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`She Was the Best I Had Ever Seen’

Apr 19, 2004  •  Post A Comment

It was August 1983 and it was my first day on the job as the new general manager of WLS-TV Chicago.
The host of the station’s morning show walked into my office about 7 a.m. and asked out of his contract so he could pursue an opportunity in New York.
A less-than-successful “AM Chicago” finished at 10 a.m., and I made the day for the host by giving him the out he wanted.
The problem for WLS-TV and “AM Chicago” was that we were head-to-head with the highly successful “Phil Donahue Show” being produced live across town at WBBM-TV, which at that time was the highest-rated CBS-owned station in the country.
I thought one of our problems was that we were trying to out-Donahue “Donahue,” rather than provide an alternative. I urged the staff to look for someone totally different so we might give the viewing audience a distinct choice.
The next day Debbie DiMaio, a segment producer working on “AM Chicago,” came down to see me. Debbie had a tape from her previous employer, WJZ-TV in Baltimore. She said it was hard to tell from this tape, but that the woman co-host was quite good and that we should consider her as a candidate for our “AM” show. That was my first introduction to Oprah Winfrey.
We looked at many folks before the process was over, but the consensus was that Oprah was ahead of the field.
We brought her to Chicago on Labor Day weekend 1983 for a full-scale audition. As I sat in my office and watched a mock version of the “AM” show hosted by Oprah, I realized I was seeing something super-special. She was the best I had ever seen.
Oprah came down to visit afterward. She wanted to do this show and do it solo. She seemed to me to be almost desperate for the chance.
Oprah asked if I had concerns. “Not really,” I said.
“I’m black,” she said.
“Yes, I could see that,” I said. “I’m in the win business, not the color business.”
“I’m overweight,” she said.
“So am I,” I answered. I urged her not to lose weight, change her hairdo or dress style. I wanted Oprah just as she was.
But then I registered a concern. “Can you handle success?” I asked. “Big success. I’ve seen people in this business ruined because success went to their head.”
Oprah became flustered-something I had never seen before and rarely have since. Did I really think she would be that successful? My answer that September Saturday in 1983: “Lady, you are gonna shoot the lights out.”
We had to wait for her Baltimore contract to expire at the end of that year, although her attorney back then, Ron Shapiro, got her out of a further two-month obligation.
We debuted Oprah Jan. 1, 1984. From last to first in just one month-victory in the February book of ’84! A campaign song followed, “Everybody Loves Oprah,” and they sure did.
I walked to City Hall with her one afternoon soon thereafter. People were shoving scraps of paper, various objects, dollar bills, anything you could write on to get an autograph. Oprah owned Chicago in a very short space of time.
We changed “AM Chicago” to “The Oprah Show” to get ready for a national release in the fall of 1986. She again shot the lights out, and she still does. It’s good that she changed her mind about retirement. And as for my concern as to how she would deal with stardom, well, I need not have been concerned at all.
Everybody still loves Oprah, and so do I.