Remembering Larry King, the most famous interviewer on CNN

Larry King was on the radio and television for over half a century

Today's expression: Partial to
Explore more: Lesson #337
February 11, 2021:

Larry King, who interviewed countless celebrities, politicians, and anyone else with a story to tell, passed away at the age of 87 last month. He hosted the highest-rated cable television talk show, Larry King Live, on CNN for 25 years, and was on radio and television for over half a century. Plus, a personal experience with Larry King and the English expression “partial to.”

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Larry King, the most famous interviewer on CNN, has died at age 87

Lesson summary

Hi there, thanks for joining us for Plain English Lesson number 337. I’m Jeff; JR is the producer; and the full lesson is online at PlainEnglish.com/337.

Coming up today: Larry King, one of the most famous radio and TV hosts in America, has died. He was on the radio and television for over half a century and hosted the highest-rated cable television talk show, Larry King Live, on CNN. I’ll also tell you about the one time I heard Larry King in person. The expression is “partial to” and JR has a song of the week.

Larry King was the face of CNN

Larry King, the most recognizable face on CNN for decades and a prolific interviewer, died last month at age 87. “Larry” was on a first-name basis with the most famous celebrities, the most powerful politicians, and millions of callers and viewers during his half-century career in broadcasting, starting on the radio in Florida and ending with an online interview show in the twenty-first century.

Larry King first became known to Americans as host of a national radio program that was on the air from midnight to 5:30 a.m.—five and a half hours on the air each day—or, I should say , each night. He would interview a guest for 90 minutes, take calls from the listening audience with the guest for 90 minutes, and then spend the rest of the program taking calls from the audience about whatever they wanted to talk about. He did that from 1978 through 1994. The show started small, but was eventually syndicated to over 500 radio stations in the US.

Larry King, however, is best known for his television interview show on CNN. It began in June 1985, when CNN was just five years old. It became the most popular show on CNN, attracting over a million viewers a night. It lasted 25 years, a record for a single host in a single time slot, 9 p.m. eastern. It was just an hour, so the format was different from the radio show. He would interview a guest—it could be anyone—and then he would sometimes take calls from the audience on the air. We’ll get to that part in a second, but first, the guests.

He talked to everyone—celebrities, politicians, victims of crime, criminals themselves, celebrity lawyers, “experts” on UFO’s, psychics, sports stars, royalty, dictators, anyone. He interviewed over 50,000 people in his career. He interviewed every American president since Richard Nixon. He interviewed Vladimir Putin shortly after he became Russia’s president in 2000. He interviewed Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at a time when the US president refused to talk to him. Larry interviewed the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and Venezuelan president for life Hugo Chavez. He interviewed serious figures—Margaret Thatcher, Nelson Mandela, Mikhail Gorbachev—and not-so-serious figures, like Kermit the Frog and a guy who promised to talk to your deceased relatives for you.

Larry was especially partial to celebrity gossip and crime, dedicating numerous shows to the death of Michael Jackson, the murder trial of football star OJ Simpson, the overdose death of the model Anna Nicole Smith, and countless other sensational crimes and celebrity controversies.

Larry had a soft interview style, meaning that he didn’t ask direct, probing questions. His philosophy was that he wanted to let the guests do the talking. If he had an author on the show, Larry didn’t read the author’s new book. He simply asked on the show, “What’s it about?” and took the conversation from there.

Guests knew they would get this kind of treatment on Larry King Live, which is why some controversial people chose Larry King’s show when they wanted to do an American interview. Larry opened his interview with the Libyan dictator by saying, “You’ve been in power since 1978. It’s a long time,” and then he let Gaddafi speak.

Other times, he hosted debates between guests. He’d have political debates between candidates. He’d host people to debate philosophical or religious questions, like “Why does God allow people to do bad things?” or “What happens when we die?”

Larry would often let CNN viewers call in and pose questions to the guests, including sometimes the famous guests. The callers didn’t get the cushy, softball treatment the guests got. He had a gruff style with callers, honed during his years doing late-night radio. He never identified a caller by name—he addressed callers by their city. He’d bark out, “Albuquerque, New Mexico, you’re next” or “Staten Island, New York, hello!” When Larry King said, “hello!” to a caller, it wasn’t a greeting: it was a direct order to get right to the point.

The set CNN was very simple. King and his guests would sit at a Y-shaped desk. There was a microphone, a coffee cup, and a small clock on the desk, a nod to Larry’s radio heritage. The microphone was just a prop; Larry and his guests used lapel microphones.

The background was a black wall with a stylized map of the world, made out of brightly-colored dots. When the camera zoomed out, it was clear that it was a map of the world. But in close-up shots, you just saw a blur of blue, red, and yellow lights on a black background behind the person speaking.

Larry was always dressed the same way. He wore a dress shirt, a tie, his black-rimmed glasses, and his one signature article of clothing: suspenders. Suspenders are fabric loops that clip onto the waistband of your pants and loop over your shoulders. It’s a way to keep your pants up without having to wear a belt; Larry started wearing them after he had surgery and lost weight.

Larry King had a turbulent personal life. He was married eight times to seven women. He married his high-school girlfriend, he married a math teacher, he married a businesswoman, he married an actress, and he married a Playboy Bunny model—that’s the one he married twice. He once got married in his hospital room as he was preparing to have heart surgery.

He was born Lawrence Zieger in Brooklyn in 1933, but he always wanted to be on the radio. He went to Florida to work as an assistant at a radio station. The morning DJ quit and the station manager asked him to take over . Minutes before his first broadcast in 1957, the station manager decided he didn’t want “Lawrence Zieger” on the air: that wasn’t a name for show business. So it was decided, at the last minute, that Lawrence Zieger would thereafter be Larry King.

A recognizable voice

Here’s a funny story. I was at the Museo Soumaya in Mexico City. The museum has a unique layout. You walk in on the ground floor and the exhibits are on ramps that circle the perimeter of the interior. So as you walk through the exhibits, you’re actually walking up the museum, in a spiral pattern, until you get to the top, about the equivalent of seven floors up. And the whole time you can see down to the lobby and across to the other side.

I was up on, probably, the fourth floor. And since it’s a spiral, you can look down at the lobby from almost any point in the museum. So I was up there on the fourth floor and I heard Larry King’s voice. He had a voice that you would not mistake. There is no other voice like it. I heard it and I said, that’s Larry King.

Remember, this is the fourth floor of a museum in Mexico City. This is not the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue or the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. But I heard the voice and I said, that’s Larry King: where is he? And so I looked down to the lobby and sure enough, there are Larry King and his wife posing for photographs in the lobby.

That just shows you how unique his voice was, but also how many times I had heard it over the years. I had probably not heard Larry King’s voice in many years at that point, but it was a voice I would never—will never—forget.

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Expression: Partial to