Oprah 1: No Strategy, No Plan, No Formula

Making Oprah First National Show
The first nationally televised episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Screen Capture / Harpo Inc
Making Oprah First National Show
The first nationally televised episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. Screen Capture / Harpo Inc

Oprah 1: No Strategy, No Plan, No Formula

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It was 30 years ago this fall that Oprah Winfrey first said “hellooooo” to a national audience. By the show’s finale in 2011, it was aired in 145 countries and watched by more than 40 million viewers a week in the U.S. alone. Today’s daytime hosts like Ellen and Dr. Oz? They now average only about a tenth of that.

If Oprah mentioned a book title, it became a best-seller. She landed the interviews that no one else could get. Her message of spirituality and empowerment influenced millions.

With an hourlong daytime TV show, Oprah built a powerful brand. She made billions. And, as CNN, USA Today, Forbes and Time Magazine all proclaimed, she became the most powerful woman in America.

In the first of a three-part podcast series, Oprah and former producers talk with WBEZ’s Jenn White about the early, scrappy days of the program. Phil Donahue reflects on Oprah’s entry into the daytime talk landscape that he once dominated. Plus, the podcast revisits milestones from the 1980s, like the show’s national debut, and some mixed feelings over the show’s highest-rated episode ever.

Hear more from Making Oprah

Interview Highlights

WLS producer Dennis Swanson on hiring Oprah to host her first show in Chicago

I’m sitting in my office watching this audition and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, Dennis — you can’t be this lucky.’ This woman is unbelievable. Finally, she said to me do I have any concerns. And I said, ‘Not that I can think of.’ And she says, ‘Well, you know I’m black.’ I said, ‘I think I have that figured out,’ so I said we’re over that hurdle. She says, ‘You know I’m overweight.’ And I said, ‘Well so am I and so are many Americans.’

I said, ‘Here’s the deal, if we get this thing worked out, I don’t want you to change a thing. I don’t want a new hairdo. I don’t want a weight loss.’

But I said, ‘Now that I think about it, I do have a concern.’ And she sat back in her chair and she said, ‘What would that be?’ I said well, ‘I’ve seen people in this business push their success right up their nose. I want to make sure that you can handle success.’

And she said to me, ‘Do you really think I could be that successful?’

I said, ‘Well, this will probably cost me some money when I deal with your agent. But I think you’re going to shoot the lights out.’

Oprah on why she chose Chicago

I manifested Chicago. I didn’t like the idea of trying to move around New York. It wasn’t energetically palatable for me. I thought I will be suffocated here (New York) — no grass, no trees. I realized that even though LA was the second market, I was the wrong minority at the time and I was not going to be able to break that barrier.

DC was out of the question because every single major affiliate — CBS, NBC, ABC — already had their black institutional host. I knew I wasn’t going to crack that. So, by a process of elimination, I decided: Chicago.

As I was landing in the city, flying in on American Airlines and looking at the city, this feeling came over me. That I’m going to be here. And I remembered tearing up. It felt like, I used to say at the time, this will be my tara, I will call it home. This will be my home. And I felt that way for years every time I would fly from anywhere and fly into O’Hare and see the city. I had that feeling of this is where I’m supposed to be.

Oprah Winfrey Show Executive Producer Debbie DiMaio on how Oprah’s honestly fueled her stardom

She was the person who admitted that she was a foodaholic and that night she had taken some frozen hot dog buns and poured some maple syrup over them and ate them. She admitted that.

And I remember when she said that, there were gasps from the crowd and people at home were just shaking their heads like, ‘I can’t believe she said that.’

But their second thought was, ‘Oh jeez, I’ve done something like that, too.’

So the very fact that she was smart enough and vulnerable enough to put herself out there I think was one of the key recipes to her success.

Phil Donahue on why Oprah connected with her audience so quickly

I think she just bursted on the scene probably more maturely shaped at the beginning than I was. I had a lot to learn. I mean, I grew up on my show. I remember Gloria Steinem looking at me on the air and saying children in this country get too much mother and not enough father! And I thought, ‘Holy cow, they’re talking about me.’

I really think many of the women, black and white and brown, watched Oprah and you know, they knew what she meant. And I think there was a lot of head nodding.

Oprah on having ‘The Gift’ for television

The secret to being good on television is finding a way to find the truth of yourself, to be the truth of yourself. Because what people are relating to is what they see in themselves. So it wasn’t me trying to relate. I’ve never tried to relate to anybody. I have the gift, I would say. I call it a gift because the very first time I interviewed Jesse Jackson, I was 19 years old and Jesse Jackson said to me, ‘You have the gift. You are on television exactly the way you are off television. That’s a gift.’