(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from chapter 6 (“King and I”) of former talk media producer Bernadette Duncan’s landmark book Yappy Days: Behind the Scenes with Newsers, Schmoozers, Boozers and Losers (Talkers Books, 2016)
By Bernadette Duncan
My late shift at NBC Radio Networks where I produced the Neil Myers Show ended at 1:00 am and no other talk producer was on the premises.
All that was required? Meet Mr. King in the lobby, escort him to the elevator, guide him down the hall to the nearest empty studio, check mics and audio, and then be prepared to do the same with the on-coming, big-name parade of guests scheduled for the night. Basically, I was a “handler” for an extra 75 bucks a shift.
At the time, this pre-suspenders-wearing Larry King was one of the most successful radio talk show hosts in the industry who at the height of his show’s prominence had nearly 500 affiliate stations around the country.
Just the year before, in 1985, he began hosting a nightly TV program on the new cable network called CNN (for Cable News Network) and “Larry King Live” was getting some buzz. In addition to television at 9:00 pm… then radio after midnight… he was in contract to write a book. Larry King’s career was hot.
And it was this book deal with a New York-based publisher that brought him to the Big Apple four or five days a month to meet with his editor face-to-face. I became his New York producer/handler, working in coordination with his crew in Washington, DC.
Down the rabbit hole with the talk king
Little did I realize when I signed up with “the King of Talk,” I would dive into a world as quirky as what you’d find down Alice’s rabbit hole.
Consider these highlights of Larry King’s life. The Brooklyn-born Lawrence Harvey Zeiger was nine when his dad died and his mother went on welfare. He had been arrested for grand larceny in Miami in 1971 (the charges were dropped months later) and battled a gambling addiction over the years (only to evolve into a huge philanthropist later in life).
By the time I was working with him in 1986, he had been married and divorced five times. (Later on, wife #8, Shawn Southwick, joked that she’s the only spouse to celebrate a double-digit anniversary with him.) Larry was as much a topic to discuss as the guests who came in studio.
His regular staff in DC booked the guests, faxed me the show materials, and told me how Larry liked his coffee. As the coordinating producer, I doled out the background materials for each live guest, sprang into action should a mic fall off the stand, and made sure everyone had coffee. (Larry’s, by the way, was black with one Sweet ‘n Low.) The show ran live during the overnights. Other than going without much sleep, from my perspective at the time, I had landed a primo gig.
A-tier, B-tier, and not so many C-tier
I’m not the kind of person prone to being star-struck. However, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to having a wide-eyed respect for the magnitude of the “names” coming through that studio door.
After all, that was Larry King sitting on the other side of glass. Not only was I getting paid to open his mic (and get him coffee), but also to schmooze with the biggest celebs of the day – Bill Cosby, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Dave Letterman, and Geena Davis, just to name a random handful (and, yes, get them coffee, too). It was People magazine on parade.
What I didn’t expect in those early days was to see how someone like veteran actor Danny Aiello was just as “star struck” to be in the same studio with Larry as was I. Aiello watched King as if in a trance, never blinking, and never having one sip of the coffee I so skillfully delivered.
Aiello wasn’t the only guest who became mildly ga-ga. When House Speaker George Mitchell dropped by, he was so flustered that I needed to show him in very simple terms how to position the headset onto his ears and adjust the volume. (And all the while I was thinking, what am I doing here messing around with George Mitchell’s earlobes — a man four breaths and eight eardrums away from the Presidency!)
Over the six years I worked with Larry, I met another kind of guest who I came to call the “celebrity-groupie.” This was someone who was recognizably famous, but not always top-of-mind. He or she would drop in studio to perch themselves under Larry’s wing, all the while remaining quiet and unannounced to the listeners while Larry was on the air. It seemed to me at the time that these “studio flies” dropped in for career or personal advice, while studying Larry with great intensity. They would unleash oodles of questions during commercial breaks – which by the way, could last as long as eight minutes. From where I sat on the other side of the glass, I heard startlingly raw exchanges that I came to call “the-talk-show-behind-the-talk-show” that listeners had no clue exited. (Sally had her own version of “studio flies,” if you recall.)
Long before the host of MSNBC’s “Hardball” landed his own gig on TV, Chris Matthews was one such visitor. At the time, Matthews was a “talking head,” a regular political analyst on shows such as “Crossfire” and “Meet the Press.” His credentials were impressive with that Inside-the-Beltway sort of intensity in his eyes and always nicely tailored in a navy jacket and paisley tie. At the time, he was the Washington, D.C. bureau chief for the San Francisco Examiner, a former speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, and one-time top aide to Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.
Years later, in his book Now, Let Me Tell You What I Really Think (Free Press, 2002), Matthews shared his philosophy for career success: “I think that in order to win the game, you first need a seat at the table.” For a portion of the book, he describes how he found a seat with various influential people. Ten years after he sat in the studio with Larry, Matthews was hosting his own program.
Another such visitor was sportscaster Bob Costas, who dropped by multiple times. During commercial breaks, I’d hear snippets of conversation, which in looking back now, I understand must have foreshadowed Costas’ failing first marriage. Costas was hosting the sports radio version of a Larry King-esque chat show. Like Chris Matthews, years later, Costas would land a TV show of his own that drew more on sports figures than general celebrities.
