In our final bonus installment of Making Oprah, we dive into one of our favorite interview subjects from this entire project: daytime talk show pioneer Phil Donahue.
Donahue aired from 1967 to 1996 and laid the groundwork for The Oprah Winfrey Show. Phil Donahue was the first successful daytime TV talk show host to actively engage with his audience - walking through the aisles and taking viewer phone calls - while tackling heady, controversial issues like gay marriage, racism and the Catholic sex abuse scandal.
“Before Phil Donahue there were talk shows,” Oprah said on Donahue’s 25th anniversary special in 1992, “but the audience and the viewers at home could only just sit there and watch. Phil changed all that.”
Below are highlights from WBEZ’s interview with Phil Donahue.
On how Phil Donahue set himself apart on his very first show, in 1967
Our first guest was Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the atheist who was part of the lawsuit that banned the official reading of prayer in public schools. She was called “The most hated woman in America.” She came on, put her elbows on the table and leaned across almost in my face and she said, “There are no angels, there is no heaven, there’s no God. When you die you go in the ground, you biodegrade and you become part of the physical universe.”
This is the first show. Well, I mean, my dear the building fell down in Dayton, Ohio. Sponsors cancelled. I got lots of holy pictures. I think people are still praying for me in Dayton, Ohio. And everybody knew there was this new show on WLWD.
On his show’s model of ‘smart talk’
It’s important to remember that we were very different. Nobody’s program on television at that time was doing this kind of material. Everything was “Ha-ha, he-he, laugh-laugh, win a prize, spinning wheels, come on down!”
I’m sincere when I’m saying to you that we were very nervous about whether we would survive. We were up against Monty Hall, who was giving away $5,000 to a woman who was dressed like a chicken-salad sandwich. And I’m interviewing one other person, and there’s a limit to that kind of excitement.
On the first time he heard of Oprah Winfrey
We were in Chicago from ‘74 to ‘84, and we were in New York from ‘84 to ‘96, but it was somewhere in that area that suddenly loomed this woman that everyone was talking about.
On how Oprah’s interview style differed from his own
She was able to be more intimate with her audience than I was. She could wink and half the audience would know exactly what she meant.
It has to do with Oprah. I mean, what’s not to love? She just wove herself into the hearts and minds of her audience. They knew what she was thinking and she knew what they were thinking. And the issues she discussed were obviously issues that were very important to the members of her audience.
Think of what she’s done for the millions of young women around the country. Maybe little girls who aspire to a TV show. The creations she’s been a part of for Broadway. The good work she’s done around the world. Young girls around the world are inspired by Oprah and that’s a very good thing. I just think she’s one of the most important media personalities in our business.
On how he knew it was time to call it quits in 1996
It was a feeling. There are only so many times that you can button up your shirt and put your tie on and jump out of a cake.
This interview has been edited for clarity.