Phil Donahue and his Show

By Dr. James Todd Uhlman

The history behind the building of the University of Dayton Arena can take people in surprising directions. One of those is its connection with Phil Donahue. Today Phil Donahue is known as the father of the modern daytime talk show. Back in 1967 he was a local radio and TV personality in Dayton, when, at exactly the time the arena was project was underway, Donohue created and hosted of first “The Phil Donahue Show.” Within a few years it had moved from a local to national TV. From the very beginning the show featured an innovative format that included audience participation, unusual guests, and a willingness to examine controversial issues. The show tackled questions such as abortion, atheism, civil rights, domestic violence, consumer protection, homosexuality, and war. Known simply as Donahue later, the show ran for twenty-nine year, ending in 1996. That year TV Guide ranked Donahue as the forty-second most important star in the history of the small screen.[1]

Early Life

Phillip John Donahue was born on December 21, 1935 in Cleveland, Ohio. His father, also named Phillip Donahue and mother Catherine McClory, worked in retail sales. Both were of Irish descent and firm Catholic. In his childhood the family moved several times and Phil was educated at a number of different Catholic schools.[2] After graduating from High School in 1953 he attended the University of Notre Dame where he graduated with a degree in Business. While at Notre Dame he worked as a production assistant in the college radio station. He occasional made on-air appearance when subbing for missing hosts. The experience set his mind on working in radio and TV.

Donahue at WHIO c1966, Dayton Daily Collection, Wright State University

Beginning of his Career

After college Donahue worked a series of short jobs in radio and TV stations across the mid-west. In 1958 he briefly worked sorting checks in the transit department in New Mexico. It was there he wed Mary Cooney. With a family on the way Donahue migrated back to the mid-west and into the radio business ending-up in Dayton, Ohio where he worked as a morning newscast on the CBS Evening News station WHIO-TV and radio owned by the Cox Broadcasting. By the mid-1960s Donahue had become a minor media celebrity in the Dayton area. He hosted a phone-in afternoon talk show called “Conversation Piece” between 1963 and 1967. On that show he developed his interview style talking with well-known figures who visited the city.

In his biography Donahue explained that by 1967 he had become dissatisfied with his job. He worked long hours that placed friction on his relationship with this wife. Donahue had also begun to feel the constrictions placed on him at the station. In the course of “Conversation Piece” he had interviewed John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Jerry Rubin, and Noam Chomsky, among many others. These experiences, combined with the dramatic changes taking place in the U.S., had awakened questions about the society in which he lived, his own beliefs, and what mattered. For years “no one sold the Pentagon more enthusiastically and with greater vigor than Phil Donahue,” he said. But by 1967 he was one of many American who had begun to question the Vietnam War.[3]

Donahue with Erma Bombeck at charity event c1968, Dayton Daily Collection, Wright State University

At the time Donahue lived in Centerville, Ohio, a suburb south of Dayton. By 1965 he had five kids, worked long hours, but as he wrote in his biography: “the money was good, the wife as beautiful, the kids were healthy, the job was prestigious, but the man was miserable.”[4] He was an important local man. He was an active member of local Catholic Church, helping lead a funding raising drive to build it a new home. In his efforts he worked alongside former University of Dayton basketball star Bill Uhl. He also was busy pretending to reach-out and help poor black communities of Dayton. He participated in Fr. Philip Hoelle University of Dayton Dakota Street Center situated in the middle of Dayton’s west side. He ended with a dim assessment of the program. It was a “lesson in paternalism,” meetings consisted of the white leaders doing “all of the talking.” In the summer of 1967, the midst of the terrible urban racial unrest that marked that period, he began to wonder if people like him should be focusing on building lavish to homes for Congregations, and “Christmas fund drives” for poor people, rather than spending time and money on meaningful reforms.

