Wednesday, April 20, 2011

WHY OPRAH WINFREY MATTERS

The first time I ever became aware of the word “Oprah” I was in mid-flight in 1986, reading People Magazine. Someone was quoted, outrageously predicting that Oprah Winfrey, the dynamo Chicago talk show host who was about to go national, was going to give Phil Donahue a run for his money. I was a die hard Phil Donahue devotee, so the idea of anyone outdoing him in the talk show genre was unfathomable to me. Donahue had dominated the morning airwaves for 15 years by then, tackling subjects as edgy as white supremacy, the death penalty and gay rights -- way before there was anything remotely acceptable about that. Sisters, strippers and stars had chatted live with Phil, the likable prematurely gray, Irish Catholic everyman. We loved us some Phil here in America.

But the dynamo that is Oprah did indeed end up giving our Phil a run for his money. After 29 years, Phil (left) retired, but by this time Oprah was fully immersed in the viewing public’s consciousness. At first, she seemed to be carrying on the predictable “pregnant nuns who smoke and drink” variety of talk show topics. It was entertaining, if not groundbreaking, but there was something eminently watchable about Oprah. She was eternally smiling, strong of voice and highly relatable. She was very much her own person and compelling to watch. You must understand that talk shows in the mid to late 20th century were usually along the lines of Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin or Johnny Carson. Lots of laughs, highly entertaining and light chat. Donahue invented the topical, audience participation talk show format. Oprah carried it forward.

Donahue was a white man in a white guy’s America. But Oprah was an overweight, overdressed, over coiffed black woman, on national television in white America. If her early shows were sometimes mundane in topic, she never was. She broke new ground simply by being on daily television. It took her several years to truly understand the power that came with her position on TV, and how to use it to make some changes in the world.

When I was a kid, I was repeatedly told I had good “verbal skills.” I wondered what that would do for me in the world. By the time I found Donahue, I realized one could build a whole career using his voice to address issues that mattered. But Oprah built an entire empire using words as the foundation. She gave voice to people who needed to be heard for the greater good. Of all the voices she brought forth, the one that really mattered the most to me was that of Mattie Stepanek, a young boy with Muscular Dystrophy and wisdom way beyond his tender years. Mattie, even when his age was still in single digits, was a poet, a best-selling published author, a public speaker, an ambassador for Muscular Dystrophy Association and an inspiration to many people. Mattie and Oprah became fast friends – an inspirational power couple, if you will. When Mattie died at 13, Oprah spoke at his funeral, as did President Jimmy Carter. Oprah’s interviews are proprietary material, so I can’t show them here, but here is a short tribute video Oprah did after Mattie died:

Randy Plauch was another voice Oprah amplified for the masses. Plauch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Melon University. In his 40s, Plausch was stricken with pancreatic cancer. Told by his doctors that his medical options were exhausted, Plausch, the married father of two small children decided to live a lot until the end. He became widely known for “The Last Lecture.” The real title of the speech was “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” Plausch reinforced my belief in the true power of words. His speech is riveting. On Oprah’s show, he delivered a abbreviated version. Please watch:
Voices like Plausch’s need wide distribution. That is what Oprah did for us. If Plausch’s words have meaning for you, you can watch the entire speech by clicking here.

There were so many others whose own life experiences taught us how to appreciate or improve our individual lives. There was the mother who lost all of her limbs to a flesh-eating bacteria, and decided to rise above it and just keep on keeping on. There was a 17-year-old boy who spent his early childhood encased in wire and locked in a closet, who told us the important thing to remember is to do good for others every day. Sounds simplistic? Not from somebody who grew up in a closet. I remember a guest who survived a plane crash in which the other passengers died. He was trapped in his seat so he actually watched people burn and die. He said he watched their “auras” leave their bodies. Some, he said, were brighter than others. He said what he learned was to live a good life, so that when his aura left his body it was as bright as possible. Oprah gave all of them, and thousands of others, a chance to use their voice to teach and inspire us.

Everybody’s voice counts. But many times when Oprah spoke, I was compelled to really listen. Over the years she said things like, “Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.” She told us, “Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity.” And this: “Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher.” And one of the most important things I learned from Oprah Winfrey: “"When you undervalue what you do, the world will undervalue who you are."

We live in a cynical, skeptical culture. We often tend to resort to sarcasm rather than clearly communicate what we feel. So, many people would hear words from Oprah and dismiss them as just the ramblings of a talk show host. Their loss, I’d say. What makes Oprah valuable to the rest of us is her imperfections, her recognition of her own personal challenges, and the lessons she has taken away from all of it. Those lessons she has translated into teachings for us. You don’t have to agree with her when she says, “"Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different," but you have to admit it sure makes you think. Oprah makes us think sometimes. Count the people who truly make you think – I bet you can do so on one hand and have fingers left over.

In the coming weeks, as we count down to the end of the Oprah Winfrey Show, you will read all kinds of tributes, reviews, editorial valentines, etc. They’ll tell you how much they are going to miss her on daytime TV. Not me. Instead I am acting on one of the lessons she offered. Over the years, Oprah encouraged us to live in the moment, be the best we could be, so that the next moment(s) would be even better. That is what she is doing. At 57, hopefully she still has many productive years to expand on what she started with the talk show. She redefined broadcasting, making it into something it had never been. The important thing is that she did it, not that she is ending it.

In Time Magazine’s 2010 Time 100,none other than Phil Donahue had this to say to Oprah Winfrey: “…you leave a legacy of responsible TV stewardship, a program that brought light to dark places and made us laugh, often at ourselves.” He also called her a “once in a century woman.” I agree. Thank you, Oprah. You matter.

3 comments:

seoinheritx said...

Cool videos and tv shows.

cheers
---
iPhone Games Development | Hire iPhone Developer

Igor Kopmar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Igor Kopmar said...

Nice videos and great post about winfrey.
its very much informative and the show is nice.

Igor Kopmar,
Cheap Airfare ,
Cheap Airline Tickets Advisor