'The Gospel According to Oprah'

Over the past two decades years, Oprah Winfrey has become her own brand — and the richest woman in entertainment. Farai Chideya talks with journalist Marcia Nelson, author of a new book about the media maven, about Winfrey's appeal and impact on popular culture.

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ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon and this is NEWS & NOTES.

Yesterday, Oprah Winfrey celebrated her 20th season as host of "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Over the past two decades, she's asked the questions many have wanted to know, like when she asked Lisa Marie Presley about her marriage to Michael Jackson.

(Soundbite of "The Oprah Winfrey Show")

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Host): Was it a consummated marri...

Ms. LISA MARIE PRESLEY: Oh, my God, Oprah.

Ms. WINFREY: I have to ask you that question. And you all know damn well you want to know.

GORDON: Oprah is often called the queen of daytime television, but according to one journalist, her appeal goes way beyond that. NPR's Farai Chideya has more.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Five days a week for 20 years, Oprah Winfrey has been America's shoulder to cry on. With her global audience, Oprah has become much more than a talk show host. According to journalist Marcia Nelson, Oprah has become a spiritual guru. Marcia joins us from our Chicago bureau to discuss her book, "The Gospel According to Oprah," and the impact of popular culture on spirituality and values.

Welcome, Marcia.

Ms. MARCIA NELSON (Author, "The Gospel According to Oprah"): Hello, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Let's talk about her longevity.

Ms. NELSON: Sure.

CHIDEYA: Twenty years...

Ms. NELSON: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: ...is a long time to have any TV show, let alone one where you are trying to explore issues of emotion, sexuality, violence, crime. She's covered everything, you know: child abuse in South Africa and the arts and culture. Why do you think she's lasted so long in a tough television environment?

Ms. NELSON: I think she's both change and constancy. I think that she has pursued essentially some of the same core, key themes throughout her 20 years, and that those kinds of themes--for example, preventing child abuse--have been consistent throughout her 20 years. But at the same time that she's hit the same kinds of notes of child welfare and empowering women, she's also changed a lot. I mean, she changes with the culture, and the culture changes very quickly. And, you know, I mean, she literally changes clothes every day. She changes hairstyles. She changes sizes. She changes advisers. She changes, you know, from day to day what the show is about. One day it'll be a serious theme, the next day it'll be, you know, the promotion for someone's new movie. And so there is both this change and constancy that keeps people interested, and keeps her recognizable, despite all her superficial changes.

CHIDEYA: I'm thinking of Tom Cruise jumping up and down on a certain couch.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: But...

Ms. NELSON: Yes.

CHIDEYA: ...let's move to Oprah as spiritual guru. Do you...

Ms. NELSON: Yes.

CHIDEYA: ...literally mean that she is a spiritual leader in America?

Ms. NELSON: I do literally mean that. When I say that she's a spiritual leader, this is what I mean. She's translated into general mainstream language the kinds of values that religions ordinarily or traditionally have taught us, virtues and practices like generosity, gratitude, forgiveness, self-examination, response to suffering. Those are the kinds of messages that people have gotten from religions traditionally. And yet because these days there are not as many people in their houses of worship and a lot of them are in front of their TVs, Oprah can deliver a comparable kind of message and get to people. This message resonates with them.

CHIDEYA: We're at a crossroads of religion in American society today. We have a lot of debate over the role of evangelical Christianity in our government. We have some people pointing to intelligent design vs. evolution. Why in a time where traditional religion is so heightened do we need, I guess, an alternative religion that's Oprah-style?

Ms. NELSON: Hmm. You know, it's funny. I'm not even sure I would call it alternative religion because I believe that Oprah herself and what she's saying is rooted in traditional religions and yet it's somewhat more general in order to be more inclusive. One of the, if you will, the drawbacks or the reasons some people have turned against some traditional religions is the institutional aspect of it. You've heard a lot of people say, `I'm spiritual but not religious.' And so religion these days, for some, and in fact for a growing number of people who say that they are spiritual but not religious, there are some negative connotations to traditional and institutional religion.

CHIDEYA: Let me wrap up by asking you about--if Oprah Winfrey has become a sort of spiritual guru to mainstream America, how has she transformed the inner life of Americans? She is a black woman with a predominantly white audience. She is a billionaire or a near billionaire. She is one of the most amazing businesswomen in the history of this country. How has her celebrity or her prominence affected American culture?

Ms. NELSON: Well, I think part of the gospel according to Oprah is her pretty constant admonition or her statement of her goals to think about things a little differently. I really see Oprah as per--when I say spiritual teacher, you know, I emphasize spiritual, but here now I want to emphasize teacher. Oprah is really teaching her audience, which is certainly another traditional function of someone who's up there on a platform. She's bringing us information about a wide variety of subjects, including some subjects that we might not have exposure to otherwise--the condition of women in Rwanda, for example; AIDS orphans in South Africa.

She says a lot: `Now that you've seen this, now you can't say you don't know.' I think more and more these days, she's using her platform to put a spot--she's always done this. But I think she's being somewhat more intentional about the use of her platform to bring us information that may move us to action because she's also been about getting people to donate, to be generous, to volunteer. And now that you've seen this, you can't say you don't know.

CHIDEYA: Journalist Marcia Nelson is the author of "The Gospel According to Oprah." She joined us from our Chicago bureau.

Thank you so much.

Ms. NELSON: Thanks, Farai. Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of "The Oprah Winfrey Show")

Ms. WINFREY: To be able to do this show for 20 years has really been the greatest, biggest, grandest blessing and gift for me and joy of my life. To be able to step into your homes, into your kitchens, into your family rooms, into your bedrooms and feel so embraced is really the greatest honor and privilege. I feel like a part of your lives. And for that I will be eternally grateful. Bye, everybody.

(Soundbite of applause)

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya reporting.

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