Oprah's Influence on Chicago: Harpo Studio

February 19, 2021

Justin Ankus May 4th 2020

History of Chicago Dr. Mindy Pugh

The Significance that “The Oprah Effect” had on Shaping Chicago


“The Queen of Media” Oprah Gail Winfrey (born Orpah Gail Winfrey; January 29, 1954) considers herself mostly apolitical (Smith) yet her political influences can be realized beyond physical political offices and transcend beyond the complex layers of institutional barriers that have become engrained in how Chicago functions. She has indirectly influenced the historically volatile political climate of Chicago in profound ways by bringing light to the deeply rooted social injustices of Chicagoans through hosting radio and television talk shows.

Chicago has been known to be fueled with charged energies not only from its inherent volatile weather but also it’s seemingly inherent volatile political climate that revealed an identity juxtaposed between the physical infrastructural developments remnant of Richard J. Daley’s administration between 1955-1976 and the widespread adaption of colored television that gave Chicagoans an enhanced perspective into the meta-physical realm of television and broadcasting.

Chicago was put on the map for daytime talk television during the 1970s with The Phil Donahue Show. The show began in Dayton Ohio in 1967 and after widespread success, Phil Donahue relocated the studio to Chicago in 1974. In 1979 Chicago’s first female mayor Jane Byrne took office up until 1983. Among the social progress, Phil Donahue became an icon of

Chicago by exposing differences in human perspectives and acknowledging that opposing perspectives can cohesively exist. He paved the way and established the standards for day time television talk shows on the international level.

1980s Chicago began with its newly elected first woman mayor of Chicago Jane Byrne perceived with optimism and fearlessness and continued after with the first black mayor Harold Washington. Chicago proved to be a mecca of urban diversity and creative freedom.

In 1984 Oprah Winfrey moved to Chicago from Baltimore to host AM Chicago that was ranked in last place in ratings. Her ability to connect with people on a deeply relatable level quickly paid off with the show growing to become ranked number one surpassing Phil Donahue’s well-established and top-ranked syndicated talk show (Trombino).

With its beginnings being related to the Phil Donahue Show that was originally based in Dayton Ohio and ran for 26 years starting in 1970 with its ending in 1996. The Oprah Winfrey Show was more engaging and uncensored until she pivoted the show in the 90s to be more of a lifestyle guide. At first, The Oprah Winfrey Show perpetuated ideas of censorship and the governmental regulation of broadcasted television.

An article published in 1987 by the Chicago Tribune reveals the public perception of Phil Donahue and Oprah Winfrey with a sensational headline reading, “HES BEEN BATTERED BY OPRAH, BUT HE WONT CONCEDE” (Daley Steve). The perception that a battle existed between the two media broadcasters was later acknowledged to not have existed by both Oprah Winfrey and Phil Donahue.

In a 2001 video interview, Phil Donahue explains how Oprah’s influence boosted his viewership and profitability and that he perceived himself to be more like a stockholder in Oprah’s success he also recalls hearing her opulent voice over a radio talk show in 1981 that broadcasted the undeniably gifted voice of Oprah Winfrey that resonated radical emotional intelligence beyond his own. The next day Oprah Winfrey was hired and climbed the corporate creative environment of television broadcasting (Moll). The great influence and power that

Oprah has exercised through endorsing the products and people that she admires with acknowledgement has become known as “The Oprah Effect” phenomena as anything she touches seems to turn to gold.

In 1985, The Phil Donahue Show relocated to its final physical location in New York leaving a golden opportunity for Oprah Winfrey to lead the television broadcast industry of Chicago. Amidst her early 30s, Oprah began actualizing her calling in Chicago’s media scene. Chicago fostered her vision that disrupted the established universal perceptions of mental health through broadcasted daytime television. Broadcasted television was perceived binaurally as either program that exuberated thought or program that exuberated emotion. Division and segregation had already been a comfortable normal for many Chicagoans in the 1980s. Oprah Winfrey enlightened many people by providing television entertainment that synergistically combined emotional content with the thought-provoking realities that people of Chicago were regularly facing.

In 1986 she became publicly recognized as an official Chicagoan by establishing her own multimedia company in the city called Harpo Productions which spells Oprah backward. The building was located in Chicago’s West Loop in the Near West Side Neighborhood. Her talent was already quickly realized which led to her long and successful career that was based in

Chicago until she began a new chapter of her life in 2014 by establishing OWN which stands for Oprah Winfrey Network that is jointly owned between Discovery, Inc. and Harpo Studio. Her influence is still prevalent and strongly carried in Chicago. By channeling her inherit emotional and spiritual intelligence, she exposed the realities of social injustice beginning primarily in the city of Chicago to the Nation, and eventually the World. Her original intention was to enlighten those watching that they are not alone in their struggles and have the inherent mental and emotional strength to overcome social barriers and struggles.

