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Remembering Broadcasting Legend Larry King

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Larry King, one of the most recognizable voices on television and before that on radio, died Saturday at the age of 87. He began his career in the '50s on the radio in Florida as a DJ, sportscaster and interviewer. By 1978, he had established himself as a national radio personality, hosting an all-night interview and call-in show on the Mutual Broadcasting Network, which won a Peabody Award in 1982. Then came television. "Larry King Live" ran on CNN for over 25 years. King taped over 6,000 episodes featuring interviews with a wide range of celebrities in entertainment, the arts, politics and society and became one of the best-known broadcast celebrities himself.

Terry interviewed Larry King in 1982, when FRESH AIR was a local program in Philadelphia and King was still hosting his overnight call-in show. By then, he was well-known for how he approached an interview - with abundant curiosity but minimal research. And if there was a book involved, he'd make a point of not reading it before interviewing the author.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LARRY KING: I think I'm a natural interviewer and also a street interviewer. By that I mean I don't plan an interview. I never think about what I'm going to ask ever. I approach the interview as I approach - when I was a kid, I did the same thing. Who are you? Why did you do what you do? Why does this happen? Why? Why? Why? And I'm intensely curious about people, all kinds of people. That means I'm curious if the plumber comes to the house to fix plumbing. I'm really curious about why he's a plumber.

So people say, well, if you don't read the book, how can you ask good questions about the book? And that's a dumb question. The reason it's a dumb question is if you don't read the book, you are so curious about that book, it's beyond belief how curious you are. Here's a guy written a book. A guy has written it. If you've read the book, you've lost some curiosity. Now, you may be curious about things in the book - fine. And I would never tell you don't do that. But from my method, there are times in the career where I have read the book since I'm reading books all the time. When I have read the book, I don't like the interview at all. I'm not curious about the book. And therefore, I do things I hate to do, like ask questions I know the answer to.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

A couple of things I'd like to know about what happens when you don't read the book. First of all, how can you figure out beforehand what's special about a person? And I don't mean necessarily how to get them to tell the great story that you know in advance is going to be really funny. But, like, what makes this particular ballet dancer, who you refer to, different than every other ballet dancer? How do you know to - where to reach for that?

KING: Well, one, I don't book the guests. I don't book the guests. Our production staff books the guests. And they will tell me, Miguel DiGuano (ph) is on Monday night. Miguel DiGuano's a famous Spanish ballet dancer. He came to the United States 10 years ago, and he became an instant hit. He's now in the most demand ballet dancer in America today, and CBS is doing a special on him - stop. That's all I want to know.

Now, don't tell me why he came here from Spain. Don't tell me where he grew up in Spain. Don't tell me his ballet background. That's all I want to know. And I would go on the air and say, my guest tonight is Domingo Madongo (ph). He's come from Spain 10 years ago. He's a very popular ballet dancer. But Domingo, where'd you grow up?

OK. Now, I could have said, Domingo grew up in Havana. He was born 14 - but I want to know the least - for example, if I were doing Reagan tonight, I could do a wonderful hour with Reagan having nothing to do with politics. Supposing I did Reagan on movies, would you turn that off? Supposing I talked to Ronald Reagan tonight and talked about, what films do you order at the White House? Who's your favorite actor? Does Robert De Niro do things you couldn't do?

See - because now I would spend the first half hour talking about something he spent 60 years of his life doing because everybody loves to talk about what they did. Absolutely. So I will wager certain things - that Reagan gets Variety every week, that Reagan's aware that "E.T." took in $126 million - got to be aware of it. That's his life - 60 years. I mean, if I became president of the United States, are you going to tell me that I'm not interested anymore in what numbers WTOP Radio gets in Washington? Of course I am. This was my life.

GROSS: You've been on this book tour for the past couple of weeks. Is there anything that you do that you feel really reinforced in or that you're thinking of changing, having spent the last two weeks on the other side of the microphone?

KING: I'd maybe like to broaden the interview to an hour and a half and do an hour-and-a-half phone calls because I've learned how much depth means. You know, you really don't know a person in 15 minutes. I like the longer, the better. I - see, I was very lucky. The first eight years I did radio and television, I never took a phone call. I would do a four-hour show every night with three, four guests, no phone calls. Like, we have taken no phone calls. This, to me, has been a learning kind of radio experience.

See, I would assume that this is excellent radio. The host knows better than I. Host always knows better than the guest. But the host feels pace. The host feels timing. The host feels responsiveness. But that's the best kind because the audience now is listening in to two people talk. And that's the magic. And radio does that especially well.

GROSS: You're from Bensonhurst in Brooklyn, and your name was Larry Zeiger before you changed it to Larry King. Did you want to do that yourself, or was it suggested by your station that you change it?

KING: It was suggested 10 minutes before I went on the air the first day. I'd always wanted to get into radio, and I was hanging around this station. And one guy quit. And on Friday night they told me, you start Monday morning, 9 o'clock with your own show, a disc jockey show. And it was 10 to 9. The general manager gave me a little pep talk, and I was nervous. And he said, what name are you going to use? And I had given it no thought at all. I said, Larry Zeiger. And he said, you can't use Zeiger. Zeiger doesn't make any sense. I mean, it's not a show biz name.

And he had the Miami Herald open. And there was an ad in there for King's - I think it was wholesale liquors; it could have been used autos, one or the other. And he said, how about Larry King? And that minute, I had a name and went on the air with it and then legally changed it two years later to avoid just confusion.

GROSS: I've been trying to place your voice. I mean, obviously it's the voice of Larry King. But is it Joseph Cotten I'm thinking of? (Laughter) Does your voice sound like Joseph Cotten?

KING: Gee, I don't know. You know, no one - I wish - I would hope that's true because he's one of my favorite voices of all time. And he's such a recognizable - I don't think I have very good voice. But what I have that's been fortunate to me is a very recognizable voice. I don't have great timbre. I certainly don't have a voice like Ken Nordine in Chicago or Orson Welles, who has one of the great voices ever down the pipes. But I have a voice that's different and, therefore, easily recognizable. Someone said if you turn it down - the radio down, you hear me talking, you know that that's me. And I have a lot of New York in it. But Joseph - that's a compliment if you hear Joseph Cotten 'cause Joseph Cotten would be someone I would list as a voice that's most memorable to me. I mean, you know it's Joseph Cotten.

But I never think about voice, never took a voice lesson. I just know that I love doing what we're doing right now. I love communicating. I was the kind of kid - and you probably were, too, because if you look back on your childhood and you look at age 10 or 11 or 12, you'll see you were doing things that led you toward this path. I was the kind of kid who liked to go to the ballgame, come back and tell everybody about it. Did you see what happened today?

DAVIES: That was Larry King speaking with Terry Gross in 1982. King died on Saturday at the age of 87 following a career that dated back to the 1950s, having interviewed an estimated 50,000 people from all walks of life.

On tomorrow's show, an inside look at negotiations in the 1990s which held the prospect of bringing peace between Israel and the Palestinians. We'll talk with filmmaker Dror Moreh about his documentary, "The Human Factor," based on candid interviews with American negotiators in those talks. And we'll speak with Dennis Ross, President Clinton's point man in the effort. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADRIAN CUNNINGHAM'S "LI'L DARLING")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer and technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.

For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADRIAN CUNNINGHAM'S "LI'L DARLING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.