recent years, the talk show has become the most profitable, prolific,
and contested format on daytime television. The sensationalist nature
of many of these shows has spawned much public debate over the potential
for invasion of personal privacy and the exploitation of sensitive
social issues. In this environment, Phil Donahue, who is widely
credited with inventing the talk show platform, appears quite tame.
But in the late 1960s, when The Phil Donahue Show first aired
on WLW-D in Dayton, Ohio, Donahue was considered a radical and scintillating
addition to the daytime scene.
at the college station KYW as a production assistant, Donahue had
his first opportunity to test his on-air abilities when the regular
booth announcer failed to show up. He claims it was then that he
became "hooked" on hearing the transmission of his own voice. The
position he took after graduation, News Director for a Michigan
radio station, allowed him to try his hand at broadcast reporting
and eventually led to work as a stringer for CBS Evening News and
an anchor position at WHIO-TV in Dayton in the late 1950s. There
he first entered the talk show arena with his radio show Conversation
Piece, on which he interviewed civil rights activists (including
Martin Luther King, Malcolm X) and war dissenters.
After leaving WHIO and a subsequent three month stint as a salesman,
the general manager of WLW-D convinced Donahue to host a call-in
TV talk show. The show would combine the talk radio format with
television interview show. However The Phil Donahue Show
would start with two major disadvantages: a small budget and geographic
isolation from the entertainment industries, preventing it from
garnering star guests. In order to attract their audience, Donahue
and his producers had to innovate--they focused on issues rather
first guest on The Phil Donahue Show was Madalyn O'Hair,
an atheist who felt that religion "breeds dependence" and who was
ready to mount a campaign to ban prayer in public schools. During
that same week in November 1967 the show featured footage of a woman
giving birth, a phone-in vote on the morality of an anatomically
correct male doll, and a funeral director extolling the workings
of his craft. The bold nature of these topics was tempered by Donahue's
appealing personality. He was one of the first male television personalities
to exude characteristics of "the sensitive man" (traits and behaviors
further popularized in the 1970s by actors such as Alan Alda), acquired
through his interest in both humanism and feminism.
affinity with the women's movement, his sincere style, and his focus
on controversial topics attracted a large and predominately female
audience. He told a Los Angeles Times Reporter in 1992, that
his show "got lucky because we discovered early on that the usual
idea of women's programming was a narrow, sexist view. We found
that women were interested in a lot more than covered dishes and
needlepoint. The determining factor [was], 'Will the woman in the
fifth row be moved to stand up and say something?' And there's a
lot that will get her to stand up." Donahue attempted to "move"
his audience in a number of ways, but the most controversial approach
involved educating women on matters of reproduction. Shows on abortion,
birthing techniques, and a discussion with Masters and Johnson were
all banned by certain local affiliates. According to Donahue's autobiography,
WGN in Chicago refused to air a show on reverse vasectomy and tubal
ligation because it was "too educational for women...and too bloody."
Nevertheless, Donahue's proven success with such a lucrative target
audience led to the accumulation of other major midwest markets
as well as the show's eventual move to Chicago in 1974 and then
to New York in 1985. By then the range of topics had broadened considerably,
even to include live "space bridge" programs. Co-hosted with Soviet
newscaster Vladimir Pozner, these events linked U.S. and Soviet
citizens for live exchanges on issues common to both groups.
by the 1980s, the increasing popularity of Donahue had led to a
proliferation of local and nationally syndicated talk shows. As
competition increased, the genre became racier, with less emphasis
on issues and more on personal scandal. Donahue retained his niche
in the market by dividing the show's focus, dabbling in both the
political and the personal. He was able to provide interviews with
political candidates, explorations of the AIDs epidemic, and revelations
of the savings and loan crisis, alongside shows on safe-sex orgies,
cross-dressing, and aging strippers.
In 1992, with 19 Emmy Awards under his belt, Donahue was celebrated
by his fellow talk show hosts on his 25th anniversary special as
a mentor and kindly patriarch of the genre. Fellow talk show host
Maury Povich was quoted in Broadcasting as saying at the
event "He's the granddaddy of us all and he birthed us all." Until
1996 Phil Donahue still broadcast out of New York where he lives
with his second wife actress Marlo Thomas. Early in that year he
announced it would be his last. Ratings for Donahue were declining
and a number of major stations, including his New York affiliate,
had chosen to drop the show from their schedules. In the spring
of 1996 Donahue taped his final show, an event covered on major
network news casts, complete with warm sentiment, spraying Champagne,
and expected, yet undoubted, sincerity. The ending of this hugely
successful run for a syndicated program no doubt presaged new career
developments for Phil Donahue in television.
Photo courtesy of Phil Donahue
PHIL (PHILLIP) JOHN DONAHUE. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S.A.,
21 December 1935. Educated at the University of Notre Dame, B.B.A.,
1957. Married: 1) Marge Cooney, 1958 (divorced, 1975); children:
Michael, Kevin, Daniel, Jim, Maryrose; 2) actress Marlo Thomas,
1980. Began career as announcer, KYW-TV and AM, Cleveland, 1957;
bank check sorter, Albuquerque, New Mexico; news director, WABJ
radio, Adrian, Michigan; morning newscaster, WHIO-TV, where interviews
with Jimmy Hoffa and Billy Sol Estes were picked up nationally;
hosted Conversation Piece, phone-in talk show, 1963-67; debuted
The Phil Donahue Show, Dayton, Ohio, 1967, syndicated two
years later; relocated to Chicago, 1974-85; host, Donahue,
1974-96; relocated to New York City, 1985. Recipient: numerous Emmy
Awards; Best Talk Show Host, 1988; Margaret Sanger Award, Planned
Parenthood, 1987; Peabody Award, 1980. Address: Donahue Multimedia
Entertainment, 30 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 827, New York, New York,
1969-74 The Phil Donahue Show (from Dayton, Ohio) 1974-85
Donahue (from Chicago)
1985-96 Donahue (from New York)
Donahue: My Own Story. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980.
Kathy. "Talking with Phil" (interview). Broadcasting (Washington,
D.C.), 2 November 1992.
Human Animal, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.
Arthur. "I Cannot Be the BBC in an MTV World!" (interview). Television
Quarterly (New York), Spring 1991.
Donald A. Talking American: Cultural Discourses on Donahue.
Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex Publishing, 1988.
Kathy. "From Dayton to the World: A History of the Donahue Show."
Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 2 November 1992.
Jeanne Albronda, and Nona Leigh Wilson. Tuning in Trouble: Talk
TV's Destructive Impact on Mental Health. San Francisco, California:
Howard. "Father of the Slide." The New Republic (Washington,
D.C.), 12 February 1996.
Frank. "What Hath Phil Wrought?" Commonweal (New York), 22
Laurie. "The Price of Being Earnest." The New York Times,
21 January 1996.
Patricia Joyner. Public Intimacies: Talk Show Participants and
Tell All TV. Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton, 1995.
also Talk Shows