By: Wale Alabi
The famous broadcast journalist, Larry King of CNN who passed on recently was acclaimed globally for the savvy, panache and intelligence he brought to his job in a career spanning over five decades both on radio and TV. But unknown to many of his fans, King who died of Covid-19 complications wobbled and fumbled on his first day on radio. In this revealing confession, King recounted his debut in broadcasting…
” If you could have been a fly on the wall in a Miami Beach radio studio thirty seven years ago and witnessed my first morning in broadcasting, you would have bet the ranch that i was the last guy who could even survive, much less succeed, as a professional talker.
It happened at station WAHR, a small station across the street from the police station, on First Street, just off Washington, on the morning of May 1, 1957. I had been there three weeks, hanging around, hoping to break into my dream world of radio. The station’s general manager, Marshal Simmonds told me he liked my voice(another thing i can’t take credit for), but he didn’t have any openings. That didn’t discourage me. I was willing to take my chances, and i told him so. He said fine – if i hung around, i’d get the job the next time he had an opening.
I had just set out from Brooklyn, knowing l could live with my uncle, Jack and his wife in a small apartment within waliking distance of the station while waiting for my big break. I didn’t have any money, just my uncle’s roof over my head for shelter. I went to the station every day, watching the disc jockeys on the air, the newscasters reporting the news, and the sportscaster giving sports results.
I watched in silent fascination as l saw stories come over the AP and UPI wires for the first time. I wrote a few little stories myself, hoping somebody will use them on air. Suddenly, after three weeks, the morning dee-jay quit. Marshal called me into his office on a Friday and told me l had the job, starting at nine o’clock Monday morning. I’d make fifty-five dollars a week. I’d be on from nine until noon Monday through Friday. In the afternoon i would be doing newscasts and sportscasts until getting off at five o’clock.
My dream had come through! Not only was l getting on radio – I was going to be on for three hours at a time every morning, plus another half a dozen times or so every afternoon. I was going to be on the air as often as Arthur Godfrey, the superstar on CBS. I didn’t sleep that whole weekend. I kept rehearsing things to say on air. By eight thirty on my first morning, l was a basket case. I was drinking coffee and water for the dryness in my mouth and throat. I had the record with my theme song, Les Elgart’s “Swingin’ Down the Lane”, with me , ready to cue it up on the turntable as soon as l went into the studio. In the meantime, l was getting nervous by the minute.
Then Marshall Simmonds called me into his office to wish me good luck. After l thanked him he asked, “What name are you going to use?” “Well, you can’t use Larry Zeiger. It’s ethnic. People won’t be able to spell it or remember it. You need a better name. You are not going to use Larry Zeiger.” He had the Miami Herald open on his desk. There was a full page ad for King’s Wholesale Liquors. Marshall looked down and said simply, “How about Larry King?”
” Fine. That will be your name – Larry King. You will host The Larry King Show.”
So there l was, with a new job, a new show, a new theme song, even a new name. The news comes up at nine, and l’m sitting in the studio with “Swingin’ Down the Lane” cued up ready to broadcast The Larry King Show to a waiting world. My mouth feels like cotton. As my own engineer (always the case at a small station), l started the theme. The music comes on. Then l fade the music down so l can begin to talk. Only nothing comes out. So l bring up the music again and fade it again. Still no words coming out of my mouth. It happens a third time. The only thing my listeners are hearing is a record going up and down in volume, unaccompanied by any human voice.
I can still remember saying to myself that I’d been wrong, that l was a street gabber but l wasn’t ready to do this professionally. I knew l would love this line of work, but clearly I was not ready for it. I didn’t have the guts to do it.
Finally Marshall Simmonds, the man who had been so kind in giving me such a tremendous opportunity, exploded as only a general manager can. He kicked open the door to the control room with his foot and said five words to me, loud and clear: “This is a communications business!” Then he turned and left.
In that instant l leaned forward toward the microphone and said the first words l ever spoke as a broadcaster:
“Good morning. This is my first day ever on the radio. I’ve always wanted to be on air. I’ve been practising all weekend. Fifteen minutes ago they gave me my new name. I’ve had a theme song ready to play. But my mouth is dry. I’m nervous. And the general manager just kicked open the door and said, “This is a communications business,”
Being able to say at least something gave me the confidence to go on, and the rest of the show went fine. That was the beginning of my career in talking. I was never nervous on radio again.
I learned something about talking that morning in Miami Beach, whether you’re on the air or off: Be honest. You can never go wrong, in broadcasting or in any area of speech. Arthur Godfrey told me the same thing about how to be a successful broadcaster: Let your listeners and viewers share your experiences and how you feel.”
- Adapted from : How to Talk to Anyone, Anytime, Anywhere By Larry King