Oprah replacing her go-to guy with two insiders

December 8, 2009

Tim Bennett

For 15 years, Tim Bennett has been the man who made the trains run on time for Oprah Winfrey. As president of Chicago-based Harpo Inc., he's been the buttoned-up diplomat who quietly and efficiently oversaw every aspect of Oprah's vast media universe.

On Monday -- less than three weeks after Oprah announced plans to end her top-rated syndicated talk show in 2011 -- Bennett, 60, made it official that he'll retire from the company this May, telling friends he plans to move to Santa Barbara, Calif. It's a tribute to Bennett (and the huge job he performed) that his duties are being divided between two inside executives.

Named presidents of Harpo Productions Inc. were Sheri Salata, who has been executive producer of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," and Erik Logan, executive vice president of Harpo Inc. In announcing their appointment, Oprah said:

"Harpo Productions is a world-class production company in Chicago and will continue on after 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' sunsets. Under " Sheri and Erik's leadership, I am confident in Harpo's future and know that we will continue to create quality programming with compelling content for"¨all platforms.‚  Not even the sky is the limit for this company."

One reason Bennett was so effective in his role is that he was present at the creation. As program director and creative services director at ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7, Bennett helped transform the local "A.M. Chicago" into the nationally syndicated "Oprah Winfrey Show." After four years as president and general manager of the ABC station in Raleigh/Durham, N.C., he was lured back to his hometown to work directly for Oprah in 1994. Under Bennett as chief operating officer, Harpo was remade into a 21st‚ century corporation and became one of the greatest media successes of all time.

As head of Oprah's flagship station here, Emily Barr, president and general manager of Channel 7, has worked as closely with Bennett as any of the show's 200-plus affiliates across the country. Said Barr:

"Tim managed Harpo with his signature blend of quiet calm and chess-like precision.‚  He never sought out the spotlight, preferring to be the man behind the curtain. But rest assured, his clear judgment and business acumen were instrumental in helping Oprah become the global brand she is today. I have enjoyed his friendship and counsel for the past 15 years ever since I had the privilege of taking over his [general manager] spot at WTVD in Raleigh/Durham, and I would say he is definitely one of the truly good guys."

Salata, 50, has been executive producer of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" since 2006, when she was promoted from supervising producer. She will continue in her producing role until the show ends its 25-year run in September 2011.

Logan, 38, whose real name is Erik Logan Toppenberg, joined Harpo in 2008 from XM Satellite Radio, where he had been executive vice president of programming since 2004. A 20-year radio veteran, he served as operations manager of CBS Radio country WUSN-FM (99.5) before assuming top programming posts at Infinity Broadcasting (forerunner of CBS Radio) and Citadel Broadcasting.

Elsewhere on the media beat:

  • Rick O'Dell, Chicago's foremost authority on the smooth jazz radio format, has joined Venture Technologies Group's WLFM (87.7) as program director and midday personality. He held the same positions at former smooth jazz WNUA-FM (95.5) until he left the Clear Channel Radio station last January. Most recently, O'Dell has been operations manager of ChiTownSmoothJazz.com, a service of Kurt Hanson's Chicago-based AccuRadio Inc.
  • John Gehron, the revered broadcasting executive and industry statesman, has joined AccuRadio.com as lead management consultant. He will spearhead the company's "Slipstream Radio" initiative, designed to build multichannel, personalizable online versions of AM and FM stations for terrestrial broadcasters. "Kurt [Hanson] has accomplished a lot with AccuRadio, and I believe that Internet radio is poised for dramatic growth," said Gehron, who most recently helped launch Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Radio division. He previously was Chicago-based regional vice president of Clear Channel Radio and senior vice president of CBS Radio.
  • An online shrine to veteran Chicago radio personality Robert Murphy is up and running at murphyinthemorningradio.com. Designed and produced by local broadcast historian Scott Childers, it's a multimedia goldmine for fans of the former morning star. Best known for his successful 10-year run at WKQX-FM (101.1) in the 1980s and early '90s, Murphy later held forth at both WLS-FM (94.7) and the former WXXY-FM.
  • This week's cover story in Time Out Chicago offers some mighty helpful tips in bringing your Facebook and Twitter accounts under control. Writer Christina Couch lists "six fixes for everything from snooping parents to Farmville-addicted friends [to] reignite your passion for staying in touch online."
  • In a followup to Monday's report here, insiders at the Sun-Times say they intended to announce the hiring of Tribune sports columnist Rick Morrissey on Friday night all along and that their timing was not related to the Tribune's posting of the story online.
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