'There's Something About Her': Podcast Explores How Oprah Became Oprah | KUOW News and Information

'There's Something About Her': Podcast Explores How Oprah Became Oprah

Dec 8, 2016

Thirty years ago, a new face debuted on daytime television: Oprah Winfrey.

The new podcast, "Making Oprah," produced by member station WBEZ, chronicles Oprah's rise to stardom. Journalist Jenn White tells Oprah's story from her early days on her first talk show, AM Chicago, through to the biggest, most outrageous moments when 40 million people a week were watching her national show.

It began with a station manager in Chicago, Dennis Swanson. He was the one who spotted something in the young woman and saw a big future — one Oprah herself couldn't even imagine.

"She says, 'Well, you know, I'm black,' " Swanson recalls in the podcast. "I said, 'Well, 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.' "

As a young African-American girl, watching Oprah on television was really powerful for her, White tells NPR's Ari Shapiro.

"As I was growing up my mother would always say, 'You have the gift of gab. You're gonna do something with that,' " White says. "So when Oprah appeared on television, my mother would point to her as a model for what I could do."


Interview Highlights

On how Oprah handled her rise from local talk show host to media mogul

Well, I think you have to remember that Oprah came from a television station in Baltimore where she was doing a show there with a co-host who was a white man, who would, as the story's been told, touch her on the leg when she was allowed to speak.

So I think an early experience like that gives you some sense of the importance of having control of your stage, having control of your microphone. I think it makes you maybe value it a little bit more. And Dennis Swanson said, you know, don't change anything about yourself. And to me, that opened a door for Oprah to be exactly who she was on television.

On how Oprah captured white America

What's at once inspiring about Oprah's story is also I think something that we have to be really careful about, and that's using a singular story as an example of success or the ability to ... transcend race or anything else. We can't look at her narrative as being one that's easily translatable across the spectrum. It was a single story.

But there is something about her and her authenticity that allowed white America to see her not as Oprah Winfrey, the African-American talk show host, but simply, by the end of it, as just Oprah. People felt like they were on a first name basis with her. What that is I haven't quite figured out yet, but there's something about her.

On the void left when Oprah ended her show

I don't think anything has filled the niche. Because there's so much splintering in media, I think we've gotten to a point where we are almost able to just self-select what we want to hear. It's harder for us to challenge ourselves and challenge our belief systems because we have so many choices.

And having a show that was able to capture that many eyes and ears every week was so powerful, and it was transformative for American culture. I truly don't think we'll ever be in a place where that happens again. And whether that's for the good or ill of American culture, you know, I guess history will tell us that story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Thirty years ago, a new face debuted on daytime television.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OPRAH WINFREY: Hi there. My name is Oprah Winfrey.

SHAPIRO: That's from an audition tape that Oprah submitted for her first talk show called "A.M. Chicago." Journalist Jenn White dug up the recording for her podcast "Making Oprah" produced by member station WBEZ. The story stretches from her early days...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A.M. CHICAGO")

WINFREY: I'm Oprah Winfrey, the new host of "A.M. Chicago," and I am thrilled...

SHAPIRO: ...Through to the biggest, most outrageous moments when 40 million people a week were watching her show.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPRAH WINFREY SHOW")

WINFREY: You get a car. You get a car. You get a car.

(CHEERING)

WINFREY: So you get a car. You get a car. You get a car. Everybody gets a car.

SHAPIRO: It all began with a station manager in Chicago, Dennis Swanson. He was the one that spotted something in the young woman and saw a big future, one Oprah herself couldn't even imagine.

DENNIS SWANSON: And she says, well, you know, I'm black. I said, well, 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 thing.

SHAPIRO: Swanson's only fear was that she'd be too successful and fame would go to her head. I asked podcast host Jenn White how Oprah handled that rise from local talk show host to media mogul.

JENN WHITE, BYLINE: Well, I think you have to remember that Oprah came from a television station in Baltimore where she was doing a show there with a co-host who was a white man who would, as the story's been told, touch her on the leg when she was allowed to speak.

So I think an early experience like that gives you some sense of the importance of having control (laughter) of your stage, having control of your microphone. I think it makes you maybe value it a little bit more. And Dennis Swanson said, you know, don't change anything about yourself. And to me, that opened a door for Oprah to be exactly who she was on television.

SHAPIRO: There's some really fun reminiscences from the early days when nobody knew who she was and the staff was struggling to put on the show. And I mean, like, one story they tell is trying desperately to book Don Johnson...

