In 1976, when Baltimore's WJZ-TV decided to expand its six o'clock news format to an hour, the station couldn't have possibly known that it was about to make history.
At the time, the news was anchored by Jerry Turner, arguably the most beloved broadcaster in Baltimore. But the one-hour format was deemed too long for a single person to handle, so then-news director Gary Elion conducted an exhaustive nationwide search for a co-anchor.
After watching more than 100 audition tapes over the course of many months, Elion still hadn't found anyone he wanted to hire.
"I was getting the usual boring tapes," he recalls.
But one of the tapes caught his eye: It featured an ingénue from WTVF-TV in Nashville, TN. Her name was Oprah Winfrey.
"She was relating a story about something that had happened at City Council," Elion says. "And she explained it so well. Knowing nothing about the politics of the place, I understood exactly what had happened and the significance. It made her hugely different from anyone else I had seen."
So Elion hired her. It was a bold move for the station to pair a rookie with an eminent anchor, but he was confident.
"I never had any doubt she was right for the job," says Elion, now a practicing attorney in Sante Fe, NM. "But I felt she could acquire the experience. What she had was this incredible ability to communicate—that was apparent even then."
The station promoted her with the tagline, "What's an Oprah?" and Baltimore was about to find out, as Winfrey (age 22 and making $22,000 a year) debuted on August 16, 1976.
Working in a bustling metropolis was an adjustment for the girl born in rural Mississippi.
"I was assigned to learn every neighborhood in Baltimore," says Winfrey, speaking to us from California. "I ended up doing neighborhood festivals every weekend. I never learned any of the streets. I was always lost and had to look for the TV tower to know where to go."
It was no-frills for the talk titan back then. "No one did my hair and makeup," she says, laughing at the memory. "I would be driving my Chevy from Columbia with my hair just washed and leaving the windows down for it to dry. I would be taking the rollers out as I was coming up TV Hill!"
The job itself also presented a challenge. Winfrey—always a sympathetic soul—took the stories to heart, which made her ill-suited to the bad news business of anchoring.
"I didn't like every day having to think of the worst thing that was going to happen that day," says Winfrey. "I never felt great doing it. I remember being at a funeral and not asking the family of the [deceased] child to comment and getting in trouble for it. The assistant news director was like, 'You get back out there and ask,' [but] I couldn't do it. I was too emotional—I felt things so deeply it was hard for me to let things go. I was worried about the family. It helped lay the groundwork for knowing what I didn't want to do."
Station stalwart Turner was equally unhappy with the hire.
"He had an old-fashioned sense of men and women," explains WJZ anchor Denise Koch. "He was from the South."
Furthermore, it was difficult for Turner to fully embrace his fledgling co-anchor, given the fact that he assumed his friend, veteran WJZ reporter Al Sanders, would fill the spot. The combination was ill-fated from the start.
"She was teamed with the dean of Baltimore newscasting," says WJZ weatherman Bob Turk, "and she was completely out of her league. She didn't read well, she didn't know news, geography, history, politics, or names. She was just very much in the wrong place and too young and inexperienced to be an anchor."
Winfrey is the first to say the pairing was disastrous. "I remember being like a fish out of water with Jerry Turner," says Winfrey. "I walked into a cesspool there. It was Harry Reasoner and Barbara Walters all over again. He didn't want me there. I was young. I wasn't just green behind the ears—I had cornstalks growing back there."
Less than eight months after she was hired, Winfrey was unceremoniously dumped from the evening news just hours before she was about to go on air.
"I shall never forget April 1, 1977," says Winfrey. "I got called out of the newsroom to meet with the general manager. He said, 'We think you are so talented, we want you to have your own spot. We are going to move you to morning cut-ins.'" (Cut-ins are local announcements inserted into the network broadcast.)
"I was devastated," Winfrey says. "I knew it was a horrible demotion, and Jerry Turner was saying, 'I didn't know anything about it, babe,' when, in fact, they had been planning for weeks to replace me [with Al Sanders]."
Later that spring, Bill Baker, who had created Cleveland's Morning Exchange, the highest-rated local program in the country, was hired as general manager of WJZ, and given the task of reinvigorating the ailing station.
