‘No matter where you are in your life, you are not alone.’
My significant personal “first” would be the very first time I actually hosted a talk show. From the time I was 19 until I was 24, I was a news anchorwoman. Everyone thought that being a news anchorwoman was the end-all be-all job. And even I thought that before I got the job, but it was very unsettling to me. I never felt comfortable in my own skin. It never felt authentic to me. I always felt like I had a pretend voice when I went on the air. I would interview people who’d been through tragedies or disasters, and I would feel terrible for them, and I would empathize, and then I would get written up by my bosses. So, I got demoted from the news job. They put me on a talk show called People Are Talking, in Baltimore. My very first interview was with the Carvel ice cream man and Benny, one of the characters from All My Children. It wouldn’t have mattered who the guests were, because when I sat in the seat next to my co-interviewer, Richard Sher, and could ask questions just based upon what I wanted to know about ice cream and All My Children, it felt like coming home. When that first show ended, on Aug. 14, 1978, I said, “I have found my home. This is what I was meant to do.”
I made every single choice of my career based on my gut. I would literally ask myself, “Does this feel right?” So when I got my show in Chicago, I built it around myself and the producers. We were young women in our 30s who were trying to figure it out and find our own way. We’d literally sit around and say, “What’s going on in your life? What happened at the beauty shop this week? What’s your mother talking about? What are your friends saying?”
It wasn’t until the very first national Oprah Winfrey Show that I remember coming up with a sort of vision mission statement for what the show was, mainly because I was trying to explain to the national audience, who hadn’t been watching along with Chicago for almost two years, who I was and what it was. I remember saying one of the reasons I want to do this show was to let you know that you—no matter where you are in your life—you are not alone. Because it’s the thing that I had discovered while doing the show. I learned so much about myself through other guests. I remember feeling for many years that I was the only person who’d ever been sexually abused. I didn’t know that that was the language for it. But when I heard on my show someone else say the same words and describe the same thing that had happened to me, I felt, wow, I’m not the only one. And as time went on, over and over I would hear people share stories, feelings that I had experienced. The platform grew out of my desire to let people know you’re not alone, there’s nothing that has happened to you that hasn’t happened to at least a thousand, perhaps a million other people, and the feeling is the same.
I remember going to my bosses once we were syndicated. Now, I didn’t understand how much money I was going to make in syndication, because I’d been syndicated in Baltimore and nothing had happened with that. So the word syndication didn’t mean that much to me, even though everybody was talking about how much money the show was going to make. But I started to see that that was really true. I was making a lot of money, and my producers were still getting the same salary.
I went to my then boss and said, “Everybody needs a raise.” He said, “Why?” I said, “Because we’re now a national show, and I’m making money.” And he actually said to me, “They’re only girls. They’re a bunch of girls. What do they need more money for?”
This was in 1986. I remember going to my first boss in Baltimore in 1979 and saying that my co-anchor was making more money than I. This was on the show People Are Talking. I said, “Richard makes more money than I, and we’re doing the same job. And so I feel that I should get a raise.” And my boss said, “Why?” And I said, “Again, sir, we’re sitting in chairs opposite each other, we’re doing the same job. I ask as many questions as he does. Then I do the news, and he does the news.”
And my boss said, “But he has children. He has three sons. Do you have kids?”
And I said, “No, I don’t have kids.” He said, “And he owns his own home. Do you own your own house?”
“I, uh, well, no. Well, I’m going to be buying a house.”
“But do you own your own house?” he said. “And so, tell me again why you need more money?”
I said, “Thank you very much.” And that is when I vowed that I was going to be leaving Baltimore. I realized, O.K., I’m not going to win. Who am I going to protest to? This is the general manager.
But that was such fuel for me. So when it happened again seven years later in Chicago, I go, “Well, either my producers are going to get raises or I’m going to sit down. I just won’t work. I will not work unless they get paid more money.”
And so they did. And while I was waiting for the bosses to pay them, I paid them myself in the interim.
A lot of things have changed since then. I think there are a lot of us of my generation and other generations who swallowed a lot. There’s an old spiritual that says, “Trouble don’t last always.” I always knew there would come a time when I would be in a position where I wouldn’t have to swallow it.
The Oprah Winfrey Show, the highest-rated talk show in TV history, ran for 25 years.