Goodbye Oprah, and Thank You Talk Show Pioneer Phil Donahue

Of course, today and much of the past week (in the broadcast TV world anyway) have been all about Oprah Winfrey‘s extended farewell. As well they should have been. Whether or not you liked her style or resonated with her messages, Oprah has no doubt deeply influenced and touched countless people in numerous ways.

This is a nice tribute, Why Did Oprah Matter?, from Ken Tucker at Another nice piece, Five Reasons Oprah’s Last Show Should Matter to You, appears in the Dallas Morning News from Michael Landauer.

But enough about Oprah.

In all the hoopla, I can’t help but think back to Phil Donahue, whose very thoughtful talk show I watched often. It is Donahue who pioneered the act of entering the studio audience and was often seen running up and down the stairs of his set, microphone in hand and white hair flopping, to record the impressions of a guest.

The Phil Donahue Show (later – in a nod to the times? – simply Donahue) ran an incredible 26 years nationally, from 1970-1996 (one year longer than Oprah), and three years locally in Dayton, OH, before that. He took on most of the political, cultural and philosophical issues of the times – civil rights, gay rights, consumer rights, religion, abortion, war, even holocaust denialĀ  – and didn’t shy from (indeed perhaps stoked) controversy and passionate conversation. He also did lighter, but no less educational, shows such as one in which he introduced many viewers to break dancing and rap.

My friend, Bay Area writer and cultural observer Barbara Tannenbaum, shared this:

I think Phil Donahue was one of several major factors helping the country with gay visibility/ cultural change. When Bill Maher said it was television, not politicians, who were behind this paradigm shift, I instantly thought of Donahue….and Dick Cavett and Mike Douglas (less so, but must tip my hat to my Mom!)

Donahue was on the air during the worst part of the AIDS epidemic in the mid to late 80s. Again, a forum for our Moms to meet gay men fighting AIDS, making that conversation much easier for parents. My mom comforted a lady in the dressing room of Nordstrom’s about discussing her gay son’s diagnosis with her husband. Her inspiration was not me, but Phil Donahue!!

Even Oprah Winfrey acknowledges, “”If it weren’t for Phil Donahue, there would never have been an Oprah Show.”

Here’s Phil Donahue interviewing writer Ayn Rand, about whom he said, in his introduction, “You mention this woman’s name and you’re in for a very vigorous conversation.” That short phrase sums up much of Phil Donahue’s talent and appeal, in addition to an element we could use much more of on television and in the greater culture and discourse.

Farewell Oprah and thank you Phil!

Photos: AP/Paul Beaty, Doug Ross

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4 responses to “Goodbye Oprah, and Thank You Talk Show Pioneer Phil Donahue

  1. Great post, Suz, as always, but I am additionally so flattered to be part of your writing today!
    “Up From Invisibility” by Larry Gross, an academic study of LGBT in the Media has a whole chapter on Phil Donahue. Here’s taste from page 185–“Donahue’s arrival on the national media scene coincided with the emergence of the lesbian and gay liberation movement, and it wasn’t long before he opened his stage to people who had few if any opportunities to speak for themselves.”
    Also, everyone can read the witty, final “New Rule” on Real Time Show with Bill Maher from April 1, 2011 that I was referencing here:

  2. Thank you, Barb, for your inspiration and your quick, important and lively quotes! I really appreciate you. Indeed, you’ve shed some new light on the groundbreaking nature of Phil Donahue!

  3. I have to admit that Oprah creeps me out a little bit, but I can’t deny she’s been a force for good.

    • Hi Leah! It’s great to see you here. I know exactly what you mean. Indeed, “force” and “phenomenon” are definitely words that come to mind when parsing Oprah. (Can college courses — Oprology? – be far behind?)

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