Chapter 6. Oprah in West Virginia
Microphone goes out
Oprah Winfrey is, by far, the most professional person I have worked with. She is the queen of the broadcast industry for a very good reason, because she is the hardest-working person in show business.
She is very talented on camera as well as off camera. She is a smart, successful, business, woman. Obviously her “on-air” personality is known all over the world, but she is just as professional behind the scenes. It truly was a privilege to have the opportunity to work with Oprah and her crewmembers at Harpo Studios.
I was first introduced to “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and the Harpo Studios organization by several of the people on her crew that I had known from working in the sports environment. Many of her crewmembers would come out to work sporting events on the weekends.
In 2005, my awesome wife and I got married, and then we promptly moved to Chicago. One day, I simply contacted some long-time friends and went by Harpo Studios for a visit and to have lunch with some friends. They gave my wife and I a brief tour, and I was able to meet and say hello to other crewmembers that I’ve worked with over the years.
That occasion opened up a couple of opportunities to do some work for Harpo Studios in the AVID maintenance group. After a few months of occasionally working for Harpo Studios, the audio department found out that I was also an audio engineer. Roy Otake was one of the video engineers on the Oprah crew. He knew me as an audio engineer from 10 years of working together at the Masters Golf tournament, from working as an Audio Engineer in Atlanta for many years, as well as from when I would go to Chicago to work a Cubs game or a White Sox game.
One day, the audio department asked if I could help on a few shows that were very audio-intensive. I was honored to start working on some of Oprah’s shows in an audio capacity. It worked out really well because Oprah would typically record her shows on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and then I could still leave to go televise sporting events on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
If you have ever watched the Oprah Show, every famous person in the world parades through her studios, at some point. As part of the audio crew, I got to work with many big name music acts like Neil Diamond, Kelly Clarkson, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, John Legend, Wynonna Judd, and the list goes on. The audio department would call me on the occasion when one of these bigger music acts would come on the Oprah Show because they were SO audio intensive, and they needed the extra help. In addition to the music shows, I also worked with many of the big-name movie actors. It was truly amazing to see the huge quantity of superstars that appeared on her show every week.
Harpo Studios would record six shows in three days of the Oprah Winfrey Show Typically, they would setup and rehearse on Mondays, record two shows on Tuesday, two shows on Wednesday, and two shows on Thursday.
Then, out of the blue, in 2011, Oprah decided that she was going to shut down her show. She made the announcement early in the season, that it was going to be her 25th and final season.
So this is where the story begins…
Oprah started to re-interview many of the guests she interviewed earlier in her career. She wanted to show what happened to those people? What were they doing now? How did Oprah’s interviews, back then, impact their lives?
Let’s rewind 20 something years ago… There was a big story in West Virginia, where young man with AIDS went to the local swimming pool. It was simply a hot summer day. He and his sisters wanted to cool off and go for a swim at the local public swimming pool. The mayor of the town found out that he had AIDS and that he was using the public swimming pool.
The mayor ended up closing down the pool and draining the water out of it, thereby turning this simple incident into a big situation! Admittedly, back then not very many people knew much about AIDS. Most people did not know what the disease was. It was still very new at that time.
So, Oprah went down to interview many of the key players in this “incident”, which included the mayor, a very vocal and outspoken guy, who happened to be a member of the fire department as well as a local radio host. She also interviewed the sisters who were with him in the pool at that time, and the doctor who diagnosed him with AIDS.
She tried to get a better idea of what it was like back in those days. It was one of those shows that helped promote Oprah to a national level. It was kind of a big deal back then, and she did an awesome job interviewing those people.
Now fast-forward 20 years and Oprah had started the process of shutting down her daily show. She was re-interviewing many of her former guests, so she scheduled interviews with these same people in West Virginia.
The gentleman with AIDS had passed away but Oprah did get the chance to interview his sisters and the doctor and the outspoken radio host. I cannot remember if the mayor was there or not.
The audio department at Harpo Studios was extremely busy that week with six shows and many big-name music guests. I got the job as the audio engineer for the interviews in West Virginia because there were many other shows going on at the studio that week. The audio guys that normally do this for Oprah were back at the studio working very long hours, like they always do. They were very talented, very smart, and super-hard workers and I had all the respect in the world for those guys, so I was honored when they called me and asked if I would work this job in West Virginia.
So, now we were in the exact same spot, in West Virginia, where Oprah first interviewed these people 20 years earlier. I was the audio engineer working alongside my long-time friend Roy Otake, who was the video engineer. It felt good to work next to him again.
Because this was Oprah’s final season, there was also a behind-the-scenes crew taping this event. I was working on the main event, and the behind-the-scenes crew was covering everything else. They had other interviews around the town that I was not part of because I was busy with the main event.
Now the moment of TRUTH! Oprah started the interview with the same group of people. As the audio engineer, I had microphones on all of the key people that we were interviewing plus two microphones on Oprah, a primary and a backup. The interviews were going well, and we got to the point where Oprah was doing a one-on-one interview with the radio host/ fireman who was the most vocal and outspoken person s in the original interviews. It was one of those really heartfelt moments when Oprah was very emotional and the gentleman was very emotional as well. It was at the really intense parts of the interview that, unfortunately, his microphone DIED.
To this day, I cannot tell you why his microphone died. I spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out exactly what was going on. Was it something that I was doing? Was something wrong with the microphone? Was there some external interference? It was a scramble for about a minute while I looked at all the technical things that we have to do to figure out what was wrong. The microphone just wasn’t coming back to life. There was no reason for it not to work. It should have worked. It worked properly during all of the tests, and it worked fine that morning during rehearsals. The microphone simply DIED.
