May 18, 2011
Oprah Winfrey is one great storyteller.
So let her set the stage for the story of her years in Baltimore — seven and a half years starting in 1976 that would profoundly shape not only the life of the young anchorwoman, but also give birth to the media phenomenon known as Oprah.
"I came to Baltimore when I was 22 years old. Drove my red Cutlass up from Nashville, Tenn., arrived and was as close to 'The Beverly Hillbillies' as I could be," Winfrey says in that rich, inviting voice that millions have tuned in to for decades. "I had no idea what I was in for or that this was going to be the greatest growing period of my adult life. … It shook me to my very core, and I didn't even know at the time that I was being shaken."
Winfrey says she has been thinking quite a bit about her Baltimore days this spring. Perhaps, because her departure from Baltimore in December 1983 so relates to what she's going through now. In a few days, she'll walk away from a syndicated talk show that has dominated daytime TV for 25 years, making her one of the richest and most influential women in the world.
Of all the shows in the history of American television, only "60 Minutes" has been more successful in terms of doing critically praised work, making piles of money, influencing the culture and running for a long, long time. And "60 Minutes" had a major TV network behind it in CBS. "The Oprah Winfrey Show" was built on the vision, talent and will of the young woman who left Baltimore for Chicago.
Now everyone knows her name. But when the 22-year-old native of Kosciusko, Miss., arrived in Baltimore, her viewers were actually asked "What is an Oprah?" And they were stumped. When Winfrey recalls her Baltimore history, she talks about being "humiliated," "embarrassed" and "sexually harassed."
"Not all my memories of Baltimore are fond ones," she says. "But I do have fond memories of Baltimore, because it grew me into a real woman. I came in naive, unskilled, not really knowing anything about the business — or about life. And Baltimore grew me up."
There are easier ways to grow up than getting publicly fired, after a big buildup, within months of starting a new job in a new town. But that's what happened to Winfrey, who began near the top of the local TV news food chain as co-anchor of WJZ's 6 p.m. weekday newscast with the legendary Jerry Turner. Winfrey's seven and a half months in that co-anchor chair amounted to the first and worst failure of her TV career.
She doesn't dwell on it, and the overall story she tells about Baltimore ultimately fits the larger grand narrative of her career and life: Obstacles and pain encountered. Pain endured and obstacles overcome. A better, stronger Oprah emerging and going on to greater triumphs. But she doesn't pull any punches either about the outrage she still feels 34 years later at the sexism she encountered in Baltimore — and the way Turner and station management treated her.
Winfrey's best friend, talk show host and "O Magazine" editor Gayle King, insists that a sense of balance is crucial in judging the Baltimore years. It is true that they were tough emotionally and professionally in some ways for Winfrey, but good things happened here as well — like the community she discovered at Bethel A.M.E church, the lifelong friends she made at WJZ and the TV talk-show voice she ultimately found in front of the camera alongside a more supportive co-host in Richard Sher.
Winfrey met King in Baltimore while both were in their early 20s and worked at WJZ, and their friendship has been one of the mainstays of her popular talk show.
It started when King spent a night at Winfrey's apartment because a snowstorm made it dangerous for the 21-year-old production assistant and budding news writer to drive back to Takoma Park, where she lived near her alma mater, the University of Maryland, College Park.
"What makes it so extraordinary is that I was in an entry-level position, and she was a news anchor, and in the newsroom hierarchy, there is quite a difference," King says today. "But we were the same age and we were both black and we were both single. And I ended up spending the night at her house, and we realized we had a lot in common. We talked that night — practically all night — and we've been talking really ever since."
'What is an Oprah?'
Winfrey's Baltimore story actually starts just before she arrived in that red Cutlass from an anchoring job in Nashville at a station that she says nurtured her — something that didn't happen here at first.
"When I came to town, there was a promo called 'What is an Oprah?' To this day, I wish I had saved it," Winfrey says. "If anybody out there has it, please let me know, and I will buy it from you. I've been looking for it forever, and we have not been able to locate the 'What is an Oprah?' tape."
The silly-sounding question formed the core of major promotional campaign by WJZ intended to launch the former beauty queen and 1976 graduate of Tennessee State University, a historically black university.
"I was on the back of buses. I was on billboards," Winfrey says. "That was the promo on WJZ: 'What is an Oprah?' — done to the tune from 'A Chorus Line.' And [on-camera] people would say things like, 'I don't know. Did you say Opree? Did you say Opry? Did you say Opra? Did you say Opera?'"