Cities were burning, blacks were enraged, Catholics were defying the Pope and using birth control anyway, and women of all faiths were beginning to wonder about the male establishment. […] And as if all this were not enough, we were in the throes of the worst foreign debacle in the history of the republic—the Vietnam war. And I was standing there in the midst of it all, while all the “absolutes” of my childhood were suddenly under siege.[5]

He began to voice his concerns and question the choices being made. Among them was the growing suspicion that Catholicism was racist and sexist. He decided he could “condemn the Church for what I was convinced were her errant ways. I castigated the Dayton Catholic Women’s Club for its “lily-whiteness.” “My point was that we all had come out of a racist environment and that the time had come to realize that none of us could claim to have completely escaped it.” Racism, he said, was “a lot like cancer, in that you didn’t always know you had it.”[6] He was thirty-two and had begun to doubt his faith. “Lying in bed one night,” he wrote, he had a sudden “overwhelming realization of the awesome magnitude of the problems [in society].” All of his “meetings” and all of the “rhetoric” about being good, and all of the celebration of “progress,” was “a self-delusion.”[7] His experiences had led him to “come face to face with unfiltered reality.”[8] His ideas led to tension. Later that summer he quit his job and began to work as a salesman.

Donahue at Cha Cha fund raising event 1971, Dayton Daily Collection, Wright State University

Mid-Life: Creating a New Format

Three months of working as the salesman taught Donahue to appreciate working in radio and TV. It did not take much for the general manager of rival Dayton TV station, WLWD (WDTN today), to convince him to return to the air waves. The plan was for him to host a call-in Daytime TV talk show. It was not going to be easy to carry-off the plan. Working for a small station and in the mid-west, Donahue faced a significant challenge in making such a show work. At that time the typical format of existing entertainment interview shows featured famous guests. Donahue did not have the budget to fly-in important people from the East and West coasts.

On November 6, 1967 the first showed aired and gave a glimpse into the solution Donahue and his colleagues had devised. The show would court controversy. His first guest was an atheist named Madalyn O’Hair. She believed religion was contrary to the spirit of American freedom and wanted to ban prayer in public schools. Other novelties of the show were to show audiences the lives of people or looked into situations they typically shunned because of social pressure or fear. For example, Donahue introduced viewers to the life of an undertakers, introduce them to political radicals, and took them into the hospital to watch a childbirth. Adding to the format he invited his audience to call-in and talk with the guests or contribute to survey about their feeling regarding the topic of the show.

Top: Donahue raising money for charity at Dayton Dixie Bowl in 1968. Bottom: Donahue interviewing Margret Mead in 1972. Dayton Daily Collection, Wright State University

It was during this early phase that Donahue ventured onto the University of Dayton campus to observe a daylong discussion on race relations that student activists had organized. Only the year before the city had been torn apart by the 1966 race riot, initiated by the murder of a black man by a car of white men. The police were unable to find the killers, and pointedly discounted the description of events by black eye-witnesses. The West Side erupted, and the State National Guard had been called in to restore order.[9]

In January of 1970 the show moved into nationwide syndication. While one of the shows keys to success was its willingness to tackle controversy, another was its discovery of an important new TV audience. The Donahue show had begun to target an under appreciate demographic:  the stay at home middle-class housewife. Donahue personality greatly enhanced the shows appeal to this demographic. Handsome, intelligent, and sensitive, Donahue was the interesting husband who they wished they had. Adding to the allure Donahue was an early champion of issues surrounding the lives of modern American women. Year later in 1992 Donahue said he got lucky with his show, they:

discovered early on that the usual idea of women’s programming was a narrow, sexist view. We found that women were interested in a lot more than covered dishes and needlepoint. The determining factor, ‘Will the woman in the fifth row be moved to stand up and say something?’ And there’s a lot that will get her to stand up.[10]

Not everyone appreciated Donahue’s frequent focus on women’s issues. Broadcasts about abortion, vasectomies, and child birth some stations refused to show. In 1987 he was awarded the Margaret Sanger Award by Planned Parenthood.

Rest of his Career

In 1974 the shows growing success led to it relocation to Chicago. The show couldn’t grow any larger out of Dayton. In order to expand he needed a larger city with more links to affiliates around the country. The year before, he had gotten a divorce from his first wife, and it seemed the right moment to move-on. There Donahue meet and married to actress Marlo Thomas in. 1980. In Chicago the show’s popularity grew further and in 1984 the Donahue show moved to New York. By then the success of the show had created a great deal of competition. Other shows began to push the format towards increasingly sensational materials.[11]

Despite these changes for the most part Donahue continued to utilize the format he had created. One example of the series issues he confronted was his own ongoing tortured relationship with the Catholic church through his career. “I will always be a Catholic. But I want my church to join the human race and finally walk away from this antisexual theology.”[12] Long before the issue had become something people discussed, in the 1980s.In the 1980s, Donahue did a show on child molestation in the Catholic church. During the Reagan years, as the Cold War had reignited, Donahue and Soviet journalist Vladimir Posner co-hosted a series of televised discussions about the conflict between their countries.[13]  The two men shot on location in their home countries and the shows were combined into one television program. It was called the “U.S.–Soviet Space Bridge.” As on his show, members of both audiences were allowed to ask each other questions about both nations. Later in the early 1990s he hosted a weekly discussion show for U.S. and Russian on the emerging cable network CNBC.

