In the second episode of Making Oprah, we explore how The Oprah Winfrey Show elevated itself out of the heap of trash TV and into a show that intentionally embraced spirituality and positivity. The early years of Oprah’s show often relied on sensational, tabloidy topics – cheating husbands, sexy clothes, and murderers. It was not yet the ‘Live Your Best Life’ Oprah we would come to know and love.
“It was during those shows where I just thought, ‘What are we doing?’ ” Oprah tells WBEZ’s Jenn White. “This is a platform that is speaking to people, and what are we saying?”
As the Oprah Winfrey Show reached maturity — or at least, its college years — the program conducted the on-air experiments that would allow this talk show to become something more than a talk show.
Hear more from Making Oprah
Executive producer Debbie DiMaio on taking the five-month old Oprah Winfrey Show to cover racial inequality in Forsyth County, Georgia
“You know I went there beforehand in order to secure a location. And I went to my hotel room and the phone rang and it was a man and he said: ‘This is the Klan. We’re going to kill you.’ Click. “So I put the furniture up against the door of the hotel room and just proceeded. We got a show to do. I don’t really care… There was no fear. I mean Oprah would preach on a daily basis: ‘There are only two emotions, love or fear.’ And we weren’t feeling the fear. “It was a startling experience. To be there with her — with that audience — was startling enough. But then to walk outside and to be faced with what seemed like 50 or 60 journalists, news crews, cameras flashing — it made worldwide headlines and it was a turning point for what we knew we were able to do and to expose. And so it was almost like a recognition of a newfound power — and that we had to hold that newfound power in our hands very gently and really, really think about it.”
Oprah on ignoring the competition
“I learned the greatest lesson of any competitor, or anybody who’s in business, and passed that on to the rest of my staff. And that is that you can only run your own race. “I was very clear when I started — I got clearer as I continued — but I was very clear that the purpose of this show was to be a light in the world and that the mission statement — ‘We’re here to uplift, enlighten, encourage, and entertain’ — that that had to be real.”
Publicist Alice McGee on the show outgrowing WLS Studios in Chicago
“She had a puppy. ‘Sorry, we can’t have dogs in the building.’ “There was a treadmill. ‘Sorry, we can’t have treadmills in the building.’ “And again at the time I think if (WLS) had to revisit history, they would have said, ‘Have whatever you want, put a freaking gym in.’ So it kind of bugged her — those little things — but they did plant the seeds of ownership. “WLS was wonderful. They didn’t know what they had. But she was not your typical WLS employee, or even talent. She was, you know, lightning in a bottle.”
DiMaio on the work environment in the early days of Oprah’s Harpo Studios
“It wasn’t a work culture, it was a lifestyle. It’s what we did when we woke up in the morning until we went to sleep at night. It was our life. It was our youth. I have a firm belief that for something to be that successful, that’s what it requires. “At a certain point we had a couple hundred people, and there was nowhere I could go in the building without someone who had a question, so it was intense.”
Oprah on bringing intention to the way the show was booked
“I said to the producers: ‘Do not bring me any show that you do not have a clear motivated intention in producing. And when you bring me the show, I have to find for myself, a thread of truth so that I can hold myself in the center of that. So I can do a lot of crazy things — I can interview, you know, running out and doing this day and that day and swinging from poles and chandeliers — but I’ve got to find some center of truth where I can be my honest, truthful self in it and then I can do other things.”
Oprah on an episode featuring life coach Cheryl Richardson on women putting themselves first
“I remember so distinctly, Cheryl said: ‘You should be first on the list.’ And women started booing. Literally. “Boo. Booing. ‘Boooooo!’ Someone said, ‘Where do you get this woman? You obviously don’t have any children.’ And I said, ‘Hey, hey, hey, everybody, calm down. This is my house — this is not Jerry Springer’s — and this isn’t what we do when people come to visit my house.’ “[Richardson] said, ‘You should be first on the list.’ She didn’t say ‘Abandon your children in the streets. Leave your husbands, leave your work, your jobs.’ She just said put yourself first on the list. Why is that a difficult concept? “And I saw that change over the years. I saw — physically witnessed — the change in attitude that women gave to themselves.”