The Phil Donahue Show began its pioneering conversation with a live audience from a television studio in Dayton.
Donahue began his career in the Miami Valley in the late 1950s. “I answered an ad in Broadcasting magazine and wound up in the news department at WHIO (radio) in 1959,” he told the Dayton Daily News in 1996.
At WHIO, he anchored newscasts and hosted a call-in show called Conversation Piece. The pioneering broadcaster made a move to WLWD-TV (now WDTN) in 1967 to host The Phil Donahue Show, a television version of his radio call-in show.
“I had my doubts it would work,” he said. “I thought it would be visually dull.”
Donahue recalled in a 1987 interview that the live audience, call-in format happened by accident. At the first show, which was intended to be just Donahue and a guest alone in a studio, an audience mistakenly showed up for a canceled variety show.
“Somebody said, ‘Why don’t we sit ‘em down and let ‘em watch the interview?’” he said.
The guest on that first show was Madalyn Murray O’Hair, founder of American Atheists, and the audience asked her questions during commercial breaks. Donahue thought the audience’s questions were better than his, which led to his signature style – roaming the studio with a microphone taking questions from the audience.
The inaugural show started off with a bang when Murray O’Hair pointed to the Dayton audience and said “I think at one time or another, each of these good people here have doubted the existence of God.”
A Dayton Daily News story described Donahue’s reaction: “Although he carefully remained in the background during most of the program, Donahue took the reins at this point and asked his studio audience if they would mind raising their hands if they had ever doubted God.” No one did.
In a 2016 interview with the Archive of American Television, Donahue described the first show.
“Can you imagine? Dayton, Ohio at 10:30 in the morning. Turn on the television and there’s this Donahue guy with the most hated woman in America.”
Murray O’Hair was best known for bringing the lawsuit that led to the landmark Supreme Court ruling banning Bible reading in public schools.
“Honest to goodness I didn’t think I was going to be able to get out of the building - people went berserk,” Donahue said. “We knew we had to have personalities (as guests on the show) that would move you to go to that telephone. The response was so intense that we paralyzed part of the phone system in Dayton.”
Donahue said he never imagined the show would become so popular.
“Not in our wildest dreams did we imagine we would be a coast-to-coast program,” he said in 1992. “We had no couch and no band. The guests couldn’t even find Dayton.”
But they did find Dayton. Numerous celebrities and newsmakers, including Johnny Carson, Lucille Ball, Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, Cass Elliot from the Mamas & Papas and social activist Jerry Rubin appeared with Donahue in the Dayton studios.
In 1974, the nationally syndicated program moved to Chicago, and in 1985 the show moved to WNBC-TV in New York City.
The Phil Donahue Show ended in 1996 after 29 years and more than 7,000 shows before studio audiences totaling 1 million people.