Lessons Shared from 30 Years in Television


By Wendy Walker

With Andrea Cagan

Foreword by Larry King

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For the past seventeen years, Wendy Walker has been the “woman behind the man” at Larry King Live. As King’s senior executive producer, she has been responsible for landing exclusive interviews with the most important newsmakers and well-known celebrities from around the globe that have been the hallmark of CNN’s iconic show.

From the shocking death of Michael Jackson to the first television interview with the Watergate scandal’s Deep Throat, Wendy Walker has a wealth of never-before-shared stories involving the most relevant events and people of our time.

Starting as an ABC secretary over thirty years ago, she has risen through the male-dominated world of television production. Her passion, intellect, and work ethic are undeniable, but it’s her heart that has always been her guide. It’s with the same zeal and loving spirituality that she shares the insights gained during her long climb to the top. With empowering advice and inspirational thoughts, Wendy Walker has not only gained a lifetime of experience, but the wisdom to know that it needs to be shared.


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Table of Contents

Copyright Page


My name is Wendy Walker. Although you don't know me and probably don't recognize my name, you will recognize the events, tragedies, and celebrations in this book, since we all lived them. I am just one of the people doing my job behind the scenes and I'm a lot like you—except that I couldn't go to my college reunion because I had to produce the TV coverage for a US-Soviet summit. And I couldn't pick out the bridesmaids' dresses for my wedding because I was too busy covering the Bush-Clinton presidential campaign.

Throughout the years, I have had the privilege of working for Ethel Kennedy, ABC News, CNN, and Larry King. Beginning in 1983, I was CNN White House producer for a decade, and I have been senior executive producer of Larry King Live for the past seventeen years. As I have worked both in the White House and producing this amazing show for Larry King for such a long time, I have loved meeting world leaders, great authors, presidents and kings, extraordinarily influential people who have changed the course of the world as we know it. In fact, over the past thirty years, as I have told my stories, which constantly intrigued my listeners, many people have urged me to write a book. "Who else gets to meet these people?" they reminded me. "You have stories. You need to share them."

When I thought about it, I realized that as great as my stories are, I have something even more valuable to offer—the lessons I've learned, often the hard way, along the trajectory of my very challenging and active career. In an effort to share these priceless hard-earned life lessons, I decided to follow my friends' urgings. So I did it. Here I am, this is my book, and I have to say that I am way out of my comfort zone. But I'm doing it anyway.

I'm just not used to being in front of the camera or being the center of attention. I feel best in the background, behind the scenes, but with this book, that's changing. It has been a great learning experience for me, and reliving my lifelong adventures as an adult, rather than a kid, has been illuminating and a whole lot of fun.

In the pages of this book, you will find unique stories about lessons learned along the way, as I try to highlight the humor and some practical ways to lead a good, exciting, healthy life. There are stories involving many luminaries, such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Marlon Brando, and Yasser Arafat. Not to mention Larry King, an icon, one of the most famous and talented broadcast interviewers in the world.

When I began my work, I was a kid. Now I'm not a kid anymore, but with each day and each show I produce for Larry, I'm still learning a great deal about life and about myself. I feel excited about the years to come and about finding new ways to understand how connected we all are. In the end, I can see that the energy we give out in this life is exactly the energy we get back.


Freaking Out Is Not an Option

My alarm clock woke me at 5:30 a.m., as usual. It was still dark outside as I reluctantly pulled back the covers, got up, and headed for the bathroom to wash my face and get ready for a new day. The digital readout on my clock told me it was Thursday, June 25, 2009, and I felt like I had a jump on the day.

The night before, when I went to bed, my staff and I had booked what I thought was a diverse and interesting Larry King Live show for tonight. I knew from experience over many years that if breaking news occurred anywhere in the world, we could and would shift our plans in an instant. That's always the case in the news business. But I was hoping for an easy day as I headed into my home office off my bedroom to check my e-mails. They were arriving fast and furious since it was a little after 8:30 a.m. on the East Coast. I scanned my incoming box quickly and checked last night's ratings.

I love living on the West Coast, and in the blush of a promising summer sunrise, I scanned the wires and various reports from my East Coast staff to confirm the morning headlines. Then I went back to my e-mails. My production staff of forty across the country were streaming information to me from everywhere and would continue to do so—to the tune of at least two thousand e-mails daily. I know how impossible that sounds, but it's true. Imagine taking a half-hour walk or driving a kid to school in the early morning and having more than two hundred new e-mails waiting when you get back home. That's how it is with me, as I scan thousands of e-mails every day, eliminating what I don't need and making sure I respond to what is necessary and hopefully not deleting something important.

