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

Oprah Winfrey attends the premiere of the Oprah Winfrey Network's documentary series, <em>Belief</em>, at The Times Center in New York.
Greg Allen
Oprah Winfrey attends the premiere of the Oprah Winfrey Network's documentary series, Belief, at The Times Center in New York.

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 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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