Our guest blogger is CNN Senior Vice President Wendy Walker. 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.
Freaking Out Is Not an Option
As senior executive producer of Larry King Live, those six words are my daily mantra. In fact, they’re so important I made them the title of the very first chapter of my book. I wasn’t born with these words in my mouth. They came to me after some hard knock experience.
It probably goes without saying that no one likes to work with a screamer. Their negative energy spreads and throws everyone off their game. The first time I witnessed someone lose it in the office, I knew I wanted to handle myself differently. This isn’t to say I’ve never felt like screaming or freaking out. I’ve just trained myself not to. It’s like a muscle that I’ve developed.
In my line of work, I get plenty of opportunities to flex that muscle. The afternoon of June 25, 2009 was one of those opportunities.
I woke at 5:30, as I do every day. I was in a good mood because I knew that my staff and I had booked an interesting show for that night’s Larry King Live. But, I also knew from experience that if breaking news occurred anywhere in the world, we would have to change our plans in an instant.
My day took its first turn at 9:28 when it was announced that Farrah Fawcett had passed away. Knowing this was a bigger story than what we had planned, it called for a total about-face. My staff and I immediately shifted gears to make the appropriate adjustments. We needed to reschedule the guests for the show we had planned (we never cancel) and start booking guests for a show to pay tribute to one of America’s beloved actresses. Adjusting on a moment’s notice is what my job constantly demands, but here we were starting from scratch on the morning of the show. Freaking out was not an option. I knew it would just waste time and energy. Plus, I needed to make hundreds of decisions and the only way to do that effectively was to remain calm and trust my gut. Each moment was crucial. The clock was ticking. Fortunately by around noon, we’d already booked guests who were close to Farrah and it looked as though we were going to pull off the switch.
Then, things took another unexpected turn. At 1:44 p.m., I received an email saying that Michael Jackson had just been taken to the hospital after suffering a severe cardiac arrest. At this point, it was just a rumor. But if confirmed, I knew this would be a big story. So as my staff continued booking the show about Farrah, I worked on Michael’s story. Soon TMZ posted that Michael Jackson had passed away and I needed to confirm it. If it was true, I knew it would be one of those moments in history that the public would never forget. I remembered exactly where I was when John Lennon, Marilyn Monroe, President Kennedy and Princess Diana died. If Michael Jackson were dead, I would have to make the decision to switch the show one more time from Farrah to Michael. At 3:38 CNN confirmed that Michael had indeed died. Once again, we needed to change the show.
When news happens in the world, I know millions of viewers have their eyes and ears trained on Larry King Live. They know Larry will have something to say about it and I’m responsible for deciding who sits opposite him every night. So no matter what challenges the day throws my way, the show must go on. With hard work, quick thinking, and calm resolve, we were able to put together a compelling show on June 25th, featuring a number of people close to Michael.
When I dropped into bed that night completely exhausted and amazed that I made it through another day, I felt a little wiser and stronger for what I’d experienced and glad that in the midst of the storm, I didn’t freak out.
Tune in to watch Wendy Walker on Larry King Live on November 16 at 9 PM ET (6 PM PT).