"WJZ had slipped from number one to number three," Baker says. "I was supposed to get things going again. I started looking at the news, and I also thought maybe it would be a good idea to do a local talk show."
Baker met Winfrey for the first time at a cocktail party, though he was already familiar with her hiring history. Intriguingly, it was his wife, Jeannemarie, who identified Winfrey's true potential.
"Jeannemarie was a housewife at the time and watched daytime TV," Baker says. "And she said, 'You know, if you are going to do a local talk show, that Oprah would be a great host. There is something magical about her—she wears her heart on her sleeve, and she is not at all pretentious.' I agreed. She had all the right attributes to be a successful talk show host."
As Baker developed his newly named show, People are Talking, he was convinced that Winfrey was the perfect person to cohost along with veteran newsman Richard Sher. Winfrey, on the other hand, felt she wouldn't be taken seriously as a journalist.
"It was the last thing in the world she wanted to do," Baker says. "She said, 'Bill, I don't want to do a talk show.' She had tears in her eyes when she said it. I said, 'If you are successful, you can have more power to do good and make more of an impact on the community than you would have in TV news.'"
But from the very first show on August 14, 1978, it was clear that Winfrey—with her warmth, natural presence, and ability to extensively ad-lib—had found her calling.
"From that first day, I knew instantly this is what I was supposed to do," she says. "I felt like I had come home to myself."
The New York Times TV critic Bill Carter, then at The Sun, remembers watching the show's debut, which featured Tom Carvel, founder of Carvel ice cream, and two actors from All My Children.
"I watched the first show with my wife, and she said to me, 'Wow, Oprah is good at this—every question she asked is the question I was thinking in my head,'" he says. "She connected with the female audience instantly. She was very in tune with the way people thought and was extremely comfortable and appealing when she stepped into this format. Oprah was genuine."
Before long, the question, "What's an Oprah?" was a rhetorical one, as the duo beat national talk-show behemoth Phil Donahue in the local ratings and was syndicated on 17 stations from Bangor, ME, to Honolulu.
"Making the transition to the talk show was the golden moment in her life," says Koch. "News anchoring just wasn't her thing."
Where Winfrey's partnership with Turner was toxic, her pairing with cohost Sher was a match made in ratings heaven. The chemistry between the cohosts was palpable, due mostly to a mutual respect for one another.
"We had fun all the time," Sher says. "We never had an argument and we supported each other."
Says former People Are Talking executive producer, Arleen Weiner: "She was very comfortable sitting in that chair next to Richard. She had a great respect for him and really cared about him as a person and colleague."
And though things didn't always go smoothly on air—an audience member's hair once caught on fire from a light bulb, a show on orgasms inadvertently was conducted in front of an audience of church members—the two shared a lot of laughs and made compelling television together.
"Richard and I had a very different relationship," says Winfrey. "He was not resentful of me. He was willing to try to teach me what he knew. Every day he taught me about timing and rhythm and pacing and how to inject the funny. He saw this as an opportunity for himself, and he recognized he couldn't do it by himself. I had the best time with him."
Off camera, Winfrey remains close to this day with both Sher and Weiner (mother of WBAL anchor Deborah Weiner), who introduced her to the city's movers and shakers and gave her entree to Baltimore's all-important Jewish society.
"At that time, Baltimore was an insular city," says WJZ weatherman Marty Bass. "And Richard was a major player. To be put on that show with Richard meant Oprah was thrust into a Baltimore society that doesn't like outsiders and will chew you up and spit you out. This is a town where people still go to their kindergarten reunions. Oprah was able to handle it all like Ripken at shortstop."
While Winfrey came to Baltimore with undeniable talent, Baltimore itself was her ad hoc journalism school as she learned the tricks of the talk trade. Among them: a real willingness to show her vulnerable side as she revealed parts of herself, from her struggles with weight to her less-than-storybook upbringing.
"Baltimore is a warm, giving community," says Baker. "It's the kind of place that opened its arms. Once they saw how real she was, they allowed her to mature and grow. In its collective emotional heart, Baltimore said, 'We want this woman to succeed. We are going to keep watching and be there for her.' It was the unique crucible that helped gestate this wonderful, magical talent. There's no question the place helped her."
Winfrey says that her experiences were invaluable.
