For Oprah's last show: My best story about meeting the Queen of All Media
At the risk of going on Oprah overload, I want to honor the final day of Oprah Winfrey's groundbreaking syndicated daytime talk show with my own, best story about the day I met the Queen of All Media.
Winfrey's final show, taped Tuesday before a handpicked audience of devoted followers, is airing as I type this in her Chicago homebase. The show will air at 4 p.m. today locally on WFLA-Ch. 8.
All the fuss over the end of Winfrey's 25-year-old show -- I've been interviewed by NPR and the BBC on the subject, with a possible appearance on PBS' NewsHour later today -- reminds me of the one time I interviewed the queen herself, in person, during the Tampa stop of her Live Your Best Life tour in 2002.
I had already written a front-page story about how fans' worship of Winfrey comes close to a religion, though I couldn't get an interview with the host before she came to town. But tour organizers promised she would speak with the press the morning before her daylong show/self empowerment seminar began at the Tampa Convention Center.
The setup itself was masterful. Winfrey's people had gathered dozens of fans coming into the show, offering them a chance to speak with the star. Those people were corralled behind one rope line, with an array of TV cameras and media corralled behind another rope line, leaving a sidewalk-sized area in the middle to walk through.
When Winfrey arrived, she swept into the convention center with a surprisingly small entourage, walking up to the fans first to greet them, sign autographs and pose for pictures. As she moved across the line, her strategy was obvious and inspired, whipping the fans into a frenzy so when she turned to talk with the press, the backdrop would include a wall of gaga admirers.
The first interview along media row went to a producer with credentials from Entertainment Tonight, possibly a local freelancer. The woman was so nervous, she kept her eyes fixed on a legal pad filled with questions while interrogating Winfrey off camera, as her hand holding the microphone kept rising, unconsciously, until it was blocking the host's face.
Without missing a beat in her answer, Winfrey reached out with two hands, gently clasped the producer's hand, and guided her arm down until the microphone was out of the shot again.
This woman, I thought to myself, is a media master.
By the time Winfrey reached me, I was a bit irritated. Not with her, but with my fellow journalists, some of whom her experienced street reporters who had covered fatal car accidents and all manner of hot news, swooning over Winfrey the same way the fans were. One brought a magazine and asked for an autograph -- which I've always seen as an unprofessional action which makes you more a fan than an interviewer -- another gushed compliments.
So when she reached me, I was probably a bit more businesslike and confrontational than usual -- so much so, that photographer Jamie Francis snapped the picture you see of me taking on the Queen. Winfrey was trailed by best friend Gayle King, holding her pal's little dog, and King piped up about my story, saying she'd read it and the host should check it out, too. (I always knew I liked her!)
She quoted Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Nelson Mandela within a 15-minute span, addressing talk that she might leave the show -- then reaching an average 10-million people each day -- this way: ""Every time I've talked about walking away, it's
because I have a staff that's been with me for a very long time and a lot of them were very tired. We had to find a way to rejuvenate ourselves and reteach. I've never been tired enough to quit. After I did Beloved -- the experience of doing Beloved and understanding
what the African American story has been in this country, i thought 'I will never be tired again.' because I know what we have come through. to be blessed with a platform that speaks to so many people -- it just seems stupid to give that up.''
What a difference nearly ten years can make.
Here's a link to my cheeky list of Oprah's best moments, and below is audio from my NPR interview on her impact. Whatever she does next, Winfrey is a singular woman who has achieved something in media no one else likely can match -- and for that, she deserves serious props.