Remembering Larry King – Radio Titan

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TIME’s Richard Zoglin remembers the fine career of Larry King:

The tributes may be pouring in, but the truth is that Larry King became something of a punch line in the past few years, at least among the media intelligentsia: dismissed for his softball questions, his lack of preparation (he took it as a point of pride to never read the books of people he interviewed), and in recent years his sometimes doddering lapses in attention. But I’ve always loved the guy. His approach to interviews — as a curious layman, as opposed to the armed-to-the-teeth insider — always struck me as a more fruitful, and humanly engaging, way to elicit information from most interview guests. But the point that ought to be made, in the wake of King’s announcement that he is ending his CNN talk show after 25 years, is that he was never really comfortable as a television personality. He grew up professionally, and reached his creative pinnacle, on radio.

After breaking in as a local radio personality in Miami, King hosted an all-night call-in show on the Mutual Radio Network from 1978 to 1984. There he set a standard for radio conversation that has never been matched. On the air for a killing five and a half hours a night (from midnight to 5:30 Eastern time), Larry had nothing but time, yet never seemed at a loss. One nightly guest would generally stay on the air for an hour or two, then came three or four hours of listener call-ins, dubbed “Open Phone America.” This was King in his glory: a master of extemporaneous, intelligent chat that could range from politics to trivia without ever being judgmental or self-aggrandizing. A lost art in today’s world of loudmouth, partisan radio talk.

Those conversations were evanescent, long forgotten; I would wake up to them in the middle of insomniac nights, and rarely fall back to sleep without hearing some little gem of adlib eloquence. Just one stayed with me: the night some anonymous caller, apropos of nothing, asked Larry who Lenny Bruce was. Not missing a beat, King proceeded to deliver a calm, compact, informed biography in 60 seconds: pioneering stand-up comedian, known for pushing the boundaries of taste, arrested for “obscene” material, dead of a drug overdose at age 40. Five or six perfectly crafted sentences off the top of his head that could have been printed unedited as the man’s obit. Then on to the next caller. That was a broadcasting artist.