Larry King built his life on communication and has conversed with the most famous and influential people in the world. No one would have guessed that a poor kid from Brooklyn would have some of the most famous conversations of all time…least of all Larry himself.
Larry King was born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger in Brooklyn, New York on November 19, 1933. He came from a working class, immigrant, Jewish family. From the beginning, Larry liked to talk, quickly gaining the nickname “Larry the Mouthpiece.” In school he even imitated radio announcers, much to his teachers’ dismay. He set his sights early on becoming a broadcaster. “When I was 5 years old I would lie in bed, look at the radio. I wanted to be on the radio. I don’t know why.”
But life would throw him a curveball. When Larry was nine, his father suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 44, leaving behind his broth-er Marty, and their mother. As a result of losing his father Larry lost interest in school, barely graduating from high school. And his poor vi-sion kept him out of the military. Instead, Larry focused his attention on helping support his mother and brother. He took a job in a hat factory, then delivered packages for UPS, and after that sold Borden Milk.
Larry never let go of his dream to be on the radio though. Sometimes he stood outside CBS, just to be close to the action. So, when, by chance, he met James Sirmons, a staff announcer at CBS, Larry asked him how to break into the business. Sirmons gave him the advice that would change Larry Zeiger’s life forever.
“Go down to Miami, kid. In Miami, people are either on the way out or they’re on the way up.”
On his very first day in Miami, Larry began knocking on every radio station’s door. At WAHR, a tiny local station, the general manager told Larry when there was a slot available he’d get his shot. So, when a morning DJ quit on Friday afternoon, the manager of WAHR told Larry to be ready the very next Monday.
When Larry arrived the general manager asked him what name he intended to use. “Larry Zeiger.” What else? The general manager said,
“Too ethnic.” With only minutes before he went on the air, Larry needed a new name. The newspaper sitting on the manager’s desk showed an ad for King’s Wholesale Liquor. That’s the moment Larry Zeiger, welfare kid from Brooklyn, became Larry King, radio host.
“Larry King” got off to a rocky start. When he opened his mouth to speak, nothing came out. Each time he tried his voice failed him. Finally, the general manager of the station kicked in the studio door and shouted, “This is a communication business, dammit! Communicate!”
Larry knew he had to say something, anything.
“Good morning. This is my first day ever on the radio. I’ve always wanted to be on the air. I’ve been practicing all weekend. A few minutes ago, they gave me my new name. I’ve had a theme song ready to play, but my mouth is dry. I’m nervous. And the general manger just kicked open the door.”
That moment taught Larry, “There’s no trick to being yourself.” He was never nervous on the air again.
The first radio interview he ever conducted was with his childhood hero, the legendary Brooklyn Dodgers Manager, Leo Durocher. Durocher hadn’t heard of Larry, but agreed to do the interview because the name Larry King “sounded like it was somebody important.” Soon after, Larry was offered to host a show live from a local restaurant, Pumpernik’s. The owner asked Larry to interview whoever came into the restaurant between ten and eleven a.m. to generate business. Larry inter-viewed waiters, vacationers and children. The show became a hit in Miami, and soon the likes of singer Bobby Darin and union boss Jimmy Hoffa were stroing in.
With his almost constant on air presence, Larry be-came known as Mr. Miami. A local television station gave him a weekly interview show, and the Miami Herald hired him to write a column. Larry’s dreams had come true. But, his life off the air was fraught with problems.
FOR LOVE OR MONEY
King admits that he has never been good with money or marriage. During his years in Miami, he had several marriages and divorces. Larry describes it this way, “What you’re like at twenty is not what you’re like at thirty. And what you’re like at thirty is not what you’re like at forty. And so on. When you look at the world that way, three marriages in a lifetime might be healthy… eight is not.”
Larry was equally troubled with finances. Even though he made plenty of money, he couldn’t manage it. He liked to gamble, regularly loaned his friends money he didn’t have and borrowed money he couldn’t pay back. He eventually borrowed from infamous financier, Lou Wolfson. When Wolfson went to prison for stock market manipulation he pulled Larry down with him, having him arrested for larceny. The charges were later dropped, but Larry King lost everything — his column, television and beloved radio show.
THE BIRTH OF TALK RADIO
It took several years for Larry King to get back on his feet. Eventually, the new general manager at the Miami station, called and offered Larry his old job back. Larry was back on the air for good. That’s when Larry met Ed Little. Little was the general manager of The Mutual Broadcasting System, a group of independent AM radio stations that broadcast from coast to coast. Ed had a radical idea, he wanted Larry King to host the first national radio talk show.
Just like that The Larry King Show was born, starting a trend that would transform the AM radio scene — leading to broadcasting giants like Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh. Larry moved to Washington, D.C. to be in the middle of the power and action. His show aired from midnight to five in the morning where he interviewed politicians, actors and sports stars. Before long people all over the country were listening, when-ever a huge story would break the phones at The Larry King Show would ring off the hook for weeks. For the next five years, Larry King was the hottest name in radio, catching the attention of an eccentric billionaire who was launching a new cable channel.
LARRY KING LIVE
Ted Turner never intended to hire “celebrity” hosts for his television shows. But he thought Larry King was a “good talker,” so he offered Larry a one-hour, prime-time interview show on the Cable News Network, or CNN.
“You couldn’t even watch my first show across the street from the studio where it was filmed because there was no cable connection in Washington,” Larry remembers. But Larry liked Ted Turner, and he loved working for CNN. Within five years, CNN was “the most trusted name in news.” Larry interviewed ev-ery major political figure, actor, and sports star of the 1980’s, 90’s, and 2000’s. Larry King Live became the go-to place when you had a cause to champion, a mov-ie to promote, or a scandal to manage. It was the show to watch when you wanted reassurance and answers, because Larry knew how to ask the right questions.
RETIREMENT? COME ON!
Larry King Live ran for twenty-five years and holds a Guinness World Record. By this time, Larry had mar-ried his current wife, Shawn Southwick-King, and they had two young sons. He’d been on radio or television for over fifty years, and conducted an estimated 50,000 interviews. In 2010, at the age of 76, Larry King decid-ed to call it quits.
However, after one year of retirement the news grabbed Larry King again and wouldn’t let go. In May of 2011 Navy SEALS raided a bunker in Pakistan and killed Osama Bin Laden. Larry recalls, “I literally jumped up and wanted someplace to go. And I had no place to go and talk about that story. And that really hit me… I missed communicating.”
But “the air” was changing, instead Larry ventured into a new medium: the internet. He still interviews some of the biggest names today on Ora.tv, which is available on the new media giants Hulu, Facebook and Twitter. Larry King Now is his traditional format, chatting about current affairs in a comfortable liv-ing-room setting. He also posts Facebook Live videos and his Twitter handle (@KingsThings) boasts 15,000 tweets with 2.8 million followers.
THE NEXT 60 YEARS
In April of 2017, Larry celebrated his 60th year in broadcasting, with no intention of stopping. At 83, Larry King has no interest in retirement. There will always be more questions to ask. Larry puts it this way, “The part I never lost is I keep my ego at the door. I rarely use the word ‘I’ in an interview. ‘I’ is totally irrelevant. The guest counts. I want to learn the most I can out of a guest; I’m incredibly curious.”