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Back to you, Oprah: Recalling a reluctant anchorwoman

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oprah-headshot-finalOprah Winfrey, 1984

It’s a forgotten chapter in Chicago television history. But if things had worked out differently, we might have been saluting Oprah Winfrey on her 25th‚ year as a local news anchor last year instead of gearing up for the end of her talk show career here.

On April 2, 1984 -- just three months after her debut as host of “A.M. Chicago” -- a 30-year-old Oprah teamed up with veteran news anchor Joel Daly to launch a 4 p.m. weekday newscast on ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7. Oprah was still very much a newcomer on the local scene, and her bosses were eager to showcase her outside of her morning talk show.

It wasn’t such a far-fetched idea. Oprah got her start as an anchor and reporter for a station in Nashville at the tender age of 19. She’d also been an anchor in Baltimore, her last stop before Dennis Swanson, vice president and general manager of Channel 7, beckoned her to Chicago. Although the 4 p.m. gig was billed as an “experiment,” the station clearly had thoughts of a more permanent role for her in its news department.

“She didn’t want to do it,” recalled Bill Applegate, who, as news director of Channel 7 at the time, hatched the idea. “And her morning show became so successful so fast that she had the clout to convince Dennis to end the experiment.” After three weeks, it was over. By the time the May sweeps rolled around, Oprah was firmly ensconced in Channel 7’s programming department, which was still reeling from the ouster of program director Jeff McGrath, the Channel 7 exec who’d first spotted Oprah on a producer’s demo tape.

For about another year or so, Applegate was able to “borrow” Oprah to contribute occasional reports for Channel 7 newscasts -- including a trip to famine-ravaged Ethiopia with news anchor Mary Ann Childers. But for all practical purposes, Oprah’s news days were behind her.

Truth be told, Oprah knew long before the Channel 7 experiment that she wasn’t cut out to be an anchorwoman. As she once reminisced in a commencement address to Wellesley College:

“I remember being taken off the air in Baltimore, being told that I was no longer being fit for television and that I could not anchor the news because I used to go out on the stories and my own truth was, even though I am not a weeper, I would cry for the people in the stories, which really wasn’t very effective as a news reporter to be covering a fire and crying because the people lost their house [pretending to cry as she said this]. And it wasn’t until I was demoted as an on-air anchorwoman and thrown into the talk show arena to get rid of me, that I allowed my own truth to come through. The first day I was on the air doing my first talk show back in l978, it felt like breathing, which is what your true passion should feel like. It should be so natural to you. And so, I took what had been a mistake, what had been perceived as a failure with my career as an anchorwoman in the news business and turned it into a talk show career that’s done OK for me!”

And yet, if her local, half-hour “A.M. Chicago” hadn’t caught on as quickly as it did (and if her brilliant agent and manager, Jeff Jacobs, hadn’t engineered her move to syndication and outright ownership of the show), who knows? Oprah might still be anchoring the news today.

UPDATE: Rare video footage of Oprah behind the anchor desk:

Elsewhere on the media beat:

  • Zoraida Sambolin, morning news anchor at NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5, will host “Weekend Connection,” a new half-hour show providing “a local focus to the top national stories of the week,” airing at 8:30 a.m. Sundays, starting this weekend. Jointly produced by NBC News and Channel 5, it’s part of the station’s revamped Sunday morning lineup, including new times for “Sunday Today” (at 7 a.m.), Marion Brooks’ “The Talk” (at 8 a.m.), “The Chris Matthews Show” (at 9 a.m.) and “Meet the Press” (at 9:30 a.m.).
  • Frank Sennett has been promoted to president/editor-in-chief of Time Out Chicago. The move coincides with an expansion of the weekly magazine and website’s local operations and their “decoupling” from New York management. Sennett, a veteran journalist, author and former editor of NewCity, joined Time Out Chicago as editor in chief in January 2008 and most recently doubled as general manager.
  • In another setback for Chicago Media Action, the Federal Communications Commission has dismissed a second petition for reconsideration of the community group’s opposition against license renewals for the eight biggest Chicago television stations. In its complaint, the group had cited “the failure of the broadcasters in meeting their responsibilities concerning electoral democracy.”
  • Noon Sunday will mark the official launch of the Chicago Independent Radio Project online at Fulfilling the longtime mission of programmer Shawn Campbell, the new station will broadcast live 21 hours a day from studios in the North Center neighborhood. A fundraiser for the nonprofit group will be held at 10 p.m. Saturday at the Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western, featuring the Yolks, Hollows and Rabble Rabble. (Thanks to Jim DeRogatis for explaining that those are three Chicago bands.)
  • Condolences to Corey McPherrin, sports anchor at Fox-owned WFLD-Channel 32, whose 88-year-old father, Jack McPherrin, died of injuries after losing control of his vehicle last week in a crash on Interstate 294 near Chicago Ridge. Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. today at St. John Lutheran Church in Darien.
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