BEFORE LARRY KING got so successful on TV that he became a cliché, he was my radio friend, midnight to 5 a.m. on the Mutual Broadcasting System. I am a night owl by nature, so when I was in high school and college, I did most of my best homework in the wee small hours. Listening to music was too distracting for me, so King’s heavily-formatted radio show was a nice background vibe: AM-radio static, news at the top of the hour, and then Brooklyn Larry with a sometimes-famous guest, but just as frequently somebody peddling a book and sometimes they even turned out to be interesting. Larry never read the book, he just had basic—sort of softball—questions that allowed the interviewee to be as expansive as they cared to, and if they weren’t, Larry had lots more questions, and then they’d take some phone calls.
My attention would drift in and out as I either concentrated on my school reading and writing or just got drowsy. I remember coming out of a haze at one point—maybe the No-Doz was kicking in—to hear an authoritative guest on the show telling Larry that because of the Camp David Accords, Anwar Sadat was marked for death by extremists. Ten minutes later in the freeform “Open Phone America” segment, Larry could be talking about how much he liked egg creams, or telling entertaining but suspect tales about the good old days, and then he’d take completely random calls from dedicated listeners and late-night kooks all across the country, listening on over 500 affiliates.
One of them Larry called “Numbers,” or maybe “Numbers Man,” and the call would be connected to a segment of the Old Testament. I can’t forget that guy, he’d bark out some scientific puzzler, like “How can the anatomy of the human eye contain a functional transparent section?” and then he’d spit out a connection to the Bible. Larry loved him on air, he was a good caller, he’d get on, say his piece, and punch out by himself. Other people would call to yell at Larry, or be sycophantic, and they’d get cut off quick. Larry kept it moving.
It seemed like a lot of lonely people called in, but we were all together somehow, suspended in the fuzzy radio ether. Parts of the show would be repeated, and that’s when the weight of my lack of sleep or the deadline I was trying to beat would hit me. If I was going the distance and pulling a genuine all-nighter and heard the entire show, it was a sobering moment. “Oh shit, it’s 3:30, I gotta get it together.”
I always felt a little sad when the calls concluded and Larry would end the show by saying he was going to his pal Duke’s restaurant, and they’d fade in this Louis Armstrong song and the radio went back to being normal and less fun.