Oprah, Queen of Many Media

Not changing her name or style turned out to be keys to a storybook career that lifted a poor girl to the entertainment world's heights

By Mike Brewster

When 22-year-old Oprah Winfrey showed up for her job as a newscaster at WJZ-TV in Baltimore in 1976, the station's suits told her that her nose was too wide, her hair too long, and her manner too sentimental. The biggest problem, though, was her name. Oprah -- a birth certificate mangling of what was supposed to be Orpah (itself a mouthful) -- they said, was too difficult to remember or pronounce.

They sent Winfrey first to a hair stylist and then to a speech and presentation coach in New York. But it was left to the station's news director to come up with the big idea: a new first name for the fledgling co-anchorwoman.

In a staff meeting, Winfrey was told the station wanted her to change her name to "Suzy." Suzy was friendly. Suzy was accessible. Winfrey refused. In a crossover career of astounding business success, simply keeping her own name -- and subsequently staying true to her crowd-pleasing, empathetic nature -– may have been the best business decision that the self-proclaimed "most powerful woman on the planet" has ever made.


  Now 50, Winfrey is entering that stage where she has said on The Oprah Winfrey Show that life truly begins. If that's true, other industries should take note, because this category killer has done just about all there is to do in media.

Watched by 30 million Americans every week, Oprah has been the top-ranked talk show for 19 consecutive seasons, starting when she toppled Phil Donahue from atop the heap back in 1986, her first year of national broadcasting. As an actress, she was nominated for an Oscar in the 1985 film The Color Purple. O, The Oprah Magazine, has over 2 million subscribers, and the Oprah Book Club, introduced in 1996, has transformed millions of daytime couch potatoes into ardent devourers of everything from Joyce Carol Oates to Tolstoy.

The production company she founded in 1988, Harpo (Oprah spelled backwards), made her just the third woman after Mary Pickford and Lucille Ball to own her own studio. And while some cringe at publicity stunts like the one on her first show of 2004, when she gave everyone in her studio audience a new Pontiac, there's no denying that Winfrey does good along with doing well. Oprah's Angel Network, her charity, is currently parlaying the Oprah persona into constructing new buildings in poor U.S. school districts (for more on her charitable work, see BW Online, "A Talk with Oprah Winfrey").


  And through it all, Winfrey has ushered in a new kind of celebrity: one in which her fans feel an intensely personal connection with her, to the point that the Oprah seal of approval is all they need to pick up a book or watch a new show.

Winfrey's own early years would have made her a great guest on one of her shows about how people can turn their lives around. She was born in Kosciusko, Miss., on Jan. 29, 1954. Her mother, never a stable influence in her life, was absent during her daughter's first years. Winfrey lived on a farm with her maternal grandparents, accompanying her grandmother to church, and occasionally even using her early gift of gab to speak from the pulpit.

At age seven she moved to Milwaukee with her mother, a disastrous turn that ushered in long days of lonely poverty, as her mother scraped by as a maid and collected welfare. Winfrey eventually ran away, borrowing money from newly made acquaintances to survive. Her father, Vernon Winfrey, finally agreed to raise her at his home in Nashville.


  While attending Tennessee State University, Winfrey started interning at Nashville's WTVF-TV. At age 19, while still an undergraduate, she became an anchorwoman of the news show at the station. After graduation, it was on to WJZ-TV in Baltimore. The audience responded to the intensely personal style of Oprah -- not Suzy -- Winfrey, and she was soon promoted to co-host of its local talk show, People Are Talking.

Chicago was next, in 1984. She was to host WLS-TV's morning talk show, AM Chicago. To the surprise of everyone, Winfrey surpassed hometown icon Phil Donahue in local markets after just one month. Two years later, on Sept. 8, 1986, the newly named The Oprah Winfrey Show made its national debut, and it soon became the highest-rated talk show in TV history.

Winfrey's success has had much do to with aspects of her personality that you won't see referred to on her show or in long conversations with Larry King. She's famously controlling and egocentric. And her savvy in spotting talent is legendary.

When a group of Texas ranchers sued her in 1996 for comments she made on her show about mad cow disease, (a landmark First Amendment case in which Winfrey triumphed, as if anyone needed further evidence of her golden touch), her counselor at the trial was a clinical psychologist named Dr. Phil McGraw. Winfrey thought McGraw had both the manner and credentials to be a regular commentator on her show. While appearing on Oprah, McGraw wrote a series of best-selling self-help books, and launched his own Dr. Phil show, owned by -- you guessed it -- Winfrey's Harpo Studios.


  Winfrey also has extremely honed management skills that have produced enduring loyalty from her staff. Executive Producer Ellen Rakieten, for example, has been with Winfrey in a variety of positions since the show started. Dianne Hudson, who had been the show's producer for 10 years, now runs Winfrey's foundation.

It's hard to remember, but Winfrey has occasionally failed at something. After her triumph in The Color Purple, Winfrey acted in and produced Beloved, which was panned by critics and turned into a box-office mediocrity. She attempted to write a book about turning 40 -- even had a book party -- then subsequently shelved the project. After 9/11, her ratings floundered for a couple of years as children of divorce and true-crime cases seemed to pale when compared to more dangerous and immediate threats to America.

But today, her audience numberss are up, and as hokey as it might sound, Winfrey still see herself as tremendous source of inspiration for people. In January, 2004, Winfrey was named Favorite Talk Show Host at the 30th Annual People's Choice Awards. Said Winfrey in her acceptance speech: "I thank you for the opportunity to speak, and talk, and use my voice in a way that I believe is a force for something really good on the air."

So, what's next? Besides continuing to do the show, she hasn't said. But she hasn't written a children's book yet...

During its 75th anniversary year, BusinessWeek is presenting a series of weekly profiles of the greatest innovators of the past 75 years, from science to government. BusinessWeek Online is joining in by adding more online-only profiles of The Great Innovators. In late September, 2004, BusinessWeek published a special commemorative issue, The Innovation Economy

Brewster is a New York-based writer

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