December 30, 2016 by Alyse LaHue
I had a chance to listen to this three-part podcast over the holidays [thanks long car rides!], hosted by Jenn White, an anchor for Chicago’s public radio, WBEZ. We all know Oprah as the hair, the weight, ‘YOU GET A CAR!’, Tom Cruise jumping on the couch, and so many other pop culture moments. But this gives 25-years in a condensed time capsule that I found incredibly insightful, interesting, and enjoyable to listen to, even if I do find Oprah herself a challenge to listen to a few times. I can imagine that changing the world can give one a slight ego-complex, so I look beyond that and recognize her as the icon she is.
I did grow up in the 80s/90s so I have a clear remembrance of The Oprah Winfrey Show, but really wasn’t of an age to care about the background or why she was where she was. I also was too young to know that a black, female daytime talk-show host was an anomaly. Oprah has just always existed to me. I grew up with that normalcy.
Episode 1 traces the ‘beginning’ of the Oprah Winfrey Show and her move from Baltimore news to Chicago’s low-rated AM Chicago morning talk-show. Talk-show king of that time, Phil Donahue, also makes appearances on this podcast and I found him gracious and an added-value. Oprah was hired by TV executive Dennis Swanson, who majorly rolled the dice on her. In one of my favorite parts of the podcast, Swanson reminisces back to 1983 and his interview and beginnings with Oprah:
“I’m sitting in my office watching this audition and thinking to myself ‘Oh my goodness, Dennis, you can’t be this lucky’, this woman is unbelievable.”
He invited her to his office to make an offer on the spot. The conversation goes as follows from his memory:
Oprah: “Do you have any concerns?”
Dennis: “No, not that I can think of”
Oprah: “Well you know I’m black”
Dennis: “I think I have that figured out so we’re over that hurdle”
Oprah: “You know I’m overweight”
Dennis: “Well so am I and so are many Americans. 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.”
What if he never took a chance on her?
Episode 2 digs into the actual content of the talk-show and we start to see Oprah’s transformation from ‘trash’ topics, which were becoming extremely popular in American talk-shows, to her conscious decision to ‘stop making people feel bad.’ The truth was that the ‘low road’ had higher ratings. Sounds like 2016 in America doesn’t it? So many people love tabloid, trash and drama. It sentimentally warmed my heart to hear Oprah talk about the show’s decision to move away from that, even if it did take years. The ‘Live Your Best Life’ Oprah ball was rolling.
There’s a great section in here about Oprah’s lawsuit from the Texas beef industry. She had invited a cattle-rancher-turned-vegetarian onto the show who made disparaging remarks about the beef industry. Beef prices dropped to a 10-year low after the episode, leading cattle ranchers to sue Oprah for $12 mil for defamation. The great news: they lost and Oprah had announced she still wasn’t eating hamburgers. (Full disclosure: I am a vegan!)
Episode 3 delves into her stratospheric icon status and the ‘Oprah-effect’. When a staffer suggested a ‘book club’, Oprah needed time to think about it. But once she launched, she learned that her recommendation would give authors a #1 selling book. This happened with other Oprah-suggested products as well.
We got to hear more about the machine that was the staff behind the show. Many talking about that time period with loving hearts, but acknowledging that they really gave up their lives to be a part of it. It was certainly no 9 to 5.
For Oprah’s 24th anniversary show, the production team managed to shut down part of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue for a live performance from the Black Eyed Peas. I don’t want to give away the whole thing, but they managed to keep the ensuing flash mob a secret from Oprah. Her face is priceless as she’s watching the catatonic crowd and probably thinking what a disaster the show is about to be. No idea how they pulled this off, but it’s truly awesome.
Check it out here:
Finally we hear the decisions behind ending the show, which had gone as far as it could go. I mean, how do you top handing out over 200 cars to studio audience guests?
You can visit the podcast page here to subscribe or listen.
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