A U of M alumnus joined cable TV maverick Ted Turner on a gamble in 1980. Thirty years
later, those leaps of faith are still making headline news.
By Greg Russell
Will King is not the least bit offended that an Internet search of the phrase “Will
King and CNN” brings up information on talkshow host Larry King.
“Few who pursue journalism as a career are seeking ‘celebrity’ fame and fortune,”
he says. “Most, like me, choose a career in news because they have passion for capturing
moments of history in words and pictures. The job can take you to places you’ve never
been to and put you in front of extraordinary people while making a good living. So
you don’t have to be recognized on the street and asked for an autograph to have a
King, who graduated from the University of Memphis with a degree in journalism in
1974, has labored in several not-as-sexy but equally as important behind-the-scenes
jobs at CNN and CNN International since the network first began broadcasting from
Atlanta on June 1, 1980. He is one of 15 original employees still with the company,
helping launch a network that changed the way news is delivered around the world.
|King (seated at left) and other 1973-74 staff members of the Memphis Statesman, which
was the University's weekly laboratory newspaper. At upper right is current Commercial
Appeal writer Michael Donahue.
“TV stations used to sign-off at midnight or at 1 in the morning,” King says. “What
Ted Turner wanted to launch was the first 24-hour news network. A newscast without
an end? How do you make it work? What do you do if you run out of news? We were going
to do what had never been done before.”
CNN prepared with a 17-hour trial run that came off without any major glitches. Whether
it could be done 24/7 was still anybody’s guess.
“It was daunting to imagine that day after day, 24-hour news casting was going to
be the norm. To do something as intense and as technically involved was setting out
for the unknown and uncharted. We were making our way as each day unfolded.”
He likens the start-up of CNN to the beginning of Facebook and its effect on information
sharing the past three years.
“I was in Atlanta with a lot of other pioneers,” King says. “I was truly fortunate
to be a part of something that was so revolutionary.”
King characterizes those first days as similar to working in Thomas Edison’s workshop.
“We were tinkering and inventing a new innovation.”
CNN wasn’t widely known, even in its hometown.
“You could draw blank stares in Atlanta when you said you worked for Cable News Network,”
he says. That would soon change, though.
King says coverage of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986 and the Gulf War in 1991 established CNN as a household name, one
that is now internationally known. “Shuttle launches had become so common that CNN
was the only network showing it live — we broke the news as it tragically unfolded
over the skies of Cape Canaveral. The event underscored having the availability of
a live 24-hour news channel.
“In January of 1991, we were the only network in place in Baghdad for Desert Storm.
Peter Arnett, Bernard Shaw and John Holliman were there as the attack began and vividly
described what was transpiring in front of them. This put CNN on the map globally.”
King started at CNN as video producer, “having to wear many hats.” He has risen to
the lofty position of Senior Director of CNN International Newsgathering Operations
after serving as International Newsgathering Managing Editor and Vice President of
International Newsgathering. He also launched CNN International’s first bureau in
Frankfurt, Germany, in 1985, building it “from the ground up” and serving as its first
CNN and CNN International are now seen in more than 200 countries and reach an estimated
260 million households.
King even has had an effect on the on-air personalities who are more often associated
with CNN, such as international anchor Jim Clancy.
“I’ve cussed and discussed the news of the day with Will in the back of taxicabs,
in edit bays, in the office, at home and abroad,” says Clancy, who hosts The Brief on CNN each weekday morning. “It is never dull; it is always a conversation that
lifts my own journalism.
|King has been with CNN since its inception in 1980. Much of his work has been with
CNN International. He launched the network's first bureau in Frankfurt, Germany, in
1985, and is one of just 15 original employees still with CNN.
“He was one of the people who led by example, coached and served as a mentor to a
whole generation of CNN journalists. At every turn in CNN’s history, King has been
there, not only a gatekeeper demanding balance in points of view and fairness to public
figures and the common man, but a source of inspiration for those around him.”
Clancy says he wasn’t surprised CNN chose King for the Frankfurt assignment.
“I spent nearly two years covering the civil war in Lebanon when repeated kidnappings
forced CNN to temporarily close the Beirut bureau,” Clancy says. “Suddenly, Will and
I came together again to open the Frankfurt operation. There is little doubt Will
was chosen for this strategically important position because we needed not only someone
who was completely dedicated to the vision of CNN, but someone capable of steering
his own ship so far from home.”
Clancy says King had to do the business, diplomatic and technical sides of the operation
in Frankfurt, “not always an easy thing to do.”
“When Western hostages were suddenly released back into Beirut, I could afford to
wax poetic about my memories of them from Lebanon,” Clancy recalls. Will, on the other
hand, had to get approval for trucks and wrangle microwave signals and paths to make
it not just journalism, but ‘CNN journalism.’ That meant live feeds from the Frankfurt
airport as the hostages arrived, live signals from the hospital in Wiesbaden when
they stepped out on the balcony and spoke as the whole world was watching it live.”
King’s CNN International assignments have sent him all over the world. But it was
a story closer to home that left an indelible mark on him.
“After Katrina, I was called on to be a part of the initial coverage and to find a
facility for CNN to operate out of. It was one of the more profound things I have
ever witnessed. New Orleans was a city that was laid completely on its side — it was
like one of those apocalypse movies. Refugees were leaving; helicopters were flying
overhead; there were soldiers with guns patrolling the streets. That was a striking
image that has stayed with me since.”
King describes his early days in journalism in Mary Tyler Moore terms.
“As far back as junior high, I wanted a career in broadcasting. As a young boy, I
would take a bus down to The Peabody Hotel to Channel 3, which was in the building’s
basement. I’d always be able to wrangle a visit to the studios. I was hooked then
on making television my career.”
Years later he was working at WHBQ-TV in Memphis when he saw a news wire report about
a new cable news network that Ted Turner was creating in Atlanta. Turner would hire
a number of people from across the country with various backgrounds to help start
the venture — King was one of them.
He says he can tie much of his success back to the U of M. King’s first job at WHBQ-TV
resulted from his television production course at the University. But serving as his
inspiration for a career in journalism was professor L. Dupre Long.
“Long, he ran the campus newspaper the Statesman as if it were sold on the newsstand and his students were his staff. He had high
journalistic standards. He suffered no fools. He had high journalistic standards and
we learned if we expected to be a success real world, we better start proving then
and there by getting facts and words right.”
Says Long, who taught at then-Memphis State from 1963 to 1971 and again from 1972
to 1982, “As a professor it was my view that the field of journalism was so vast and
dynamic, that it did not lend itself to teaching the way law or medicine might be
taught. It was a profession, in my opinion, that required good judgment, a command
of the English language and a devotion to the highest standards of news gathering
and writing and editing.
“I do remember Will very well because of his insatiable desire to learn about everything
that crossed his path. He was sincere, affable and dedicated when he was my student.
I am not surprised he has distinguished himself professionally.” Long was also a staff
member at The Commercial Appeal and later taught at the University of Texas before retiring in Austin.
King feels fortunate to have been part of something as big as CNN from day one.
“To be a part of it and to see it grow as it has, what more can one ask for in a career?”