WHITE: For the first national show - yeah (laughter).

SHAPIRO: ...For the first national - they, like, sent him a special pair of sunglasses and a mink teddy bear. And they still couldn't get him to do the show (laughter).

WHITE: Yeah, no callback from Don Johnson.

SHAPIRO: It's really charming listening to this to hear how you make no effort to conceal your own personal connection to the Oprah story and your...

WHITE: I didn't cover that up at all (laughter)?

SHAPIRO: ...Devotion to Oprah Winfrey. I mean you had the brilliance to put yourself on tape the moment your producer told you that Oprah had agreed to an interview.

WHITE: I wish I could claim that was my idea. It was my producer Colin McNulty's idea.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Let's just listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MAKING OPRAH")

COLIN MCNULTY, BYLINE: So we're going to meet Oprah.

WHITE: (Laughter) Are you kidding me?

MCNULTY: No, so that's happening.

WHITE: Oh, my gosh.

MCNULTY: Yay.

WHITE: Oh, my gosh, Colin.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: That's in the first episode of the podcast. You describe getting a new dress, a pedicure, flying to Los Angeles, sitting in a dressing room between Channing Tatum and Simone Biles.

WHITE: (Laughter) It was pretty incredible.

SHAPIRO: For you, why was it so meaningful to meet this person who was more than just a celebrity to you?

WHITE: I started watching Oprah when I was about 12 years old. I'm a child - 1 of 7 children. And I was one of the chattier ones I think it's fair to say.

(LAUGHTER)

WHITE: But as I was growing up, my mother would always say, you have the gift of gab; you're going to do something with that. So when Oprah appeared on television, my mother would point to her as a model for what I could do. So that became ingrained in me, and there was something really powerful about growing up watching an African-American woman on television in control of the microphone.

SHAPIRO: You're also African-American, we should...

WHITE: I am African-American, yeah. And that was a really powerful model for me to grow up watching. And when I took the job at WBEZ, my mother said, you're going to meet Oprah. And I said, well, Mom, she doesn't actually live in Chicago anymore. Like, the studio's closed down. She's not there. She was like, I just have a feeling you're going to meet Oprah. So it's sort of a closing the loop, you know, in my life...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

WHITE: ...Professionally because she's been a part of who I am today.

SHAPIRO: One of the interesting things about Oprah generally is that it seems as though over the years, to a lot of white America, Oprah is a person who - and I use this phrase with some hesitation - transcended blackness. And yet she was getting an Oscar nomination for her role in "The Color Purple." She was very active in these conversations about race. From her perspective and, my impression is, from the perspective of many black Americans, she did anything but transcend blackness.

WHITE: Yeah, and that's something - I'm glad you used the transcend race (laughter) carefully or cautiously. This is something I've been giving a lot of thought to over the last few weeks as I've been hearing from people in response to the podcast. And what's at once inspiring about Oprah's story is also I think something that we have to be really careful about. And that's using a singular story as an example of success or the ability to, like you said, transcend race or anything else.

We can't look at her narrative as being one that's easily translatable across the spectrum. It was a single story. But there is something about her and her authenticity that allowed white America to see her not as Oprah Winfrey the African-American talk show host but simply by the end of it as just Oprah. People felt like they were on a first-name basis with her. What that is I haven't quite figured out yet, but there's something about her.

SHAPIRO: So you conclude with a question of why she ended the show. And the answer she gives you is basically that they had gone as far as they could go.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "MAKING OPRAH")

WINFREY: We literally sat in a room saying, what about outer space? Do you think we could take the audience to outer space? Somebody did bring that up. Like, we could get Richard Branson. We could get an in. We could go. We could take the audience, and you could go to outer space.

SHAPIRO: And so she decides she needs to end the show. And I wonder what you think has filled the niche she left behind.

WHITE: Truthfully, Ari, I don't think anything has filled the niche because there's so much splintering in media. I think we've gotten to a point where we are almost able to just self-select what we want to hear. It's harder for us to challenge ourselves and challenge our belief systems because we have so many choices.

And having a show that was able to capture that many eyes and ears every week was so powerful, and it was transformative for American culture. I truly don't think we'll ever be in a place where that happens again. And whether that's for the good or ill (laughter) of American culture, you know, well, I guess history will tell us that story.

SHAPIRO: Jenn White is host of the podcast "Making Oprah" from WBEZ. Thank you so much.

WHITE: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.