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Hailing a King

November 18, 2008 - John Mehno

Today is the 37th anniversary of Ed King's passing at age 50. Ed was the creator and co-host of "Party Line," a show that aired six nights a week on KDKA radio from 1950 to 1971. The show ended with Ed's death from lung cancer.

Unless you're over 45, you would have no memory of "Party Line." It was audience participation, but it wasn't a talk show. The callers were never heard on the air. Ed and his wife Wendy would answer the calls (at EX1-1038), then paraphrase the conversation for the audience. The calls were on just about every topic except religion and politics. If you needed help getting an ink stain out of a leather jacket, "Party Line" was your ticket. If you wondered what kind of soft drinks were sold in Russia, you called "Party Line." If you wanted to know who determined which people were pictured on postage stamps, you turned to "Party Line." 

If Ed and Wendy didn't have the answer, probably another listener did. Explaining it here doesn't do justice to what was a consistently pleasant and informative radio show. No screaming and shouting, just conversation. The Kings were also big on letter writing. Most months had a theme (spooky stories in October, for example) and listeners would send thousands of contributions. There were small quizzes that won small but useful prizes. "Party Line" offered can openers rather than cars for its games.

Apart from "Party Line," Ed was a brilliant writer who produced state-of-the-art documentaries for KDKA. Many of them had patriotic and historical themes. He was charged with the responsibility of summing up radio's first 50 years when KDKA celebrated its golden anniversary in 1970.

But just over a year later, Ed was gone, and so was "Party Line." Wendy couldn't fathom doing the show without Ed, and her decision to end the program was sad, but correct. It left the air as one of the highest-rated shows in town, and that doesn't even count the substantial out-of-state audience that picked up KDKA's mighty signal at night.

In April of this year, my friend John Ott arranged a lunch with Wendy and was nice enough to invite me along. It was the first time I'd met her after all those years of listening. She was just as kind and gracious as she had been on the air. John was a "Party Line" regular, too, and she patiently indulged all our questiions. It was a great afternoon for us, and I hope we made Wendy feel like a star again, because she is. Every once in a while, a photographer friend will snap a picture of me talking to some ballplayer and give me a print. I usually toss them in a file folder. We had our picture taken with Wendy King in April. I have that one in a frame on the wall.

Today is a day to remember Ed and  to thank him for putting so much into his work. He showed us all how good and valuable radio can be when it's done really well. Good enough to remember with great fondness 37 years later.

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