Larry King was the World Football League's Biggest Success
By Evan Weiner
December 31, 2010
(New York, N. Y.) -- It is hard to believe that the most successful man that emerged from the financial wreckage of the World Football League was Larry King, the cable TV news yenta. There is no better term than the Yiddish expression yenta to describe what Larry King did as he was never much more than someone who was unprepared to ask any real questions and seemed out of touch with what he did for a living which was ask questions.
Larry King's career almost ended in 1971 when he was arrested and charged with grand larceny. The charges were dropped in 1972 but King had been fired by WIOD radio and WTVJ-TV in Miami and lost has gig as a Miami Dolphins radio announcer. Larry King eventually would go back to work with the Shreveport Steamer of the World Football League.
The stint with Shreveport rehabilitated King's image enough that he could return to Miami. The World Football League had grandiose visions of conquering the sports world globally. The league had 12 teams, Anaheim, Birmingham, Chicago, Detroit, Honolulu, Houston, Jacksonville, New York, Orlando, Philadelphia, Portland and Toronto. John Bassett, whose family had a share of the Toronto Maple Leafs, signed a trio of high profile Miami Dolphins -- Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield -- but was thrown out of Toronto by Parliament which threatened to ban on American football played in Canada as a protection measure to keep the Canadian Football League from having competitors, Bassett moved his franchise to Memphis in the pre-North American Free Trade Agreement days. New York's owners couldn't make it in an old stadium on Randall's Island and fled to Charlotte. The wheels came off the Detroit Wheels (a team that played a "home game in London, Ontario without a single complaint from Parliament) and the franchise was terminated after 14 weeks along with the Jacksonville franchise. Houston moved to Shreveport, which was most fortuitous for Larry King.
The league returned in 1975 and Shreveport was still playing football. The league never made it through year two but Larry King did his time and was back in action in Miami. For those who knock new sports leagues and the most glaring example of unprofessional bias when it came to new leagues was Sports Illustrated's Tex Maule who was through and through a National Football League cheerleader, apologist and an American Football League hater back in the 1960s, the list of people who cut their professional teeth in new leagues is exceptionally long and filled with very familiar names like Larry King, like Bob Costas (American Basketball Association), present day New York Yankees announcer John Sterling was the play by play guy for the World Hockey Association's New York Raiders, the American Basketball Association's New York Nets and the New York Stars/Charlotte Hornets WFL team.
New leagues give people opportunities and one of those people was Larry King.
King continued to dabble in sports and got his big break in 1978 when he got the overnight national Mutual radio talk show that was originally intended for New York radio personality Long John Nebel. Luck played a role as Nebel died and one of King's Miami bosses took over Mutual and offered him the spot. King's show would eventually move to Washington and sometimes King would fall asleep during the show and have to be awakened by a producer.
The show seemed more fit for a conversation at Duke Zeibert's than a radio show but King was non confrontational and seemed to be likable. In radio, perceived perception is what programmers want. King was easy going and didn't ask any poignant questions. Somehow he caught the eye of Ted Turner and CNN and began a 25-year run on the network in 1985. When King started, CNN was a news outlet, at the time of his final show, CNN was nothing more than an empty gabfest and it was quite possible that King's ascendancy to cable TV prime time began the downward spiral of cable TV news in America.
King was a hot commodity after joining CNN. He was a part of Washington Capitals hockey presentations and did a column for USA Today, which was little more than a word here and a sentence here, and always seemed to have one line that Major League Baseball is returning to Washington. The columns never were revealing and were never considered Pulitzer worthy but somehow King won a number of major awards including Emmys and a Peabody. He also provided a precursor to what would become partisan cable TV "news" as his show was a landing spot for all politicians who wanted a feel good interview.
Illustrating that point, former President Bill Clinton paid tribute to King along with pop culture figures. It is unseemly that Clinton and other political leaders would pay any tribute to King. It is understandable that Tony Bennett gave King a send off but political leaders?
King's on camera persona didn't necessarily mirror his off camera life. One time, when he was using the CNN studios across the street from Madison Square Garden, King started an ugly fight with a New York Rangers staffer over his right to enter a media room for a free meal. The staffer refused to allow him in the room and he started screaming that he would call Sumner Redstone (whose company owned Madison Square Garden and the Rangers) and have the staffer fired. He used the "don't you know who I am line" and the staffer said “yes but you don't have a credential.” The staffer suddenly disappeared about a week later. King walked into the Garden because the guy at the media entrance door on 33rd street, Bruno, let him in. He was Larry King, after all.
King is an important figure in American TV and radio. Howard Cosell once remarked that when they write the history of TV, they will write about the "three C's" -- Cronkite, Carson and Cosell but not necessarily in that order. Howard was right about the impact of Walter Cronkite, Johnny Carson and himself during their eras. Cronkite represented a high standard of news coverage, Carson was the king of late night TV and Howard was, well he was Howard---both the most beloved and hated TV personality of his time. But Cosell didn't see King's influence before he died in 1995. King made the leap from over night radio to cable TV and was successful. That opened the door for non descript, mediocre talents like Sean Hannity, Alan Colmes, Glenn Beck to do the same. Oddly enough Rush Limbaugh never transferred well to TV. King's CNN changed prime time headline news and instead of reporting news, CNN's other news outlet brought in Nancy Grace and Beck and dropped any news pretense.
King's fawning over political figures led to copycats. King's love fests with Ross Perot in 1992 when Perot was running for President as been mirrored by others including Oprah Winfrey, Arsenio Hall, David Letterman and Jay Leno. Politicians now have safe havens where they can find love on cable TV news networks or entertainment shows partly due to King.
The Larry King victory lap for mediocrity including a session with Howard Kurtz, another one of the Washington examples of total conflict of interest. How can a media critic host a media show on CNN? But then again how could NBC News assign Andrea Mitchell to any political stories when she is married to former Fed chairman Alan Greenspan? But Larry King didn't create those conflicts. He just provided a safe haven for politicians to sell their wares on his show.
To King's credit, he never was a carnival barker in a world of cable TV news carnival barkers. He didn't preach, he had non-meaningful conversations and would fall asleep on his radio show after a night out in Washington.
King's replacement on CNN is no better than all of the rest of the carnival barkers. Piers Morgan promises to make headlines. That's pretty funny coming from someone whose reign as a "journalist" in Britain came to a screeching halt in 2004 while he was the editor of London's Daily Mirror. Morgan gave the go ahead to print pictures showing members of England's armed forces torturing Iraqi prisoners. The pictures were a hoax and Morgan was gone. Morgan cut his teeth professionally as an editor of one of Rupert Murdoch's London papers, the Sun, and showed right away that he had no journalistic integrity. He left Murdoch's world and joined the Daily Mirror in 1996 and got into trouble immediately. He again had problems in 2000. He came to America in 2006 and has been an American TV personality since although it is unclear what he has done to merit a prime time cable TV news show. At least Larry King had a track record.
Speaking of records, for the record, it should be noted that Jim Fassel, now coaching in the United Football League is the last WFL player of note to be active in football. Fassel took the last snap as the quarterback of the Hawaiians in 1975 in WFL history.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy's 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and speaker on "The Politics of Sports Business." His book, "The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition is available at www.bickley.com, Barnes and Noble’s xplena.com or amazonkindle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org