Just When I Thought it Safe to Decide my own Reading List…

On November 20, 2009, as Oprah Winfrey tearfully announced her retirement from daytime TV, twenty-five years of teaching America how to feel, relate, share and anguish came to an end.  Being the sensitive person she is, Oprah softened the blow by stating that her show would not actually end for another two years; plenty of time for her audience to seek therapy or read every book on her booklist.

The Oprah Winfrey Show began in 1984 and though never watched an entire episode, I felt its impact in our culture as strongly as any current in modern times.  The topics discussed by Oprah were a literal DSM-III index and usually verboten for public discourse.  Bulimia, infidelity, birth defects, perversity of all shapes, domestic violence, complex and troubling family discord; everything was approachable with Oprah’s soft but determined approach.

So why did I take umbrage with her retirement announcement? For reasons having nothing to do with Oprah herself, but for the fact that American culture turned Oprah into more than anyone should be allowed, a cultural persona influencing millions who rely a little too much on her literary recommendations and  political renditions.  Oprah’s career spans the consolidation of media, including newspapers, books, television, movies and radio, and resembles its framework.  In addition to her daily show, she publishes a magazine bearing her name, produces feature-length films, and through her book list helps Barnes & Noble and Amazon sell millions of books.

The resulting impact of Oprah, Inc. and other media consolidation is reduced access for writers, musicians and other artists to mainstream media distribution. Consequentially, real and virtual book and CD shelves resonate with limited and similar appeal.  Non-Satellite/Internet Radio exemplifies this trend as a handful of companies own most all of the stations. Thus, like McDonald’s or Starbucks, you can pretty much listen to the same formats and song lists of your home city in any local. Whether it’s classic, alternative, pop or hip-hop, Clear Channel or Disney has the format.

Ironically, or maybe in response to, this cultural consolidation developed as the internet created the forum for any and every writer, artists, musician and cultural phenomena to present his, her or its wares to the public across the globe. Thus, water cooler commonalities such as NBC’s Thursday night TV of the 80’s and 90’s or major events like the Academy Awards, the Soprano’s finale and Presidential press conferences resonate with only segments of the populace. Nonetheless, these segments remain far larger than any single, independent internet sight.  Sure, sites like YOUTUBE and FACEBOOK provide alternatives to “Must See TV” but not with the same impact. And though a person can find just about anything via the World Wide Web, on balance main stream media still dominates our cultural barometer.

I remain highly confident that “Oprah’s Book List” will continue after she interviews President Obama and his wife Michelle on the final show. Many authors owe their careers to this list. But for every writer who gets the nod, I bet there are hundreds or thousands of artists in all medium who cannot get published or played even though possessing the requisite talent.  Self-publishing or internet radio just does not create the market like a Sony or Random House.

Do most people want fairly limited choices, too lazy to search away from the Mainstream, or merely react to what’s placed in front of them? Probably some combination contributes. I also do not suggest that just because something is mainstream, that’s its bad or lacking talent. Only that I prefer more choices to less. Take any non-iconic movie theatre where maybe 10 movies will play on 20 screens. Wonder which ten films did not receive the studio’s or distributer’s “green light” so Iron Man 2 could play on 4 screens at the same time?

Oprah deserves all the accolades bestowed upon her.  And, I doubt she started out with the goal of cultural domination. Better her than many others out there.  She has helped many in the United States and around the world.

I think back to Election Night 2008. Front and center in Chicago listening to President elect Obama’s victory speech stood Oprah, bittersweet tears of joy dewing on her face. As just about every news outlet continually focused on her, it appeared that she represented African American reaction to the historic victory.  That night I took my then  11 year old daughter to a victory party in Houston; I wanted her to see, feel and understand the reaction of the largely Black crowd when CNN projected Barak Obama to be our first African American President.

That’s all I’m saying.

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