In the mid-1970’s I was working at radio station WMBO in Auburn, N.Y., about a half hour west of Syracuse. Our station was affiliated with the Mutual Broadcasting System which announced it was launching a national live call-in show with a guy named Larry King. Never heard of him but they way they were promoting the guy you had to believe this was a smart move. Until then the only other live coast-to-coast call-in/opinion radio broadcast was something called “Nitecap” with host Herb Jepko which aired briefly on Mutual.
The network dropped him because Jepko didn’t do controversy. He was based in Salt Lake City, let people say what they wanted, as long as it was nice. He even let them sing. So along came this King character, a transplanted New Yawkuh who did a talk show in Miami Beach that featured celebrities who often played the showrooms of the big hotels there. He was a character. Brash, blunt and fun to listen to. His show was a hit locally, and then Mutual picked it up and King was a national star landing even bigger celebrities and getting them to spill whatever it is King was after.
In 1985 I had been working at CNN for four years. The young network struggled to fill the 9 p.m. eastern time hour with anything that pulled in viewers, but then someone had a bright idea of putting Larry King on TV. He had made his name hosting a successful national radio interview and call-in show. It worked. His show, basically a TV version of his radio show, was a mainstay on CNN for 25 years, landing the biggest stars, powerful government leaders and other influential people from all walks of life.
If there was a breaking story, King had no problem breaking in to put a newsmaker or a CNN correspondent on the air. That’s where our lives intersected ever so briefly.
After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, federal authorities descended on a farm in what’s known as Michigan’s “Thumb” about 90 minutes north of Detroit. The farm was owned by a guy named James Nichols. The feds got a tip that Nichols’s brother Terry and Timothy McVeigh, the chief suspects in the bombing, had practiced building the kind of bombs they used in Oklahoma City and that James may have also been complicit. Indeed, they arrested him and searched the farm and its buildings for evidence.
As Detroit Bureau Chief and correspondent, I was dispatched up there and spent three days doing live shots. On the first night of became known as the “siege” of the Nichols farm, everyone was trying to figure out who the hell James Nichols is and how he may have been connected with the bombing. Turns out he wasn’t.
We found a guy who knew Nichols and Larry King’s producer wanted me to interview him during Larry’s show. Big time! I was told to “take it slow and draw him out. Really dig into what this guy is all about.”
Ha! I figured I had plenty of time so when we got on the air I methodically interviewed the guy who said he knew Nichols from the times they spent at the local grain elevator. After about two minutes of establishing how the guy knew Nichols to build his credibility before digging in further, King jumps in. He was having no part of this slow walk into James Nichols’s psyche and barked, “Hey! Just tell me this. Is the guy a nut job?”.
My guest blanched and took a breath and insisted he did not at all think so, although Nichols did complain rather regularly about the government. King didn’t care for that and kept after this poor farmer trying to get him to say James Nichols was a crazy man who hated the government and could very well have been part of the plot.
All I could do was stand there. My role obviously over. The guy just kept looking over at me with a look that pleaded, “make this end!”
Well, it did when King tired of his insistence that Nichols seemed like an ok guy to him who would never be part of such a horrible crime and the segment ended.
Once we were off the air and clear, all I could say was “sorry” but then the guy surprised me by just smiling and saying “I was on the Larry King show! That’s big!”
Yes he was. RIP Larry King. A broadcasting legend.