"My goal at that particular phase in my life was to learn as much as I could," she says. "I looked at Baltimore as a learning opportunity, as a 'teach me' school for life. I learned the absolute most about myself there. It was my first time away from home starting out as my own true self—not with any family member—and learning how to negotiate in the corporate world. I look at those years as how they made me into the woman I am now."
In addition to cohosting People are Talking (and eventually co-anchoring the noon news with Sher), Winfrey explored her love of acting, whether performing a one-woman show at Goucher College or a poetry reading at her church, Bethel A.M.E.
"That's the first time I realized she was much more than a talk-show host," says her former coworker and roommate Sandra Pinckney, who is still a close friend. "She starred in To Make a Poet Black and Beautiful and Bid Her Sing and was reading Langston Hughes poetry. I was sitting in the audience, and here comes this booming voice in the back of the church. I said to myself, 'My God, this is Oprah.' She was so much bigger than I imagined as she recited these poems in this beautiful, deep voice. The show went from Baltimore to Lincoln Center!"
Says Bass, "When I heard that Oprah was doing a one-woman show at Goucher, I remember thinking, 'She is incredibly motivated. She is seeing a bigger picture here—in color and 3-D.'"
Even in those years, colleagues recall that Winfrey exuded uncommon confidence with her big personality, boundless energy, and ability to tackle anything.
"She was the most confident person I've ever met," says Koch. "I've never met anyone who had such a strong sense of self and what they were going to do in the world."
Koch, a prominent actress at the time herself, remembers when Oprah auditioned for the lead in a play at CentreStage.
"I remember thinking, 'Why would they cast her when she's not an actress?' But she was sure she was going to get it. She didn't do it in a bragging way—she just thought she knew her destiny."
When the part went to a classical Shakespearean actress instead, Winfrey was reportedly livid. "Oprah was furious," says Koch. "She was like, 'How could they not cast me?' She was stunned. I remember her saying to me, 'What are we doing here, Denise? We should be on Broadway.' I remember thinking to myself, 'I don't know what you're doing here, but I'm here paying the mortgage!'"
Winfrey took the town by storm, but her colleagues secretly harbored the fear that the rising star wasn't long for Baltimore.
"It was like, 'We'd love to keep you here, but you're not staying,'" Bass says.
Indeed, in January 1984, Winfrey was hired to host A.M. Chicago, a faltering half-hour morning show in the Windy City.
Ironically, according to Sher, the show first saw Winfrey when she appeared on an audition tape when producer Debra Di Maio was applying for a job. A.M. Chicago was immediately impressed with Winfrey (and also ended up hiring Di Maio).
Though the station threw a going away party for her at Café Des Artistes, some hard feelings were apparent.
"At the going away party, Paul Yates, the general manager, announced that he was going to give her a big color TV, but she never got that," laughs Sher, who gave her an attaché case engraved with the word "Ope," his nickname for her.
Says Pinckney, "I remember her looking so regal and so triumphant at her party. They were going to match her salary to keep her, but they could have offered her a million dollars, she was ready to go. She was ready for bigger and better things."
Winfrey never questioned her decision to leave Charm City.
"Just like no part of me feels like ending [The Oprah Winfrey Show] at this point is a mistake, no part of me felt like leaving Baltimore at that time was a mistake. I had grown as much as I felt I could grow in that position. I didn't want to become an 'anchor institution.' I didn't want to be 25 years at an anchor desk reading news. I just wanted a different kind of challenge. I didn't think I could be fulfilled if I stayed in Baltimore—it would have caused me to settle into a conditioned life. I wanted to be more than comfortable."
Weeks later, Weiner drove Winfrey to the American Airlines terminal at BWI and put her on the plane.
"We cried at that point," says Weiner. "She would come to our house for Passover. She would come for Thanksgiving. There were people who told her that there were landmines in Chicago, but I thought she could be much more successful there. Six weeks later, I went out to see her and we couldn't walk down the street without everyone knowing who she was. I knew her star was ascending, but I didn't know how far she would go."
Despite the ups and downs, Winfrey is grateful for her Baltimore years. "'I wouldn't take nothing from my journey,'" Winfrey says, quoting from a traditional Negro spiritual. "Every single bit of it, every layer of my Baltimore experience, contributed to me being able to stand where I am today."