While I started answering the messages, my staff kicked in. They do myriad jobs that are all important; it's the old it takes a village concept. Since ten of the forty producers are bookers, when we decide in which direction the show will go that night they make the calls and do the intense work of booking the guests. When we were in the midst of reporting the deadly earthquake in Haiti in February 2010, for example, we had to decide who we wanted to interview concerning a massive world tragedy. Everybody got on board with ideas and suggestions, and we came up with names.

Among our staff, one producer is assigned strictly to knowing all the books that come out and which authors might be right for the current show. Two producers are in charge of the fifteen-minute water cooler stories, such as local tragedies that include people who are not normally in the news, which is how the Scott Peterson case began. Another producer handles celebrities and their agents and publicists. There are political bookers who work with Washington and the White House, and all of them have their A list: people we would have on at any time, such as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt or a sitting president.

In other words, we are always working simultaneously on whatever is going on today, the rest of the week, and way into the future. While we do this, one of the editorial producers does the research for the open of the show: Larry is extraordinarily well-versed since he watches news all day long, but he still needs specifics. So one producer writes the open, others produce the video components, and still others are in charge of the live show. That includes satellites, audio, graphics, phone calls, the rundown, content, remote locations, and breaking news during the show. There are publicists, cameramen, makeup artists; everyone is doing his or her individual job to create a live show.

And so each job is a piece of the whole, like a set of dominoes. It all has to fit together in harmony because if one domino goes down, so do all the rest. Everyone has to know what everyone else is doing, and we perform this intricate dance every day, all day long. If the show changes suddenly in the middle of the day, which happens very often, we start the process all over again, with less time and more scurrying around. But we always get the job done.

So far so good for this particular day. It seemed that Larry King Live would go forward as planned. On our roster, we had conservative Ann Coulter, Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, and Elizabeth Edwards, who was struggling with inoperable cancer and her ex-senator husband's stunning infidelity. I thought we might include some information on Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina who was also embroiled in an extramarital scandal, so the show was off to a solid start.

I gave the go-ahead to check into the availability of Governor Sanford and a few others, but as executive producer I had to keep in mind that Barbara Walters was airing an ABC special about ailing actress Farrah Fawcett that night. In her advance publicity for the special, Barbara had suggested on Good Morning America that Farrah, who was struggling with the last stages of cancer, might not make it through the day. It sounded a little presumptuous on Barbara's part, but the actress had supposedly been at death's door for quite a while. If she died today, I would have to change the show. That was par for the course. I often changed the focus of a show when we were in the planning stages, since I had to respond to what was going on in the world at each moment. But I hoped I didn't have to.

I was in the middle of the morning booking call when, at 9:28 a.m., a flash showed up on my computer. Farrah had passed away. Barbara had been right and we had some adjusting to do.

Adjusting on a moment's notice is what this job has constantly demanded during the past seventeen years. Now we were facing the death of a beloved actress and we had to change the show. We did an about-face. There was no doubt that the show we originally planned was out. It was tough since we had to start from scratch again, but I didn't freak out. That would have taken up too much time and wasted too much valuable energy. We would replace show number one with show number two, which would be devoted to Farrah's death. We all got on the phone to reschedule our guests (we never cancel; we always reschedule) and round up the appropriate people for the tragic new show.

When a show suddenly turns on its head because something important supersedes our plans, each moment is crucial and we are filled with anxiety as we are required to book a whole new show in a very short period of time. It's not unusual for me to be ironing out the wrinkles of a show well into the late afternoon, which is edgy since we air at 6 p.m. on the West Coast. By the end of a day like the one I was presently facing, I have generally made hundreds of decisions, and the only way to do that is to remain calm. That would be the case today, I realized, reminding myself to breathe as we began drawing up lists of guests who knew Farrah, as well as checking their availability. Dreams of a simple day flew out the window as we began to prepare for show number two, but I had no idea how crazy the day would turn out.