Despite these innovations Donahue’s focus on meaningful issues began to appear “stale” but he had built a large audience over the years. In 1996 Donahue taped his last of nearly 7,000 shows. He had won 20 Emmy Awards and reshaped the landscape of modern daytime TV, paving the way for Oprah Winfrey and many others.

In 2002, Donahue returned to TV hosting a cable news show called Donahue on MSNBC. It was a short lived venture.  A little over six month later it was canceled. Donahue complained the show had been canceled for political reasons.[14] Executives at the network feared that Donahue’s questioning approach was too dangerous for the time. The U.S. was about the invade Iraq and his show would, an internal MSNBC document said, give a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war.”[15] Years later Donahue said that the corporate owners of the network demanded that he “have two conservatives[s] for every liberal,” humorously adding, “I was counted as two liberals.”[16] Four years later Donahue served as co-director with independent filmmaker Ellen Spiro in the making of a documentary about the second war in Iraqi.  The critically acclaimed “Body of War” followed the difficult return and adjustment for disabled Iraq War veteran.[17]


Phil Donahue, Donahue: My Own Story. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979.

Haley, Kathy. “Talking with Phil” (interview). Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 2 November 1992.

Phil Donahue, The Human Animal, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Unger, Arthur. “I Cannot Be the BBC in an MTV World!” (interview). Television Quarterly (New York), Spring 1991.

Further Readings:

Carbaugh, Donald A. Talking American: Cultural Discourses on Donahue. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex Publishing, 1988.

Haley, Kathy. “From Dayton to the World: A History of the Donahue Show.” Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 2 November 1992.

Heaton, Jeanne Albronda, and Nona Leigh Wilson. Tuning in Trouble: Talk TV’s Destructive Impact on Mental Health. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass, 1995.

Kurtz, Howard. “Father of the Slide.” The New Republic (Washington, D.C.), 12 February 1996.

McConnell, Frank. “What Hath Phil Wrought?” Commonweal (New York), 22 March 1996.

Mifflin, Laurie. “The Price of Being Earnest.” The New York Times, 21 January 1996.

Priest, Patricia Joyner. Public Intimacies: Talk Show Participants and Tell All TV. Cresskill, New Jersey: Hampton, 1995.


[1] “Special Collectors’ Issue: 50 Greatest TV Stars of All Time”. TV Guide (December 14–20). 1996.

[2] Julie Engel Manga, Talking Trash: The Cultural Politics of Daytime TV Talk Shows (New York: NYU Press, 2003), 28-35.

[3] Phil Donahue, My Own Story: Donahue (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 56.

[4] Donahue, My Own Story, 71.

[5] Donahue, My Own Story, 81.

[6] Donahue, My Own Story, 82-83.

[7] Donahue, My Own Story, 93-94.

[8] Donahue, My Own Story, 95.

[9] Josh Sweigart, “Lasting Scars: the 1966 Dayton riot, and west Dayton today,” Dayton Daily, September 2, 2016.

[10]  Quoted in “Phil Donahue” at the Museum of TV website. Accessed 10/25/18 at 10:32.

[11] See Manga, Talking Trash.

[12] “Questions for Phil Donahue,” By David Wallis. The New York Times. Published April 14, 2002.


[14] Bill Carter, “MSNBC Cancels the Phil Donahue Talk Show”. The New York Times. February 26, 2003.

[15] Poniewozik, James, “In the Obama Era, Will the Media Change Too?” Time, January 15, 2009.

[16] Poniewozik, James, “Watching the Not-Watchdogs,” Time, April 26, 2007.

[17] “Body of War,” Wikipeadia. Retrieved on October 25, 2018.