Phil Donahue: Hall of Fame Tribute
“We demonstrated that television’s problem has not been controversy, it has been blandness,” says Phil Donahue, whose highly honored audience-participation talk show celebrated its silver anniversary earlier this year on NBC with a two-hour, prime-time special.
“We demonstrated that you can criticize sacred institutions and speak about unpleasant experiences and still be commercially successful.
“We have reminded viewers that sexism exists; we have reminded viewers that racism exists,” Donahue says. “We talked about police brutality long before Rodney King; we had more than a few minority people stand up and say ‘I was beaten while I was handcuffed.’ We had tremendous, thunderous disapproval from the police community that wanted to know what I had against cops. We talked about gayness in the Catholic church long before any other program did.
“I am very, very proud of having a management team that didn’t buckle and having reasonably strong knees myself that have been able to walk through tremendous pressure that has essentially said to us in a loud, collective voice, 'Sit down and shut up!’”
Born in 1935 in Cleveland, Ohio, Donahue first appeared on television in 1956 during his third summer as a commerce major at Notre Dame University. “It was at about 5:30 in the morning," Donahue remembers, “and it was essentially a stock-market report for stock on the hoof.”
Donahue spent the next decade in and out of broadcasting as a journeyman radio and TV announcer, reporter and local anchorman. In 1967, he was recruited by WLWD in Dayton to repackage for local television a radio call-in program that he had hosted called Conversation Piece. The Phil Donahue Show debuted on November 6, 1967.
“We were not in any way remotely consciously aspiring to national stature when we started," Donahue says. “It wasn’t mock humility that prevented us from thinking about the possibility. It was the fact that we were surrounded by programs that were visually compelling.
“We offered no prizes and had no funny costumes. I don’t sing. We featured one guest. And while we were very excited and committed to this format, on my first program, there I was talking to Madalyn Murray O’Hair, an atheist.
“We were always a ‘naughty’ show, a program that went 'too far.’ During our first week we also televised the birth of a baby. We put on a Nazi, a Klansman and survivors of the Holocaust.
“And after our first ratings period, we discovered that we had a 50 share.”
Reverend Jesse Jackson, who has appeared on more than 20 Donahue programs, says, “Even when Phil was on just locally in Dayton, it was very clear that he was going to be a prominent contributor to the mass media.
“In part, this was because he worked so hard, but also because he had a desire to reach out, to see where things were disconnected and to try to make them fit.
“Phil’s route from Dayton to where he is now is significant because he came from the bottom-up, from being an unknown to being the pacesetter. He is the institution he is today because he appeals to people's hopes. He has survived the test of time.”
Donahue's innovative use of the audience in the studio and on the phone guaranteed a highly charged airing of views. “A talk show is a fundamentally democratic event,” Donahue says. “It allows the people who really own the airwaves—the public—to stand up and actually use them. Nobody screens our audience. Nobody tells our audience what to say. This is the street corner.”
Within a year of its debut, the show was picked up by other Avco-owned stations in Ohio, and in 1969 Avco began national syndication. By the show’s fifth anniversary, it was seen in 50 markets. Two years later, Donahue moved his program to Chicago to attract more prominent guests. The show’s name was changed to Donahue, and original theme music was added. Today, it is syndicated by Multimedia to 221 U.S. stations and to 10 other countries.
In his 1978 autobiography, Donahue wrote candidly about the personal crisis that arose as his public popularity grew. In 1974, Donahue and his wife separated.
Three years later, Donahue met Marlo Thomas when she appeared as a guest on his program. They married in 1980.
“I think our program has raised male consciousness," Donahue says. “More and more men are understanding that children in this culture got too much mother and not enough father.
“I felt that way when the first feminist said that on my program. I felt guilty because she was talking about me.”
Despite Donahue’s success in individual markets, he was not recognized as a television phenomenon by the national media until his program clicked in New York City.
“We failed three times in syndication in New York City,” Donahue remembers, “and then in 1976 WNBC purchased Donahue and put us on at 9 in the morning.
“We outscored the other two network stations combined. Suddenly, I was christened a national television personality.”
The first TV host to mix political insiders and social outsiders with a studio audience, Donahue’s guests stretch from U.S. Presidents to transsexual cross-dressers.
“I look with equal enthusiasm on the program that we did with Lord David Owen about the crisis in the former Yugoslavia and on the one we did with male strippers.”
Ralph Nader, also a frequent guest on Donahue, says, “If you really believe in the First Amendment, you believe in the right of people with whom you disagree to speak out, and you work to protect that right. Nobody in television has done that more than Phil.
“If someone attacks Phil, the chances are that within a week that person is on his show. I used to kid him and say, ‘the best way for anybody to get on your show is for them to go after you in the public print.’
"Phil has always been a believer in the idea that if you air the craziest beliefs, you will discredit them. If you suppress them, you will drive them underground and have them spread. But if you just put them on the screen, there will be a rejection.”
Donahue’s social concerns are reflected in his many specials, including NBC’s Donahue and Kids; the five-part, prime-time NBC series The Human Animal; PBS specials on health care and racism; serving as comoderator for a 1984 Democratic Presidential debate; hosting segments on the Today show; and serving as co-host (with Vladimir Pozner in Leningrad) on Citizens’ Summit and Citizens’ Summit II: Women to Women at the end of the Soviet era.
In addition, Donahue and his shows have won 19 National Daytime Emmys. He has also written a companion volume to the Human Animal series. In 1992, Donahue began co-hosting CNBC’s twice weekly Posner-Donahue.
“The Cold War,” Donahue says, “inhibited those of us with what we might describe as ‘liberal’ values from being heard and even from expressing our views.
“Anchormen and people running for Congress brag about growing up in a conservative environment. Why isn’t it just as flattering to say, ‘I grew up in a liberal home? I went to a liberal church? And I have liberal values?’
“I am not claiming any special bravery, but on our program you hear things and see guests that you won’t find on other programs.
“We’re making a contribution to the information that is available to all Americans. We hope this enables them to make better-informed decisions about who should serve them in Congress and this or that school board.
“Our more than 6,000 hours have changed lives. These contributions make me feel very proud about this extraordinary odyssey that has been mine.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Phil Donahue's induction in 1993.