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Remembering Ed King

November 18, 2011 - John Mehno
It was 40 years ago today that Ed King died, bringing a sudden end to KDKA radio's nightly "Party Line" show.

Ed and wife Wendy co-hosted the show for nearly 21 years, and it had a following all over the United States, thanks to KDKA's 50,000 watt signal.

"Party Line" was the original Google. If you needed an answer, you called EX1-1038. But you didn't go on the air. Ed's vision of the show didn't include the callers' voices. He knew that a party could easily be disrupted by pontificating and bad taste. Keeping the callers off the air eliminated those worries and also made the show a safe place for those too shy to go the air. Callers called, and Ed and Wendy paraphrased the conversation for listeners. Trust me, it worked. It was always a compelling show, a gentle and pleasant end-of-the-day companion.

It was not a trivia show, and it wasn't just questions and answers. "Party Line" was discussion. There were games like Alphabet Soup and Digit. There were monthly letter writing subjects. There was the nightly Party Pretzel, a question to be untangled, and one that usually couldn't be easily checked in reference books.

The Kings went on the air armed with their wits and a folder full of letters. There were no reference manuals. Ed's phenomenal memory and story-telling ability were enough.

"Party Line" wasn't all that Ed King did for KDKA. He wrote specials that had the recurring theme of patriotism. "The Glory and the Grave" was his masterpiece. It's a shame that Pittsburgh, the birthplace of commercial radio, doesn't have a broadcast archive where these shows can be accessed. He used the medium to its maximum, believing in the power of radio to draw on the listener's imagination.

Sadly, it ended abruptly 40 years ago. The last official show was a Halloween night broadcast. Co-workers tell me that Ed was so desperately ill at that point that he could barely make it into the studio. But he felt he owed it to his craft and the listeners to do one last Halloween show, with the telling of the spooky stories that were an October "Party Line" trademark.

WQED's Rick Sebak did a "Stuff That's Gone" show that included a segment on "Party Line." Wendy poignantly told him, "Now that I've found out what loneliness is, I wish there was a 'Party Line.'"

Would a show like that work today? Unfortunately, no. Radio has changed, and so has the way we use radio. It will never be as important as it was in the reign of "Party Line" from 1951 through 1971. Talents like Ed and Wendy are irreplaceable, especially in that unique format.

Those of us who were there still remember it fondly, and I take this anniversary to again salute its masterful creator, Ed King.

For those of you who weren't there: You missed a great party.

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