Talk show icon returns home
By Jim Bucher
Photo: Groundbreaking TV talk show host Phil Donahue returns to Dayton on April 10
Once upon a time, TV talk shows were full of big name stars plugging a new movie or a best-selling author pushing a new book. They basically all looked the same. That is, until 1967 when the TV talk show format would forever be turned on its ear. At 10:30 a.m. “The Phil Donahue Show” was launched in Dayton on WLW-D Channel 2 – now WDTN – and became so popular it was syndicated around the country – moving to Chicago before finally wrapping in New York City after a 29 year run.
But what made it different and why did every other show that followed copy the format? In a recent phone interview with the man behind the show’s name, I found out.
“Actually it started on WHIO radio with ‘Conversation Piece’ and two-way radio was just beginning,” Donahue said. “At the time, I was a news reporter and they said, ‘Well, he covers city hall and knows the mayor, so put him in there.’”
The radio show aired for 90 minutes from 1-2:30 in the afternoon with local movers and shakers as guests, but Donahue wanted more.
“The only thing I did do differently is I took the phone company to lunch and said, ‘I want to have guests by way of long distance,’” Donahue remembered. “It was tough to get guests to Dayton and be on a radio show. Someone said ‘Soap Box Derby?’ No, that’s Akron; don’t go to Akron, it’s Dayton.
“So, I walked in the studio shortly thereafter and there was a microphone and a telephone and all kinds of wires,” he continued. “And I had blinking lights on the phone, pushed two buttons at once and just like that we had someone from Dayton, many of them housewives, calling in talking to Hugh Hefner, senators, congressman and big shots, the ratings went through the roof.”
That’s when Channel 2’s general manager Don Dahlman called and said, ‘Let’s do your radio show on TV.’”
“The Johnny Gilbert Show” (Johnny Gilbert is the current announcer on “Jeopardy.”) was ending its run on a Friday and “The Phil Donahue Show” premiered the following Monday with atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
“She successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to ban prayer in public schools,” Donahue said. “So, here’s the audience who had advance tickets for the Gilbert show planning to wave at the camera and win prizes and who is the sole guest? The most hated woman in America. It sent shockwaves across Dayton.”
The Donahue Show not only changed the face of daytime TV, but also pioneered the audience-participation format.
“I’m running from person to person getting my microphone cord tangled, but our studio audience was a huge part of our success,” Donahue said. “We dealt with issues rarely addressed, showing the birth of a baby, talking to gynecologists, guests who insulted God and America and even though our ratings were big, it was tough getting sponsors.”
But Phil did have “normal” guests – like Erma Bombeck.
Bombeck was the award winning, nationally syndicated newspaper columnist whose humor about everyday life with husband Bill and the kids struck a nerve with housewives and moms all over the country.
“She thrilled my audiences, but boy, did she know how to get laughs,” Donahue remembered. “Man, I would set her up and throw her under hand pitches and Erma would knock it out of the park.”
Erma was much more than a guest – the Bombecks and Donahues were neighbors in Centerville, living across the street from each other on Cushwa Drive before their respective careers took off. Donahue is back in town this week to speak at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at The University of Dayton, April 10-12.
“You know she wasn’t the best, she was the only,” Donahue said. “No one did what she did. Erma was brave and went places no other writer went. Her humor is something that ended with the benefit of surprise. Huge audience of women she related to, in a way she was a feminist before the name was invented.”
Phil Donahue has been all over the world, interviewed controversial figures, kings, queens and every major star, but unlike Tony Bennett and San Francisco, Phil’s heart is in Dayton.
“I can’t wait to get back to see my old photographers Bob Phillips, Chuck Upthegrove and even you, Butch,” he said.
Ah, it’s Buch.
That’s OK, “Bill” and I go way back.
For more information about the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, please visit humorwriters.org.
A regionally known and loved local television icon for over 25 years, “Buch’s” followers describe him as trust-worthy, fun, the guy next door, a friend and role model. You can promote your business with Buch and grab your customer’s attention! Reach DCP freelance writer Jim Bucher at JimBucher@DaytonCityPaper.com.