My big moment
Most nights, Larry and his Washington, DC staff packed the house with A-tier guests. Sometimes B-tier. And usually his interviews glided on their own momentum in a “touchy-feely-kissy” style. Unlike the “gotcha mentality” that emerged from hosts who came along later, Larry would and could strike up a conversation that you’d more likely have with someone while waiting on line at the movie theater. Nothing confrontational. But hey – A-listers are interesting in and of themselves.
Which made one particular interview even more striking because it didn’t fit the norm. First, the guest was a “phoner,” an author who connected to us by phone. Second, she was not even a C-tier guest. In fact, I can’t even remember her name or book title, though I’ll never forget the topic, childhood sexual abuse. Childhood sexual abuse? Third, since when does Larry cover a topic like this? Everyone knows he was all about celebrities, pundits, musicians and politicians, right? So I figured this must have been a favor for a friend.
Regardless. The interview was scheduled to run an uncharacteristic 15-minutes. And 15-minutes only.
A moment here to reference Larry’s often-shared philosophy of conducting an interview: “I don’t read the guest’s book so I can experience it along with the listener,” he’d often tell journalists over the years who’ve inquired about his long and successful career. “I ask questions that the listeners may have, based on the fact they haven’t read it either. We experience it together.”
With that in mind, a producer’s job could potentially become challenging. After all, we were charged with keeping the show flowing. And on this particular night with nothing other than the author’s name and book title (remember — no internet access yet for a quick search about the subject matter) we were, in a word, screwed.
Within 30 seconds of the interview’s start, a pained look grew on Larry’s face as he squirmed in the chair. I gathered that Larry King had never given the slightest thought to this subject. The conversation that unfolded before me was littered by pauses and intermittent stumbles in thought. And though it was scheduled to be a mere 15 minutes, it felt more like 15 hours.
Fortunately (as it turned out), years earlier as a writer with the teen magazine Seventeen, I had not only covered this topic a half-dozen times, but was also loaded with questions. Here I sat fresh with strict orders from my boss ringing in my head: “If the talent doesn’t notice you’re sitting there, then you’ve done your job well. Remember – you’re just a facilitator between Larry and his Washington team.” In other words, keep your mouth zipped.
The anxiety mounted on both sides of the glass – a flustered Larry King with his guest and me, as I watched this respected interviewer twist and turn. I had never talked into his headset before, especially during a live interview, and barely knew where to locate the mic designated “talk back.” I even tried to deliver my suggested talking points to him telepathically. But still, no go.
So finally when I could no longer stand the torture watching him squirm, I leaned in to the talkback mic on my side of the glass, pressed the tiny white Chiclet–sized button and whispered, “At what point when you’re dating do you tell someone about your history?”
My heart stopped, my mouth went dry, and our eyes connected. And for a second I wasn’t sure what his reaction would be. Then he repeated those exact words into his mic across 500 stations around the country. An electric charge surged through me. In that moment I understood this job was not about an Ivy League education but rather a judgment call you make while sitting in the hot seat – and on no sleep. You can’t study for this.
A minute later, the guest was winding up her answer. Larry looked my way. I was one for one. I inched into the talkback and tossed another.
“How does a victim overcome such a trauma?”
Once again, those very words shot out the mouth of the “King of Late Night Radio” and I shot a glance over to the clock. Eight minutes remained for the interview and it felt like forever. Nothing like pressure to inspire a brainstorm session. I flung another question and then another and then another, each one a shot out the park. Before you knew it, the segment was over. He said goodbye and we moved seamlessly onto the next hour. Nary a word was spoken.
But it changed me for forever. It was my induction into “the art of the judgment call.” Those policies my boss called “firm rules.” Well, guess what? That night, I learned that rules were sometimes made to be broken. As my program director said to me early on, “If the host says nothing, then you did a good job.”
I never used the talkback in that way again with Larry – I never had to. His Peabody Awards, five Ace Awards and multiple other recognitions spoke to the talent. Larry could connect to his audience and his guest by asking the “every man” question, even with the biggest guests of the era. Take the one addressed to former-President Richard Nixon who came onto Larry’s television show in 1990 to talk about his book, In the Arena: A Memoir of Victory, Defeat and Renewal (Simon & Schuster, 1990).
“When you drive pass the Watergate Hotel,” Larry asked the 77-year-old former Commander-in-Chief, “do you ever want to go in and see where it all happened?” (For the record, the answer was “No.”)
In Larry’s book On the Line: The New Road to the White House (Harcourt, 1993), he describes his interview style this way: “Our show is more like a town meeting than a news conference. I do not go into an interview as a reporter would, armed with statistics to refute the latest political spin coming out of the White House or Congress. I’m better at drawing people out than explaining policy. I know what I do best – and I’ve made a pretty good living at it. But because I am not a journalist, I do not always ask the follow-up questions a reporter would ask.” In so many ways, he was just a “regular guy” – at least in terms of his on-air approach.
Bernadette Duncan is the author of Yappy Days: Behind the Scenes with Newsers, Schmoozers, Boozers and Losers (Talkers Books, 2016). She is also a college professor and public speaker on the topics of journalism, media and writing. She can be reached at TALKERS at 413-565-5413 or by email at HeyBHarrison@gmail.com.