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The man who discovered Oprah

After 25 years, Oprah Winfrey is saying farewell to her talk show, with the last episode set to air Wednesday.

But how did the Queen of Talk get started on her road to her lofty perch?

It all began, says the man who found her, in August of 1983.

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Dennis Swanson, who's now president of station operations for Fox Television Stations, told "Early Show on Saturday Morning" co-anchor Rebecca Jarvis that on his first day as program director of WLS-TV in Chicago, "the fellow doing 'A.M. Chicago' came in and asked out of his contract. And so I let him out. We were not doing very well. We were up against Phil Donahue at the time in his home market. And getting clobbered.

"And so I said, 'Let's try and find an alternative. Rather than focus on males, let's focus on females."'

A woman who'd been in the WLS programming department only a week brought him a tape with Oprah on it. Winfrey was at that time co-host of WJZ's "People Are Talking."

But, Swanson told Jarvis, it was "hard to tell (about Oprah) from that tape, because it was a - she was a co-host of a show in Baltimore where the male was the dominant talent. So we set up to do an audition. We brought her in Labor Day weekend of '83, and I told the folks to make it a for-real 'A.M. Chicago' show, make it difficult.

"And I'm sitting in my office watching the audition unfold, and I'm thinking to myself, 'I've just solved the morning show problem. This woman is awesome!"'

Winfrey also provided an additional audition tape in which she said, "My name is Oprah Winfrey. Oprah spelled O-p-r-a-h, and if you noticed, it's Harpo spelled backwards.

"My folks did not particularly like Harpo Marx," she said by way of explanation. "We did not even have a television set in our home for a number of years."

Swanson says, "I thought to myself, 'Wow, this is an exceptional talent.' (She) was exactly what you would look for. She was informed, spontaneous, comfortable. Able to ask questions easily and readily. Made the guests feel comfortable. And I just thought, 'This person is just a natural television performer, and there's no way we can miss with her, if we can get her here to Chicago to do this show full-time.'

"When the taping was over, because it was a holiday weekend, literally everybody split. So it was just her and me. And so we spent, I don't know, an hour-and-a-half or so together in my office going over a lot of different issues.

"And she, you know, she wanted to do the show very badly. She wanted to do it by herself. She didn't want to be in a co-host situation. And I told her I thought that was fine.

"I told her I really didn't have any concerns, and you know, she talked about the fact that she was black. I told her that wasn't a concern. That she was overweight. I said, so was I. It was OK. In fact, I wanted her to have a vulnerability.

"I told her I didn't want her to change a thing. I wanted the hairdo, the clothes, the weight, everything, I wanted her just as she was. I think she was very comfortable with that. Because it was a very direct, honest conversation. We were at ease with one another.

"And then I told her I did have a concern, though. And she sort of reared back in her chair: 'What was that?' I said, 'You know, I just wonder how you're gonna be able to handle success? Some people don't handle success very well. They push success up their nose (take cocaine),' and you see examples of that, you know, today, for example. And she said, 'Do you really think I could be that successful?' And I said, 'Lady, this is going to cost me money in the negotiation, but you're going to shoot the lights out!" '

And how did those negotiations go?

"Well, you know, she had the best attorney in Baltimore, Ron Shapiro, who handled Brooks Robinson, a lot of the Orioles, who were a championship team at that time. The tricky part of it was, her contract didn't expire until the end of the year. But then, the people that had the contract had a 60-day option in there, and I said to Shapiro, I said, 'We'll wait till January 1, because she's worth waiting for, but I can't wait the 60 days beyond that.' He negotiated out of that. We put her on the air the first of January, and we were in last place when we put her on the air - and we won the February (ratings) less than a month later."

And the rest, as they say, is history!

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