Before I got back on the phone, I shot off an e-mail to my friend Lisa Ling, special correspondent for CNN, and The Oprah Winfrey Show. Her sister, Laura Ling, and a colleague, Euna Lee, had been detained in North Korea since March 17, 2009, for entering the country without a visa. They had been covering a controversial story on human trafficking, and on June 8 the women had been sentenced to twelve years of hard labor, having been found guilty of the "grave crime" of illegal entry into North Korea, even though they were told by their guide that it was safe to do so.

Lisa had been working day and night to try to bring her sister home, and we had booked her, her parents, and the husbands of the two detained journalists on the show to make a public appeal. I recall being very careful to accentuate Lisa's needs rather than making the show what we wanted it to be during that hour she talked with Larry. This was all about getting the women back, which overrode our desire for good ratings. All of Lisa's pleas and maneuverings needed to be handled with great delicacy because of how political and disturbing the situation was. I couldn't imagine how she was getting up in the mornings, so I e-mailed her daily, asking about her progress and if there was anything I could do. This morning, I wrote:

Hi. Have you heard anything more? How are you holding up?

Lisa wrote back:

Hey, Mama. [That's what she calls me.] I'm about to lose my mind.

This is so frustrating. I'll be ok, just venting about bureaucracy…

Back to Farrah. Time was flying by as we contacted various principals in her life and tried to book them. So far, we had gotten Dick and Pat Van Patten, Candy Spelling, Joan Dangerfield, and my dear friend Suzanne Somers. It was coming together, but I stopped for a moment when a provocative e-mail landed in my in-box. The popular TMZ Web site, a huge leader in entertainment news, had posted the following information:

1:44 p.m. We've just learned that Michael Jackson was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Los Angeles… we're told it was cardiac arrest and that paramedics administered CPR in the ambulance.

Oh, no. What was this? Please! I e-mailed the staff member who had sent it:

1:45 p.m. We might have to do something on this. Check it out please.

I got on a conference call with several of my producers while one of them phoned Jermaine Jackson, Michael's brother, to find out what he knew. She sent me this:

1:47 p.m. I'm on with Jermaine's wife right now. They had no idea.

I immediately e-mailed Lisa Gregorisch, my close friend and executive producer of Extra. She always got the celebrity breaking news fast and we often validated our information with each other.

1:48 p.m. I am sure you know this. An insider just told me that an ambulance just went into the compound of Michael Jackson's home. No details or for what reason or for whom. Minutes ago, the ambulance just left Michael's home with sirens sounding.

Lisa wrote back:

1:49 p.m. Yes, it could be cardiac arrest.

My staff continued booking the show about Farrah and I told them to keep Larry off all press calls, at home and on his cell phone. We had to find out the truth about Michael Jackson before he said a word to anyone. What if Larry answered his phone, was asked a question, and made a comment that was not true? When I was sure Larry would not answer any calls, I placed a call to criminal attorney Mark Geragos, a regular on our show and a former lawyer to Michael. "Mark," I said, "we're hearing that Michael Jackson might be very sick. Or dead."

Mark said he would check it out. Five minutes later he called me back. "I've been told he's dead," Mark said, "but they're not confirming it yet."

What should we do about the show? It was a tough call, but my gut told me this was more than a rumor, partly because I knew that Geragos had reliable sources inside the LAPD. It was after 2 p.m. when my staff and I started booking an alternative show, just in case the rumors were true, which was looking more and more likely. Show number three would feature the deaths of both Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett. It's hard to book a show when you don't know if someone is alive or dead. Imagine the sensitivity required in asking someone to come on the show "if and when" their loved one dies. Or if he has already died. And still, we had to do it.

My anxiety was at a high pitch when we had four hours left and we weren't even sure what we were going to do that night. I could lose my composure, which would waste precious time, or I could follow my gut, which told me that a tragedy of some sort was occurring around Michael Jackson. I had come to trust my intuition after so many years of depending upon it, and besides, I reminded myself, if it was a rumor, why would it still be circulating this many hours later? I felt the immensity of the situation. If Michael was really dead, similar to the deaths of Elvis and Marilyn, it would touch everyone on an international level. But we had to find out the truth quickly so we could put together the right show.

At 2:50 p.m., we got another e-mail from the TMZ Web site:

We've just learned that Michael Jackson has died. He was 50. Michael suffered a cardiac arrest earlier this afternoon and paramedics were unable to revive him. We're told when paramedics arrived, Jackson had no pulse and they never got a pulse back.