Now, I had to be the one to interrupt her at this heartfelt moment. I reached over to Roy Otake, who was sitting next to the producer, who was on the intercom with the executive producer. I said to both Roy and the producer, with a sense of panic in my voice, “We’ve got to stop them. His microphone isn’t working. We can’t let this go on!”
I could tell that the producer didn’t want to interrupt the interview at such an intense point. At that moment, Oprah was leaning in to the gentleman, and he was leaning in toward Oprah. They were both really into it. When I say that it was heartfelt, I mean that they were both very emotional at that moment!
The producer called the executive producer on the intercom and told him the problem. The executive producer went up to Oprah and interrupted the interview. He said something along the lines of “His microphone is not working, so we have to redo that segment”.
Naturally Oprah was upset, to say the least, and I didn’t blame her one bit.
So, we quickly got the new microphone out, and while we were in the process of swapping out his microphone – in her professionalism (again, she is the most professional person I’ve ever worked with) she simply asked, “How long has the microphone been out?” She was clearly upset, but still very professional.
In her mind she is trying to calculate how far back she needed to go and what questions she needed to re-ask… More specifically, she needed to try to re-create that intense emotional moment. I know this! I think his microphone was dead from 30 to maybe 45 seconds. In my mind it was an eternity!!
To this day, I do not know why, but for some reason out of my mouth came the words, “three minutes” in response to her question.
OH MY GOODNESS! Oprah flipped. She hit the roof, and understandably so. I have no qualms with Oprah, and she had every right to be upset. Unfortunately, that upset energy was directed at ME!!!!
Again, I don’t blame her one bit. If I were in her shoes, I would’ve acted the same way or worse. In the end, I got CHEWED OUT by Oprah.
We fixed the microphone and continued on with the interview. The rest of the day went smoothly.
I had a two-hour drive back to my hotel room in Charleston, where I would be leaving from the next morning. In that part of the country there was no cell phone coverage for the entire two-hour drive. I wanted to call my wife or the guys in the audio department back at Harpo Studios or someone, anyone. It was two hours of complete silence reliving that moment. The entire trip I was thinking, how could this happen?? The Oprah crew will never hire me again! Now I need to find a new client to replace the work that I USED to do for Oprah because they will never ask me to work with her again. I can’t believe that happened to me!!!!!! My career is OVER. It was two hours of torment.
We sent the recordings back to Harpo Studios in Chicago. I called guys in the audio department and told them what had happened, explained the solutions that we created while we were on-site, and how we tried to document the whole scenario so that they could go back, fix the audio, and try to re-create the situation.
The next few weeks I kept thinking to myself, “there is no way on earth I am ever working for Oprah again. She is upset at me and rightfully so”. Unfortunately, it was equipment failure, but there was nothing I could do about it. I was heartbroken and distraught. I felt SO bad that this happened on my show while I was working for her.
The way it worked at the Oprah Show was that they record every camera and every microphone for every show, then go back and re-edit for content as well as time. Sometimes interviews would go LONG, and they would have to trim them down to make them fit the appropriate time.
The show finally aired a couple weeks later, and they were able to go in and fix the bad audio recording and re-create the interview. In typical Oprah fashion, she was again, the ultimate professional, and that show looked great!
Fast-forward a couple months. OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) was on THE AIR, and they started running stories of what happened behind the scenes. Remember, there was that backstage crew there in West Virginia for the interview. That backstage crew was videotaping all the behind-the-scenes stuff, including the point where the executive producer interrupts Oprah during the interview.
The OWN network aired a show of the “top 10 things that have gotten Oprah upset behind the scenes.” These were things that never made air.
I was out working a sporting event somewhere and I got a panicked call from my wife, Marcy. “Is that you?”
I responded, “Uh, yeah. Why?”
She continued, “No, that thing… remember that thing in West Virginia, with Oprah?”
“Yes, I remember. Why?” I curiously asked back.
“Well, you are on the show! They did this backstage show, and you made it.” Fortunately, my lovely wife recorded that show, and I was able to go back and watch it later.
After 25 years on the air, and of all of the things that had ever happened to Oprah, here was a show of the top 10 things that had gone wrong, and I was NUMBER FIVE.
For me, it was gut wrenching to watch that show.
A few more months passed, but I was thrilled to get a call from the guys in the audio department at Harpo Studios to come work her second-to-final show at the United Center in Chicago.
It seemed that every superstar that had ever been on Oprah or had performed on her show, came to give some sort of tribute to her.
It was outstanding, incredible, amazing, and it was, by far, the biggest and the best show I have ever worked.
Superstars included Tom Hanks, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Josh Grogan, Alicia Keys, Michael Jordan, and many more. The list of superstars was stunning, to say the least. I am very grateful to all those folks at Harpo Studios and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” for allowing me to work on that show, especially after that big incident in West Virginia. My lovely wife, Marcy, and mother-in-law, Sharon, were honored to get tickets and were in the audience for that amazing experience.
If you were one of the crewmembers on that show, we would love to hear your side of story. Again, these stories are from my perspective. There are many people on the crew, and each member will have a slightly different perspective of what happened at the event. We would love to hear your side of the story—specifically something that happened to you, so please post your story on our blog:
This story was written in January 2016 when Donald Trump was heavily campaigning to become the President of the United States. Even Donald Trump didn’t like it when the microphone doesn’t work. Please check out this article on Finance.Yahoo.com –
“Real-estate tycoon Donald Trump blasted the unnamed “bastard” responsible for setting up a faulty sound system” http://finance.yahoo.com/news/donald-trump-rips-son-b-025535531.html