The Dayton, Ohio, audience had come to see a TV variety hour called The Johnny Gilbert Show. They didn’t know that it had been canceled. Instead, they were to witness the first show of a 31-year-old news-radio journalist named Phil Donahue on that Nov. 6, 1967. The Phil Donahue Show had no announcer, no band, no couch, no desk, and just one guest. She was an atheist activist named Madalyn Murray O’Hair who had worked to throw prayer out of public schools — a concept that in 1967 was more than blasphemy. It was revolutionary TV.
”America was in crisis. Blacks were burning cities … and a whole lot of people were beginning to wonder whether Vietnam was a good idea,” Donahue wrote in his best-selling 1979 autobiography. Booking an issue-oriented show seemed an ambitious way to ride America’s turbulent wave.
And book them he did, taking on topics that no one else dared: incest, abortion, homosexuality. Donahue justified his outlandish stunts (hosting cross-dressing shows in skirts and heels) and topics (interracial lesbian couples who have children by artificial insemination) as ways of keeping viewers interested so they’d stay tuned for guests like Ralph Nader, Jesse Jackson, and Nelson Mandela.
”Phil discovered that women in the daytime are smart. He took their opinion seriously,” says Gloria Steinem, a staple on Donahue. His overwhelmingly female audience repaid him in loyalty. During its peak in the ’70s and early ’80s (Donahue moved to New York in ‘85), the show was seen on more than 200 stations and viewed by almost 9 million daily. (The divorced father of five even found a wife on the show when he married two-time guest Marlo Thomas in 1980.)
Donahue had said that if he succeeded, he would most likely be followed by a black woman. It took almost 20 years. In 1986, Oprah Winfrey realized his prophecy by claiming the ratings’ top talk spot. ”Phil opened the door for all of us,” says Winfrey. ”I respect his choice to have raised issues that truly impact our families and the world we live in.”
But the talk master was being swallowed up by saucier, less respectful mutations (16 of them during his final season). By this year’s last episode in May, Donahue had aired 29 years, amassing nearly 7,000 hours of TV and 20 Emmys. This month, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will honor the man, now 60, and his microphone. It seems a fitting place for one who, in the spirit of the First Amendment, gave voice to so many.
Time Capsule: Nov. 6, 1967
Moviegoers chilled out with Cool Hand Luke; readers talked about William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner; TV viewers galloped with Bonanza; and record buyers responded to Lulu’s ”To Sir With Love.”