Since it was TMZ, a celebrity and gossip entertainment site, it was still considered a rumor, but it was getting much too real to ignore. Should I continue to book guests for Farrah as well as Michael? There was no one to ask, so I made a quick decision. While the buzz about Michael's death continued to escalate, I sent out the following e-mail to my staff:

3:08 p.m., PST. Assuming the news is true, we will be going live at 9 and possibly at midnight. Concentrate on Michael Jackson… it is a bigger story because it is a shock. Do not book any more guests for Farrah unless they know Michael. It is about Michael.

Show number four was in the works, and the first order of business was to confirm that the rumors of Michael's death were true. Each of us made calls depending on whom we knew best. I called back Mark Geragos, who was getting the news from his sources. All of my producers and I were working in tandem with the network since they needed to get a production truck to the hospital and Jackson's home as we contacted every friend, colleague, and business associate of Michael's, putting out an APB on the guests we were trying to book at the last minute.

The hour was late and we were working on booking a long list of people when I pushed back from my desk, feeling light-headed. When was the last time I ate? I hadn't been this immersed in a story since Scott Peterson was convicted of killing his wife and his unborn child. I walked into the living room to find my daughter sitting on the couch, reading a magazine. Walker was on the floor beside her. "I'm pretty sure Michael Jackson is dead," I told them. "This is a moment you'll never forget."

I remembered exactly where I was when John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe, President Kennedy, and Princess Diana had died. I knew that if Michael really was gone, this was the same kind of monumental loss that would send the entire world into collective shock. But I had a show to book. I returned to my office and got back on the phone, so far removed from where I'd been when I woke up that morning, it was hard to believe it was the same day.

In the next half hour, the Los Angeles Times reported:

Pop star Michael Jackson was pronounced dead by doctors this afternoon after arriving at the hospital in a deep coma, city and law enforcement sources told the Times.

It wasn't long after this bulletin that I was e-mailed a photograph of Michael's head, presumably dead. The photographer wanted money for it. He was wasting his time. Soon after, CNN made the announcement that Michael had died. Now it was official.

I dove headfirst into the business of finding out who knew Michael best and who we could get on the show in just a few hours. Show number four was in full production mode, and still, I had to do my regular job when a crisis arose about something else altogether. An executive producer wears a lot of hats, and it seemed that Billy Ray Cyrus had been on the show June 12 and had concerns about his segments. It was a rare occurrence when a guest was less than satisfied—I couldn't even remember the last time—so I wrote Billy Ray an e-mail to the effect that I was a little busy with the current breaking news but I wanted to apologize. I followed that with a short explanation of what had occurred and why. In essence, I took the blame, fell on my sword, and sent the e-mail.

It's a good idea to avoid blaming the other guy. If you made a mistake, just admit it. It might feel uncomfortable at the time, but owning your mistake will make you look a far sight better than coming up with a lame excuse that nobody believes anyway. For this very intense moment in time, it worked with Billy Ray. I got an e-mail straight back from him, saying he couldn't believe that on a day that two icons had died, I was still concerned about him. He thought that was amazing and he wrote, "We'll always have this moment of sharing the tragedy of the death of Michael Jackson. He was so important to me and I am so sorry."

I exhaled. Back to the work at hand. My staff had the tough and highly delicate job of letting the Farrah people know that we were preempting her for the death of a more famous and celebrated star than the woman they loved so well. Then an e-mail arrived from Lisa Ling. One would expect her to be completely wrapped up in advocating for her sister, but she was caring enough to have moved outside of her own tragedy and thought of me:

I don't know if you know this, but Deepak was very close to Michael.

This was news to me. I shot out a thank-you e-mail to Lisa and got Deepak Chopra on the phone. I knew Deepak well, I respected him and his opinions, and he agreed to appear on the show the very next day. During that call, he stated to me in no uncertain terms, by the way, that he believed that drugs administered by licensed medical doctors had killed Michael. I scribbled down some of his comments as he told me that Michael had been taking a drug called Diprivan that was so powerful, it was only used in operating rooms. It created an effect that was about as close to dying as a person could get, and when someone was on the drug, they needed to be closely monitored in case they needed to be brought back from the throes of death. Deepak was furious at the doctors who he said he believed had administered such dangerous medications to Michael in his home without proper monitoring. He told me that Michael liked getting dangerously close to death and then brought back.

