interested in the person, you should have no problem. Nobody can teach you that.”
As an interview subject himself, King offers less eye contact. His eyes flash at you, but then they roam the room or maybe just the edges of his personal universe, looking for a memory, an anecdote, an opinion
Sometimes King’s guests on TV follow him on the radio show the same night, as former budget director David Stockman did recently. After an hour or maybe three of chatting with the same person, King gives the impression that he and the guest are old pals chewing the fat, no matter to what length they may be at odds.
At midnight, King changes gears to something called “Open Phone America,” in which he goes one-to-one with his callers. This segment tends to be just as popular with regular listeners as the interview portion, because King gets personal. There are no guests; just Larry and Mr. and Ms. America.
“If it wasn’t personal, then it’s blah,” he says. “‘Open Phone America’ is me telling you what I think.”
“Open Phone America” cuts to the quick of King’s essence and strength as a personality. He is a bold liberal and daydreamer. It is the same stuff his USA Today columns are cut from.
“The columns that I do best are the ones that are strings of what I think,” he says.
One week, King wlll muse about what the best things In life are; the next he might suggest a list of projects he’d commence If given omnipotent power. Most of the time he I collects random, unconnected thoughts and gossip. It’s a fast, sometimes breathless, sometimes giggly read.
As many irons as King has in the fire and as much traveling as he does, the veteran broadcaster – now 52 – concedes he sometimes gets confused as to where he Is or is supposed to be.
“That happens when I nap,” he admits. “I’m a good napper. Sometimes I take a 5-minute nap at the I radio show. When I wake up, I don’t know where I am – TV, radio or home.” That very situation occurred Thursday night in Tampa. King went to sleep at 8 p.m. – early for him. “When I woke up, it was 12 mid night. I thought: ‘I missed the radio show!’ Then I was up at 3 a.m., and I didn’t know where I was.”
Financially, Larry King is not confused anymore. He’s doing very well, he says, making “more than I need.”
The difference between now and 10 or 15 years ago is that the talk show host no longer controls his own finances. It’s all handled out of Boston by a professional manager who also includes Boston Celtics star Larry Bird among his clients.
They were both part of a group that recently purchased WGY, a Schenectedy, N.Y., radio station sold by General Electric.
“I don’t know what a Mutual, CNN or USA Today paycheck looks like,” King says, “All I make goes to Boston. They handle all my funds, make investments. I have money ($250 a week) sent to me as an allowance, credit cards; I have money sent to my daughter in college … I don’t see a bill. I know what I make – the money they send right to Boston.
“Y’know the alcoholic that doesn’t handle liquor?” he continues. “I don’t handle money well. It took me some terrible things to have to happen to learn that, but since coming back, and especially since making big money, the last thing I think of is money.
“It does not make you happier to have all the money you need,” he says. “But it’s a tremendous stress reduction. It has nothing to do with your having a happier day. I probably laughed a lot more when I was borrowing from Peter to pay Paul down the street.”