Q & A With Larry King

Larry King is as known for sitting hunched over a microphone, schmoozing with everyone who is anyone, as he is for wearing big black glasses and suspenders over shirt sleeves. But as the TV icon approaches the big 7-0 (his birthday is Nov. 19), he’s increasingly wearing something else on his sleeve: his Judaism.

Viewers are as likely to spy him at a benefit for the State of Israel Bonds or the Jewish Braille Institute as they are to see him interviewing the Duchess of York or Barbara Bush on CNN’s "Larry King Live." Last month, he appeared in a half-hour special, "Yom Kippur: Prayers of Atonement," for Los Angeles’ Temple Shalom for the Arts. And during a Sept. 29 interview with Neil Diamond, he made sure to say the show featured "two little Jewish boys from Brooklyn." King spoke this week at the Bnai Zion Foundation’s Women of Accomplishment Awards Dinner.

In a recent chat with The Journal, King spoke effusively about growing up Jewish in Brooklyn. He also discussed the highs and lows of his career — which includes the publication of his first novel, a 2003 comic mystery titled "Moon Over Manhattan" (New Millennium, $24.95) — and true love with spouse number seven, Shawn Southwick King.

The Jewish Journal: In your book, "Larry King Live," you describe the Brooklyn you grew up in the ’30s and ’40s in as a place of two religions — Jewish and Italian. How Jewish was your life in Brooklyn?

Larry King: We kept the Shabbos, we kept a kosher home, we went to the synagogue, my mother lit the candles for Shabbos, we never had milk and meat together — we observed all the laws. I did my bar mitzvah completely in Hebrew, and all my friends did the same way. I went to cheder. It was a very cultural Jewish life.

JJ: What else did you get from growing up in Brooklyn?

LK: A high degree of loyalty, the desire to succeed. Friendships count to me. [Brooklyn taught me n]ever to screw a friend. I like ethnic groups because of growing up in Brooklyn — and I developed a very liberal social consciousness. All my life I have resisted the inhumanity of prejudice.

JJ: What about street smarts?

LK: Definitely street smarts! I always say that if you were a D student in Brooklyn, you could be mayor of Des Moines. Brooklyn is still a magical place for me.

JJ: At some point in your life you became an agnostic. Why?

LK: I lost my religious aspects somewhere along the line after my father died [when King was 10]. I remember always questioning the [Bible]. I thought the God of the [Bible] was vindictive and petty — that "smite my enemies" and "pray only to me" stuff. I couldn’t accept faith blindly, which you were required to do as an Orthodox Jew. The older I got, the less religious I got.

JJ: Do you think that would have been different had your father not died?

LK: I don’t know how to measure that. I said "Kaddish" morning and night for a year when my father died. I did that out of respect. I still go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, and I spoke at the temple two years in a row. I just don’t believe anymore. I am not an atheist, I’m an agnostic.

JJ: In 1998 you wrote a book called "Powerful Prayers," in which you discussed the power of prayer and your own reluctance to pray, yet you end the book with a prayer to God of your own. Do you ever pray today?

LK: I still will occasionally pray, but that is conditioning. Since I am agnostic I don’t know that I’m not being heard. My wife is a devout Mormon, and so I will ask her to pray for someone.

JJ: I saw you speak at an event for the Los Angeles Sephardic Home for the Aging, where you made a joke that people look at you, and then look at your wife, and look back at you and then you say what they’re thinking — "If she dies, she dies…."

LK: Yes, people do look at her, and they tell me I have a beautiful daughter and beautiful grandchildren. But I have a great marriage.

JJ: How is turning 70 going to change your life? Can you imagine yourself slowing down any time soon?

LK: Well, I watch what I eat, I keep my weight down and I take a lot of vitamins. I think that having young kids keep me young, and having a young wife keeps me young. But I am by nature a workaholic. I love it [work] as much now as I did when I was making $80 a week.

JJ: What was the low point of your career as a broadcaster?

LK: In the early ’70s I was out of work. I didn’t handle a dollar very well. I wasn’t good with money — it was unimportant to me. Now I have people who take care of all my bills — I have never seen a CNN paycheck. It goes straight to them. I don’t know what it looks like.

JJ: What about the high points?

LK: There were a few — winning two Peabody awards, one for radio and one for television, winning an Emmy when cable became eligible for Emmys…. Also, I have the Larry King Cardiac Foundation [which pays for heart surgery for those who can’t afford it] and every time I get to call someone and tell them they can get their heart surgery, it’s a high.

JJ: What does Larry Zeiger [King’s name before he changed it] think of all this success?

