As WGN TV celebrates 75 years, we’re looking back with a series of stories on the history and the memories.
The talk show is one of television’s most enduring and ubiquitous genres. It has become a culturally significant stage for comedy, sports, entertainment, and politics. WGN-TV played an outsize role in the development of the audience participation talk show that now dominates daytime television.
The man most responsible is Phil Donahue.
“He’s basically the father of the modern talk show,” Steve Novak, a longtime WGN-TV director and producer, said.
Donahue started in Dayton, Ohio in the late 1960s garnering acclaim with a broadcast from the Ohio state penitentiary. Ron Weiner was the director of Donahue throughout most of its run.
“But that program never really took off,” he said.
In 1974, Donahue moved his eponymous show to Chicago and WGN-TV’s studios on the Northwest Side.
“We had the studio. We had the parking. We had everything available for him,” Novak said.
An on-screen graphic at the end of each hour-long, single-issue program announced that the program had been “produced through the facilities of WGN Continental Broadcasting Company.” To start each broadcast, an announcer would intone, “From Chicago, you’re now in touch with Donahue.”
The show was seen live in Chicago on Channel 9 each morning and on tape on 164 outlets across the country later in the day.
It premiered weekdays at 10 a.m., then and moved to 11 a.m., preceding “Bozo’s Circus,” which created the feel of a daily extravaganza in the WGN hallways as hundreds of audience members gathered each day.
“At some points, we’d have the Donahue crowd and the Bozo crowd, and you’d see elephants and jugglers and people walking in practicing for the Bozo show and the Donahue show,” said Robert Jordan, a reporter and anchor at WGN for nearly 40 years.
WGN’s Studio 2 held 200 people for Donahue and there was a year-long waiting list for tickets. Some Bozo guests stayed for Donahue tapings.
“We had mothers coming with those kids for Bozo,” Donahue said. “So, I borrowed off of Bozo. I mean, I owe Bozo.”
“Phil Donahue was doing his show and while we were standing in line to get in to see Bozo,” Rick Morris, a Northwestern University professor in the School of Communication, said. “Phil Donahue and some big movie star came by, and my mother just had the best experience of her life seeing these big television stars going up and down the hallway WGN.”
Donahue’s guests included Gregory Peck, John Wayne, Muhammed Ali, Ray Charles, Dolly Parton, Ronald Reagan, and many other household names.
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The show struck a chord on a national level. It felt real because Donahue didn’t read cue cards. Producers didn’t add canned laughter or applause, which were staples of other types of talk shows.
The show was unedited. Donahue was a genial and greying host, with midwestern appeal who made it hip to be square.
“He’d run around the studio and jump up on the stage,” Jordan said. “He was interviewing people, and it set the stage for future talk shows. He was the first and it was big.’
At the show’s height, it was watched by more than 8 million people every day.
“He brought in confrontational and controversial things, but did it in a classy way,” Novak said.
Donahue – and WGN — are responsible for two innovations.
“When Phil came to Chicago, he found his most important element,” Weiner said. “The Chicago studio audience. From that point, the program really took off.”
During a break during one program, Donahue noticed that members of the audience had sharper questions than he did. Donahue decided to include them.
“One day, I just went out in the audience, and it’s clear there would be no Donahue show if I hadn’t somehow accidentally brought in the audience,” Donahue told WGN in an interview.
The audience members provided plain-spoken, honest reactions to the issues being discussed. From race relations to women’s rights, to modern sexual mores, he touched sensitive subjects. He devoted entire shows to abortion, and to AIDS when both topics were taboo.
“Chicago’s audiences are smart audiences are caring audiences,” Morris said. “Chicago audiences want to hear the issues of the day, so this was a great place to have a talk show.”
The second innovation was strategic camera placement.
“We put the cameras behind the audience, brought the audience up and made the audience part of the show,” Donahue said.
It gave the viewer the feel of watching a sporting event and had the effect of forcing the guests to deal directly with the audience, instead of playing to the cameras.
“We were so different,” Donahue said. “We had no desk. We had no couch, we had no announcer, we had no band. We had people sitting on folding chairs. We were visually dull. And, you know, we just felt that Chicago we, you know, there weren’t that many other national shows coming from Chicago and that we would get maybe special attention there.”
Donahue said that operating in Chicago, away from the pressures of New York, gave him more freedom.
“We just felt that Chicago. There weren’t that many other national shows coming from Chicago and that we would get maybe special attention there,” Donahue said in an interview with WGN. “It turned out to be a wonderful decision for us.”
In the early 1980s, Donahue was the first national television program to focus on AIDS, an epidemic that many in the media, politics, business and broader society refused to acknowledge because the victims were largely gay men.
Donahue’s audience was largely made up of women. It was said they many viewed him as a sort of “stand-in” for a husband who listens. As a host he melded elements of a news anchor, a therapist, a minister, and a comedian.
“He seemed to gravitate toward them in the audience, he’d hold a woman’s hand, put the mic in her face, and it seemed to be the catalyst, just the hand holding,” Weiner said.
He was equally interested in public policy. He questioned leaders with an aggressive and unconventional style. He interviewed every president from Nixon to Clinton.
The show eventually left Chicago for New York, where it finished its run.
“Donahue” won eight daytime Emmys for outstanding talk show host, setting the template for all others, who would follow – including, Geraldo Rivera, Sally Jesse Raphael, Jenny Jones, Montel Williams, Jerry Springer, and the queen of talk herself, Oprah Winfrey.
“Because it happened here, in Chicago, away from the network hype, and haughtiness, and self-importance of networks way of looking at themselves, I think that gave others – here and elsewhere – the courage and the ambition to also try to succeed on a national scale,” Weiner said.
Taking another cue from Donahue, many of those programs were also produced in Chicago.
“WGN was Bozo and the Cubs, you know?” Donahue said. “And who was this gray-haired guy with this talk show where everybody just talks? But it did wonders for us. WGN, I think, it launched us.”
Phil Donahue is 87 years old now and he hosts a podcast with his wife Marlo Thomas, who he met in the WGN cafeteria.