In a few minutes, Jonathan Klein, president of CNN, called me to confirm tonight's show and ask if we could run for a straight two hours with reruns at midnight and at 3 a.m. We agreed. This was a rare evening when I did not have dinner with my children. I stayed in my office and when Larry was ready to go on the air, we had booked enough star-studded guests, all stunned and upset by the death, to fill the show.

We started with Dr. Prediman K. Shah, Director of Cardiology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Then we went on to singer-musicians Smokey Robinson, Céline Dion, Cher, Aaron Neville, Donna Summer, and J. C. Chasez. We had Tommy Mottola, former Sony music executive, Suzanne de Passe from Motown who had discovered the Jackson Five, and Shelly Berger, former manager of the Jackson Five. Larry also interviewed Kara Finnstrom, Ted Rowlands, and Richard Roth, all CNN correspondents, and Carlos Diaz, correspondent for Extra. Everyone had something to say.

We also had Thea Andrews from Entertainment Tonight.

KING: At the UCLA Medical Center, which is, by the way, a two-billion-dollar edifice, much of it named in honor of the late Ronald Reagan, Thea Andrews stands by. She's an Entertainment Tonight correspondent. Still crowds there?

ANDREWS: Many crowds, Larry. There are thousands of people here on all sides of the medical center. As you said, it's a huge facility. It takes up more than a whole city block. Getting here, trying to find your cameras was hard, because there are so many news people out here, thousands of crowds, helicopters buzzing overhead, and, of course, many supporters of Michael Jackson, many people devastated by this loss.

KING: What has the hospital said?

ANDREWS: The hospital has been mum. They haven't released a statement yet. What I can tell you is that ET has exclusively obtained the last photos of Michael Jackson, as he was being removed by paramedics from his home. As you heard earlier, it's very close to here, about six minutes away.

He was in full cardiac arrest. Paramedics attempted to revive him during transport here to the hospital, and they continued to attempt to revive him inside the emergency room. Obviously, they were not successful. But as you see the photo—I don't know if you have the photo up there, Larry. They're attempting to revive Michael. His eyes are closed.

KING: How did you get that photograph?

ANDREWS: I don't know, Larry. You'll have to ask my executive producer.

KING: That's a heck of a job of reporting. We'll be checking back with you.

Also that night, Larry interviewed Randy Jackson from American Idol, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, and actor Corey Feldman. Two Jackson fans named Cheryl and Melvin came on the air, and musicians Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Sheryl Crow, and Kenny Rogers called in. It was an impressive lineup as we checked in with people from all over the country and the world who were devastated and shocked by the sudden death of the self-declared King of Pop.

Cher called in and said, "You know, I was just sitting here listening to you talk. And I'm having a million different reactions. Things that I didn't expect I would feel. When I think of him, I think of this young boy, that teenager that I first met. This adorable boy that I met who, you know, loved to look at my beaded socks. Yes, he was a great singer. You know, it's like God gives you certain gifts. And some people he gives different gifts, and some people he gives more gifts. And this child was just an extraordinary child, touched by this ability to have people feel him and feel people. And he just had that sense that you get, and you don't get it from a living person. You get it from someplace else. He had it."

Céline told Larry on the phone, "I am shocked like the rest of the world. It doesn't sink in right now. I'm overwhelmed by this tragedy. I have to say that Michael Jackson's been an idol for me all my life. I remember being in my house when I was very, very young and having his posters above my bed. He's been my idol all my life, I looked up to him, and my goal was to be maybe doing the same show business world as him."


On Sale
Nov 16, 2010
Page Count
320 pages
Center Street

Wendy Walker

About the Author

Broadcast news veteran and CNN Senior Vice President Wendy Walker has held a front row seat to the world’s stage for the past thirty years. The longtime senior executive producer of Larry King Live, Walker is the force behind television icon Larry King, and is a CNN original, joining the network when it began in 1980. Wendy has won a number of important awards in her career, including an Emmy and the First Amendment Service Award. From statesmen and world leaders, to celebrities and everyday people doing extraordinary things — Walker has covered them all as she created some of the most remarkable, famous, and history-making moments in television.

Andrea Cagan has been writing, collaborating, and editing for two decades. She has brought a dozen books to the bestseller lists, including three New York Times #1 bestsellers. She works and lives in Los Angeles, California, with her Balinese cat, Lulu.

Learn more about this author