LK: Larry Zeiger is still in there — he is Larry King on the outside. But every day I feel amazed.

Video Spawns a Radio Star

It takes Jay Sanderson about 10 minutes to put me to work. It’s 8:55 a.m. on a Sunday, five minutes till broadcast of KLAC talk radio’s "The Jay Sanderson Show" and he’s having trouble getting his scheduled guest, screenwriter/producer Lionel Chetwynd, on the phone. I’m barely settled onto my little bar stool, pad of paper and pen poised to take notes, before Sanderson hands me his cell phone, and asks: "Can you get Chetwynd on the line?" I hurriedly oblige, succeeding in my mission even as I miss Sanderson’s opening words to his listeners. Such is my introduction into the world of fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants broadcasting and to Sanderson.

Dressed in a T-shirt, denim shorts, Teva sandals and a backward baseball cap, Sanderson, 45, looks the part of your typical broadcaster, relaxed in the casual atmosphere of this new job. Even as he’s about to go on the air — sans featured guest — he is focused, not worried. When I return to the booth after my errand, Sanderson is sitting comfortably as he chats on the air with the Weather Yenta. The forecast for today? "That’s why the air condition [sic] was invented," she says. The two other featured personalities follow: Jordan "Sports Guy" Rush gives us this week’s stats on Jewish athletes like Shawn Green and Jeff Nathan, and the Food Maven answers the question, "What’s for breakfast?" It turns out to be matzah frittata.

"Our main topic today is, we’re gonna be looking at things from both sides, from the left and from the right," Sanderson tells whoever might be listening to his early Sunday morning time slot of 9-10 a.m. In the eighth installment of "The Jay Sanderson Show," Sanderson has liberal music executive Danny Goldberg and the conservative Chetwynd square off on various issues from politics to parenting. He plays moderator, occasionally piping in with his two cents, but mostly directing the questions and reeling in the two guests when it’s time for another commercial break. Sanderson encourages his listeners to call in to 1-866-570-KLAC, though no one does. It’s unclear if many people are listening — yet.

But that doesn’t bother Sanderson, who’s new to radio. By day, Sanderson is the CEO of the Jewish Television Network, a nonprofit organization that is the Jewish community’s only national television network. (His previous work experience was in commercial film writing and producing, and nonprofit management and fundraising with the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.)

Sanderson’s moonlighting gig as a Jewish radio personality began with a casual cocktail party conversation with Steve Wexler, an account executive at KLAC/KFI, four months ago, regarding the Jewish "void in the talk radio world." Sanderson suggested himself to fill that void, to create "a place where the wide landscape of Jewish interests and thought can reach a radio audience." He was on the air six weeks later.

In the beginning, the shows did not run smoothly. Sanderson struggled with numerous technical problems, but his quick wit helped compensate for his lack of technical savvy. "Today, we will call it the technically challenged show. Who could I disconnect next?" Sanderson asked on-air. "Well, I could disconnect you if you called in at 1-866-570-KLAC."

The neophyte also struggles with tone. On his first radio show, he focused on Israeli terror victims, and he inappropriately asked a documentarian discussing terror victims, "Are the Israeli drivers any better than the Los Angeles drivers?"

Yet for all his inexperience, Sanderson is taking on a substantial task in trying to cover a swath of subjects ranging from the best bagels in Los Angeles to terrorism. Sanderson has yet to find his voice in such a broad format of Jewish Los Angeles, and he admits he’s relieved that not many people are listening yet. He jokingly refers to his 13 listeners, and says, "I’m learning on the job, and some of it is knowing what buttons to push and knowing what to say and when to say it." As Sanderson puts it, "It’s a work in progress."

The future is still uncertain for the fledgling radio show. Sanderson credits the radio station with being committed to the idea that the show is still building an audience. Indeed, KLAC is still working on its own growth, with its May 2001 transformation from playing "singers and standards" to a talk radio format.

"The Jay Sanderson Show" is bookended by health infomercials, which serve to meet the radio station’s economic needs, as it continues to mature. All of this leaves Sanderson with virtually unlimited freedom to pursue his vision for the show. "I’ve been given carte blanche basically to do whatever I wanted to do. It’s great, but it’s a bigger responsibility, because if someone says, ‘Do these five things,’ it’s easier than having a wide world."

Sanderson seems to be navigating through that world pretty well thus far, getting more comfortable behind the mic with every show.

"I want you to have a great, great, great week," Sanderson tells listeners toward the end of his eighth show, as Warren Zevon music rises out of the background. "What we learned today is we should disagree, but we should do it and not be personal. Disagree with your neighbors as much as you can this week, but don’t get personal, and we’ll talk to you next week."