Veteran broadcaster Larry King, who always said he intended to die at his microphone rather than quit, has decided there's a better way to leave his nightly CNN show than in a pine box. King will retire later this year, he told his audience Tuesday night, ending a daily broadcasting career than began more than 50 years ago in South Florida.
"With this chapter closing I’m looking forward to the future and what my next chapter will bring," the 76-year-old King said at the start of the 9 p.m. CNN show he's hosted for 25 years. "But for now it’s time to hang up my nightly suspenders."
King said he'll continue to produce occasional specials for CNN but wanted "more time for my wife and I to get to the kids’ little league games." That may be so -- his wife Shawn Southwick is recovering from a drug overdose and the couple's recent reconciliation narrowly avoided a divorce that would have been King's eighth -- but it's also true that his ratings have been in a nosedive.
Data released by Nielsen Media Research Tuesday showed King's audience down 36 percent from a year ago. His crumbling numbers are part of a general CNN collapse that had already ended the career of another prime-time host, Campbell Brown, and will surely claim others in the coming weeks as the once-dominant network -- which has dropped into third place among cable news channels during prime-time hours -- tries to halt its decline.
"You always feel bad when there's a ratings decline," King conceded to the Washington Post Tuesday night, but added: "I never felt any pressure. CNN never pressured me."
King was working as a teenage janitor at the long-vanished Miami Beach radio station WAHR in 1957 when a disc jockey failed to show up for a shift and the frantic manager put King on the air. He stayed on the South Florida radio and TV airwaves -- occasionally interrupted by financial scandals and even an arrest for defrauding his boss, financier Louis Wolfson -- for the next 21 years before going national on the Mutual radio network.
On CNN, his style and even his set -- King, his guest and microphone -- varied little from the one he used in his South Florida radio days. "I've always tried to have a conversation with guests, rather than grill them," he said in an interview with the Miami Herald last year. "I want to ask the questions the audience would ask. If I'm interviewing the author of a book, I don't want to have read the book. I want to be in the same boat as the audience."
King estimates he's conducted as many as 50,000 interviews during his career. In recent years, most of them have been with Hollywood celebrities, but in his early days with CNN he often broke political news. In 1993, after King hosted a debate on the North American Free Trade Agreement between Vice President Al Gore and former presidential candidate Ross Perot, popular support for the treaty swung so sharply upward that the program was generally credited with NAFTA's passage.