The public perception of broadcasting cable television of the 1980s was reflected in the exterior identity of Harpo Studios seen in the proceeding image. The building with its futuristic spaceship-like geometry and its iconic antenna accentuated by its placement on the corner reflects an admiration and almost worship for the technology by celebrating its power through its exposure.

Nagle Hartray Architects describe their project for Harpo Studios on their website as:

[A]n adaptive reuse project that included the installation of advanced production facilities into 1920s-era studio buildings. It is best known as home to the Oprah Winfrey Show … Nagle Hartray led a team of twenty consultants to convert old and poorly maintained buildings into state of the art production facilities. This conversion helped revitalize a suffering urban neighborhood (Hartray).


Studio and corporate headquarters building. Photography: ©Hedrich Blessing

The show also broadened the perceptions of people living within the invisible yet prevalent boundaries that segregated Chicago’s neighborhoods based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and socio-economic status. She gave light to the dark by broadcasting actual traumatizing stories with intentions to provide healing for both the individual sharing their story and to anyone that is watching that might be going through a relatable situation. Her show evolved to become more optimistic by celebrating the mental health accomplishments that people have faced in their past. She exuberated a relieving sense of healing through empowering others. Her method of success was controversial at first with critics that argued for censorship,

yet her approach quickly revolutionized radio talk shows and daytime TV talk shows from the 1980s to present times.

Oprah’s spreading of radical acceptance has led to the current strength and confidence of the LGBT communities that largely shape Chicago. Oprah not only acknowledged the LGBT community but she regularly incorporated Chicagoans of the community in her TV talk show. In a 1995 interview with famed drag queen RuPaul, Oprah asked, “why do you think you made it because you know, I know a lot of drag queens… uh I mean not a lot but I know, I know a couple of drag queens in my life” (RuPaul 2:00). In the present day this statement would not carry as much meaning but in 1995 it did. Oprah’s brief pause sounded like she almost intentionally misspoke for a dramatic reaction that carried a humorous tone which resulted in the audience laughing. She revealed a common mental ground between opposing views of the LGBT community and lifestyle during this time. This dialogue carried a complex contextual understanding of Chicago’s drag culture that Oprah acknowledged which gave confidence to Chicago drag queens that their lifestyle was valid from a deeply spiritual understanding of people through humor and entertainment.

Fellow Chicagoan Barack Obama gave a speech at the International Democratic Convention of 2004 that manifested through Oprah and she realized that he would be the president from that moment on. She officially endorsed him in 2006 before he declared himself as a candidate. The moment of full circle realization that her identity being apolitical was no longer a barrier for her to express her political interests as her ability to recognize and spread opulence prevailed (Oprah.com).

Harpo Studio can be observed as an anchor point that resulted in a sprawl of innovative development that spurred beyond the studio campus reaching over a mile into the Loop, effectively expanding the boundaries of the Loop Westwards.

In 2014 Oprah sold the four West Loop buildings dissolving the Chicago campus that housed her Production company but kept a condensed remote headquarter space nearby. The buildings were sold to developer Sterling Bay for $30.5 million to make space for McDonald’s new corporate headquarters previously located in the suburbs (Bomkamp). Currently, the space

is also used by smaller production companies and talent scouts.

Oprah’s relationship with Chicago can be described like meeting a long lost soul mate for the first time. The mutually prosperous relationship fostered an unprecedented environment that instantly flourished, radically and permanently boosting the moral of Chicagoans. The urban atmosphere was shaped in many beautiful ways celebrating the opulence that diversity can foster under the influence of who many consider as the most influential woman in the world.


Bomkamp, Samantha. “Harpo Studios Demolished to Make Room for New McDonald's Headquarters.” Chicagotribune.com, Chicago Tribune, 20 Dec. 2019, www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-harpo-studios-demolition-20160726-story.html.


Chicagotribune.com, 3 Sept. 2018, www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1987-02-22- 8701150250-story.html.

Hartray, Nagle. “Harpo Studios.” Nagle Hartray Architects, 0333b37.netsolhost.com/portfolio/media-commerce/harpo-studios.htm.

Moll, James0. “Phil Donahue.” Television Academy Interviews, 22 Jan. 2020, interviews.televisionacademy.com/interviews/phil-donahue?clip=40522#interview-clips.

RuPaul. “The Hardest Year of RuPaul's Life” The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Oprah Winfrey Network, 1995, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSchZdbdWYU.

Smith, Allan. “Oprah Says She Doesn't Consider Herself 'Political' - but Here's Where She's Staked out Positions on Political Issues.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 8 Jan. 2018, www.businessinsider.com/oprah-political-positions-2020-presidential-run-2018-1.

Trombino, Dominic. “Oprah: From Chicago to the World.” NBC Chicago, NBC Chicago, 23 May 2011, www.nbcchicago.com/news/local/oprahs-chicago-history/2096201/.

“Why Oprah Endorsed Barack Obama.” Oprah.com, www.oprah.com/world/why-oprah- endorsed-barack-obama.

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