The Pursuit: 10 Lessons on Becoming the King of Your Industry
There is talent, there is achievement, there is success, and then there is Larry King: Peabody-winning, Emmy-nominated, 10-time CableACE Award-winning television and radio host.
King’s story is the stuff of legends. An unknown kid from Brooklyn who got his start cleaning floors at a radio station, changed his name, occasionally jumped on the air when a DJ called in sick, and then goes on to perform more than 60,000 interviews and earn multiple lifetime achievement awards and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In recent years, he co-founded Ora TV, an on-demand digital entertainment network that reaches 20 million unique visitors per month.
COURTESY OF ORA TV
So how does one become not just the leader of an industry, but the industry standard? From the impressive trophy room of his Beverly Hills mansion, King shares 10 lessons to achieve your dreams and become an icon in your field.
1. Find an entrance.
When King randomly met a CBS staff announcer, he jumped at the opportunity to express his desire to get into radio and asked for advice. The announcer told him to head to Miami, a relatively newer radio market. There he found an assistant job at a small station, which mostly entailed running errands and cleaning.
King advises to get in early, accepting whatever job you can to break into that industry: “Work your ass off. Do whatever they say. Work weekends. Show up early. And don’t give up.”
2. Always say yes.
King said yes to every opportunity that came his way. He got his start as a local DJ, started his own radio show inside a restaurant, added a weekend stint on local TV, booked speaking engagements, wrote newspaper columns… and more.
His local success led to his national gig—the first-ever national radio show—which soon expanded to 500 stations. The CNN invitation arrived shortly thereafter.
King continued to say yes, participating in various TV and radio events, penning multiple books and most recently launching Ora TV, whose roster of shows includes Larry King Now and Politicking with Larry King.
3. But stick to what you know.
King said yes, but he also stuck with what he knew and what would propel him forward. “I’ve been transmitted differently, but I haven’t done anything different,” he says.
Delegate the rest, King advises. He relies on those around him, from technicians to producers and publicists, so he can perform when the light goes on. “I always knew I didn’t own the camera. I concentrated on doing what I do best.”
4. Be present.
Broadcasters have to perform well under pressure, a skill anyone can benefit from learning.
“Tune out yesterday’s interview; that’s over. Tune out tomorrow’s interview; that’s still to come. If I’m doing a strike worker at a plant today and a president tomorrow, I’m not thinking about the president.”
King often calls himself “little Larry Zeiger”—his given name—which he changed early in his career because he says it was too ethnic. But he attributes his success to never forgetting his roots.
“Now Frank Sinatra is sitting there, the No. 1 personality in the world. I’m sitting there. The light goes on. All I said was ‘Welcome to the Larry King Show. My guest is Frank Sinatra. Why are you here?’ I didn’t go through any pretentions, or ‘my old friend’ baloney.”
6. Prioritize your personal life.
Learn from King’s mistakes. His workaholism and smoking led to a major heart attack and a quintuple bypass surgery in 1987. He’s also been married eight times and openly admits he regrets letting work come before everything else for most of his life. “I don’t think I was a very good father.... If I could [do it over], I would devote more time to them.”
7. Mind your money.
A few years into his career, King mismanaged his money so much that it landed him in jail without a job. Money is something you have to manage well, and he learned that lesson too late. “Had I paid better attention to my finances in life earlier, I could have been known nationally sooner.”
Although King loved sports and planned to be a sports announcer, his intuition redirected him during a celebrity interview in 1958. “One day the great Bobby Darin walked in.... About a third of the way in, I felt a groove, something clicked there.”
He felt that same feeling just 10 minutes into his first CNN broadcast, which led him to turn down a better offer and stay with CNN. “No matter what industry you’re in, if you’re happy, don’t leave. Don’t do something just for money, and trust your instincts.”
9. Be yourself.
King knew early on that he felt at home in a studio and could bring value in that industry. Arthur Godfrey, a fellow radio broadcaster, gave King this advice: “You can’t make the viewer like you, so be yourself. The only secret is, there is no secret. Be yourself.” He passed on that advice to aspiring communicators, telling them if they have the skills and commitment to stick with it for the long haul, they will make it.
10. Keep getting up.
King has had his fair share of ups and downs in a historically competitive industry. To succeed he says you have to have “comeuppance,” because even at 82 years old, he wonders, What else can I do? “You’re going to get knocked down; you’re going to get rejected; you’re going to get fired. Never give up.”