Larry King, the broadcast legend who died Saturday at the age of 87, deserves more credit than he typically gets for helping to build CNN and realize Ted Turner’s audacious vision for a 24-hour global news network.
In his prime, King’s “Larry King Live” interviews regularly made headlines thanks to his unique questioning style, which could be remarkably incisive about the subject at hand as well as, occasionally, cringe-worthy misinformed. As CNN gained prominence in the late 1980s and ’90s, King’s show became one of the hottest stops on the TV circuit for newsmakers, political leaders, captains of industry, crusading activists and celebrities, ranging from Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli to Donald Trump and Oprah Winfrey to Suzanne Somers and Barbara Eden.
The variety of King’s guests and the fact that it went out live every night at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT gave the show extra sizzle. The inclusion of call-in questions from viewers was a nod to King’s earlier radio days as a talk jock. The host took cues about what the general public wanted to know from the tenor of his listeners’ queries.
In a sign of how much the media universe has changed, it’s unimaginable in the age of social media that major stars, ex-presidents, U.S. senators and myriad celebrities would go live for an hour on TV with an interviewer who proudly didn’t like to prepare. King’s show sought to be the Instagram of its time, a hub of news and dish on the story that everyone in the country was talking about on any given day.
Naturally, King had good instincts for compelling stories. He was capable of coaxing his guests to explain the human dimensions of scandals, political battles or issue advocacy campaigns. He made stars of crusading, camera-hunting lawyers like Mark Geragos, Johnnie Cochran and Alan Dershowitz.
King first became famous in Miami but never lost his Brooklyn touches. He had a baritone voice that was made for AM radio and a presence on TV that commanded attention. He showed genuine exuberance for his work and curiosity about the people, causes and controversies that came before his old-school signature microphone. As CNN’s international reach expanded in the 1990s, King’s show served as a beacon of American culture for the world.
“Larry King Live” mostly originated from CNN’s studios in Hollywood. That made King perfectly positioned to zero-in on the O.J. Simpson murder drama from day one, following the brutal stabbing deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in June 1994.
Family members of the Browns and the Goldmans and all manner of lawyers, witnesses and hangers-on connected to the case were regulars during the legal storm that engulfed O.J. Simpson in the mid-1990s. Simpson famously surprised King by calling in to his show (when his lawyer Cochran was the guest) the day after Simpson was acquitted of the murders in October 1995.
King was frequently criticized for softball questions and an overly friendly style. When Simpson called in, King mostly let him rant for about three minutes about the deficiencies of the prosecution’s case.
King made no apologies for his style when I sat down with him in 2013 in Miami. He was there for the annual NATPE programming convention to push international sales of his post-CNN interview show “Larry King Now.” King’s final series aired on the Ora TV digital platform funded by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.
King was proud of being an equity partner in the company. And while his reach may have been smaller than CNN, King’s legacy was strong enough to command such guests as Winfrey, Tony Hawk, Bob Woodward, Bill Maher, Ryan Seacrest, John Cena and many other boldface names.
In 2013, it was clear from his quips and cracks that King was still more than a little unhappy to have been ushered out of CNN after 25 years.
“I don’t answer to suits anymore,” he said with a grin. He was also clear that he didn’t feel the need to reinvent his approach to TV.
“I’m still doing what I did 55 years ago, asking questions of people,” King said.