9. Oprah Winfrey: Love, Fear & Using Your Platform
“This is the Klan. We’re going to kill you."
On an episode of the 2016 WBEZ Chicago podcast “Making Oprah”, Debbie DiMaio, executive producer of The Oprah Winfrey Show, recounted the circumstances around a 1987 filming of the daytime talk series. This wasn’t just any episode. It was being filmed in Forsyth County, Georgia, a hotbed of racial tension. The talk show’s namesake, Oprah Winfrey, was set to take on the topic head-on. While preparing for the 1987 episode from her hotel room, DiMaio received the threatening call from someone claiming association with the Ku Klux Klan. As she recounts to “Making Oprah” host Jenn White, she hung up the phone, put her furniture against the door and kept going.
“We’ve got a show to do; I don’t really care,” DiMaio recalled thinking.
Her response was a byproduct of a budding culture at The Oprah Winfrey Show, which began airing nationally only 5 months prior on September 8, 1986. From the start, Oprah’s show was huge, airing in an unprecedented 138 markets nationwide and featuring a self-described black, overweight, unknown – and often overlooked – TV personality.
By the end of the series in 2011, it was broadcast in 145 countries with 40 million viewers weekly in the United States alone, an achievement that hasn’t been matched since by even the most well-renowned daytime talk show hosts. She was BIG. Yet, in 1987, she was still finding her footing and the February 9, 1987 episode from the deep south was only part of that.
For Oprah, the episode, where she bluntly conversed with people reflecting the racism embedded in the Forsyth County community, triggered a realization that would help shape the show going forward.
“I went ‘Woah. I think I’m doing one thing. I think I’m exposing them. I think I’m showing them in their vitriol and their dark side and trying to get them to see a different point of view, and they are using me.'”
White asks Oprah how that made her feel: "It was a huge revelation. Like, ‘woah, I think I’m doing good here and I’m not. This energy is going out into the world and I am the one who is responsible for that.” She continues, “I went to the producers after that show and said, ‘This is it for me. I will not be used by anybody again for presenting darkness in the world.'"
It was a sharp distinction. Oprah continued to facilitate difficult conversations, which was important. She invited people of diverse points of view to the table throughout the remainder of her show’s iconic run. With that said, she drew a line in the sand; “the most influential woman in America" refused to be a platform for outright bigotry and hatred.
Instead, Oprah embraced a bold belief: “There are only two emotions: love and fear”. She embodied that worldview, using her massive platform to promote wellness, spirituality and the issues relevant to a viewer persona named “Susie”. “Susie" represented the typical viewer of The Oprah Winfrey Show. When considering how to approach a topic or guest on her show, Oprah and her producers consistently asked themselves:
- How does this affect “Susie"?
- Would she care about this?
- What questions would she ask today’s guest?
By asking these questions about “Susie" and by prioritizing love over fear, Oprah and team managed to create an impactful platform that changed lives one way or the other, whether giving away 276 cars to audience members in need or unintentionally creating her own economic driver through something known at “The Oprah Effect”. In short, because Oprah aimed to promote this philosophy, she created a positive impact through her show. She continues to do that to this day through her own TV station, the OWN Network.
While many lessons can be learned from studying Oprah’s career, one is that each and every one of us has a choice: we can to be fearful, meticulously dissecting what we see as the negativity in our communities, or we can be loving, considering how we can create understanding and positively impact those in need. It’s our choice whether or not we'll treat life as a zero sum game. Oprah shows us that we don’t have to.