Larry King speaks to GW community about his historic career

March 15, 2010

World-renowned broadcaster Larry King has conducted more than 40,000 interviews in the past 53 years.

But on Thursday at The George Washington University, the tables were turned when Mr. King was interviewed by Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs.

As part of GW's Public Affairs Project Conversation Series, Mr. King discussed his long-standing career in front of a packed Jack Morton Auditorium.

"He's been on the front row of history throughout his career," said Mr. Sesno, a professor of media and public affairs and international affairs. "He has seen history. He has interviewed history, and he's recorded history."

Mr. King has interviewed every U.S. president since Gerald Ford. He interviewed Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman to be executed in Texas. And he's even interviewed Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and Paul McCartney.

Mr. King started broadcasting Larry King Live -- the first worldwide phone-in television talk show -- on CNN in 1985, and his guests have ranged from politicians to celebrities to business executives. He also does shows centered on topics such as depression or addictions.

"Still almost everyday I pinch myself that all this happened to me," said Mr. King. "You sit down and meet fascinating people. You get to ask questions. You get to feed your curiosity, and you're on a world stage."

As of June 1, Mr. King will have a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest running show in television history hosted by the same person at the same time on the same network.

Before coming to CNN, Mr. King began his career as a radio broadcaster in Miami Beach in 1957. Before going on the air for the first time, he changed his name from Lawrence Harvey Zeiger to Larry King. The station's manager thought his original name was too ethnic and difficult to remember.

Mr. King said he never gets nervous, even when he's interviewing a president because he remembers that "they are still human." And the only time he's been frightened was when he interviewed convicted murderers Sante Kimes and her son, Kenneth.

"He was the most hateful man I've ever seen. I said to myself if there aren't people around, he's going to kill me," Mr. King said.

This was not the first time Mr. King has visited GW.

In 1987, he had a major heart attack and was treated at the George Washington University Hospital. As a result of his heart attack, he established the Larry King Cardiac Foundation, which has raised millions of dollars and provided life-saving cardiac procedures for needy children and adults.

Mr. King, who received an honorary degree from GW, has also given $1 million in journalism scholarships to GW's School of Media and Public Affairs.

Unlike many broadcasters in the business today, Mr. King is rarely confrontational in his interviews.

"I never have an agenda, and I never go on the air and say, 'I'm going to rip them up.' I don't like to embarrass people. Instead, I like to learn," he said. "The worst way to do an interview is to be argumentative. While it may make for thrilling television, you don't learn anything."

In fact, if Mr. King got the chance to interview Osama bin Laden, his first question would not be why he bombed the World Trade Center. Instead, he said that he would ask why he left his rich family in Saudi Arabia to live in the desert.

Mr. King said his most important skill is listening.

"I try to ask good, short questions, and then I listen to the answers. I never learn anything while I'm talking," he said. "You never hear me use the word 'I' because there's really no reason to say it. It's only ego fulfilling."

One of the highlights of his career was when then-Vice President Al Gore asked to have a debate with Ross Perot about the North American Free Trade Agreement on Mr. King's show in 1993. About 16.3 million people tuned in for the debate, making it the highest rating in CNN history.

In 2002, the industry magazine, Talkers, named Mr. King the fourth greatest radio talk show host and the top television talk show host of all time. He received an Emmy Award for outstanding interviewer and been inducted into the halls of fame for both radio and broadcasters.

"The only secret in this business is no secret. Be yourself," he said. "The audience is either going to like you or not like you. All you can do is be yourself."