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An Appreciation: Larry King 1933 – 2021
January 23, 2021  | By David Hinckley  | 2 comments

In the interview biz, Larry King could getcha because he wasn't about gotcha.

King died Saturday at the age of 87. At the time of this writing, his cause of death has not been announced, but King suffered from numerous health problems over the years and became hospitalized with COVID-19 approximately a month ago.

He spent more than 60 years in radio and television; however, he was best known for his interviews that ran the gamut from delivery boys to a half dozen U.S. presidents, movie stars, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

King always said, accurately, that his interview secret was to ask a simple question, then sit back and listen to the answer. He said he wanted the spotlight to shine on the guest and followed that plan so well and for so long that he ended up becoming a star himself.

With a raspy voice that never completely lost its Brooklyn roots, thick glasses, and a signature pair of suspenders, King embedded himself so deeply in popular culture that he guest-starred as himself in more than 60 movie and TV productions and five different Saturday Night Live performers impersonated him.

The real-life King, who started as a disc jockey on a small Miami radio station in 1957, didn't get to that stature overnight. He only became a national institution after CNN hired him in 1985 for the evening talk show Larry King Live, resulting in over 30,000 interviews and ran for 25 years.

But he'd been laying the groundwork for years. A handful of interviewers rise above the large interview pack because they can secure the guests that everybody else wants. Larry King methodically made his way into that elite.

He did it with the simple trick of making guests feel comfortable. His questions would not be accusations. They would not be implicit demands that the guests explain themselves or justify some action. They would not place the guest on the defensive.

His was not "gotcha" journalism. It was a cordial conversation during which the guest could decide how much or how little he or she wanted to say. It wasn't that King never followed up or pressed. His interviews just stopped short of arguments.

As a result, King was often called the master of softballs, providing guests a forum to slip around troubling or awkward matters for which they should be called to account.

While King rejected the softball label, he acknowledged a bit of its premise. He famously said he did as little interview preparation as possible, preferring to get information as the interview went along, and he allowed that Larry King Live was more "infotainment" than straight journalism.

Whatever his intentions and motives, it landed him presidents and entertainers like Prince, who rarely talked to anybody. After O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder, his first interview went to Larry King.

If King didn't wring confessions out of his guests, his fondness for seeming non-sequiturs often elicited fun facts. Who's your favorite baseball player, what's your favorite breed of dog, how do you feel about aliens.

That seeming stream of consciousness was also the tack he took with a newspaper column he wrote for USA Today, and he made no apologies for roaming all over the map with either his own comments or his questions. That, he said, is how conversation works. If he found himself having lunch with George W. Bush or Mario Cuomo, those are the kinds of things he'd talk about.

Let someone else drill down into corporate tax incentive policy. King wanted to get a sense of the person to whom he was talking, whether that person was the boss of a television network or a random civilian midnight phone caller from Pocatello.

He talked about himself in similarly random ways, leaving a trail that anyone who was interested could follow. Biographers might start with the fact he was married eight times (to seven women), putting him in the league of Jerry Lee Lewis (7), Zsa Zsa Gabor (9), Elizabeth Taylor (8, twice to actor Richard Burton), Artie Shaw (8), and Henry VIII (6).

Whatever the issues there, Larry King, the interviewer, worked from an optimistic and rather uplifting premise: that there was something interesting about everybody. The interviewer's job was to poke around and find it.

Larry King was hardly the first or only host who treated interviews more like a chat than an inquisition. That's why Howard Stern is a good interviewer. Or the late Don Imus. Good podcasts often have that tone.

Still, Larry King would never be mistaken for anyone else, and if listeners sometimes rolled their eyes, he made his guests seem like people, not targets.

The interesting part of interviewing, he said, was not the talking. It was the listening. Cliched, simplistic, quaint, and folksy as that might sound, he was onto something that is not universally appreciated or practiced in the interview game.

There are worse legacies to leave behind than civil conversation.

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They have a very welcoming and a gracious staff! Including the best customer service I have ever received, they are surely one of the best! Suggested to all!
Nov 20, 2022   |  Reply
What did Larry King have in common with Don Imus and Howard Stern? Primarily, they were all radio guys. They came up through the Theater of the Mind medium, where what you're wearing, your facial expression, body language or the studio lighting weren't relevant to the listener. The secret sauce is tone of voice, choice of words, the occasional "pregnant pauses" of dead air, and a relatable sense of humor. All those guys, and so many more professionals who came up through radio - even if, like King, they later migrated to TV - learned how to keep an audience engrossed with just the medium of sound. There's a craft to going it well, but it's also an art. Some of the NPR people are among the best-in-class currently, but back when commercial radio was still relevant, the names David mentioned were among the best of their generation. (Some might say Stern still is.) RIP, Larry.
Jan 24, 2021   |  Reply
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