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So What Do You Do, Gayle King, O Editor-at-Large and Sirius XM Host?

'I really don't feel that I'm standing in Oprah's shadow. I always feel that I am standing in Oprah's light'

By David Hirschman - November 25, 2009
To say that the media business is competitive is an understatement. After all, it's not easy to form true friendships with colleagues who are often angling for the same coveted few positions you are. But when Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King first worked together at a local news broadcast in Baltimore more than 30 years ago, the two bonded instantly.

As Winfrey went on to build up a massive media operation around her brand, including a magazine, book club, and now the nascent OWN cable network, King has supported her through it all. But she's more than just the talk show queen's confidante. The self-proclaimed "TV baby" earned old-fashioned broadcasting chops by working her way up as a reporter and anchor through various markets, and for the past decade she has been editor-at-large at O, The Oprah Magazine. Now that Winfrey has announced the end of her longtime show, might King make a return to daytime?

Name: Gayle King
Position: Editor-at-large, O, The Oprah Magazine; Sirius XM host
Hometown: Chevy Chase, Md.
Birthdate: Dec. 28, 1954
Education: University of Maryland undergrad
Resume: Started as a TV news production assistant at WJZ-TV in Baltimore, Md. Became a reporter trainee at WTOP-TV in Washington, D.C., and then moved to Kansas City, Mo., to be a reporter and weekend anchor at WDAF-TV. Moved to Hartford, Conn., in 1981 to anchor the nightly news broadcasts on WFSB-TV, where she stayed until 1999. Meanwhile, she co-hosted short-lived NBC daytime show Cover to Cover in 1991, and hosted The Gayle King Show from 1997 to 1998. Signed on as editor-at-large at O, The Oprah Magazine in 1999, and began her XM Sirius show in 2006.
First section of the Sunday New York Times: "I love the Style section. Then I go to 'Week in Review,' then to the front page."
Favorite TV show: Mad Men
Guilty pleasure: "Cupcakes -- preferably from Magnolia. Or Sprinkles."
Last book read: Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters, by Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger.
Twitter handle: @kinggayle

What were your goals when you first started out in TV, and has your career gone at all as you would have expected?
I majored in psychology, and I intended to either be a psychologist or go to law school. I never had any intentions of getting into television. But I ended up getting a job at a TV station -- an entry level position -- and from the moment I got into the newsroom, I was hooked on media and on TV news. I love the immediacy of it. I love that you're live every day. There was no looking back for me after that. Had I thought about it, I probably would have been more strategic. I was never strategic about it. It's always just sort of happened. That's the beauty of the media business: You can talk to 10 different people and get 10 different answers for how we got started. There is no, 'This is the way to do it.'

You and Oprah met as co-workers at WJZ-TV in Baltimore. How were you able to put aside the normal competitiveness of the media business and become one of her biggest supporters?
When we met, we were at two different levels. She was the anchorwoman and I was the production assistant/news writer. We became friends when we were 21 and 22, and now we're 54 and 55. Nobody, myself included, could have foreseen that she would become 'Oprah Winfrey, global media mogul/superstar.' We've both just progressed along the way. But I never feel in competition with Oprah... I really don't feel that I'm standing in Oprah's shadow. I always feel that I am standing in Oprah's light. And I am, by far, one of her biggest supporters. So it isn't hard for me. Oprah and I are very similar. We think alike, some people say we talk alike. But I don't think there is anyone who can do what she does.

"Hosting your own TV show, as we know, is more than a notion. But I would never say 'never' to any opportunity that comes my way."

Tell me a little about how you became editor-at-large at O.
Well, my background is TV. I'm definitely a TV baby. TV was my first love. I anchored the news in Kansas City and then anchored the news in Connecticut. I was about to sign a new contract after being there for 18 years... And just before I was about to re-sign, Oprah called me up and said she'd been approached by Hearst -- and Ellen Levine in particular, who she had a relationship with -- and Cathie Black had come and made a presentation to her at Harpo about starting a magazine. And she was calling me because she said they needed someone at the New York offices who really understood Oprah and her sensibilities, since Oprah had her show and couldn't be there on a day-to-day basis. She called me up to ask who I knew who could do that. She said, 'It's really funny, Ellen Levine suggested you, but I told her there's no way you'd do that.' And I said, 'No, I'd never leave TV for magazines. I don't know anything about magazines.' Then I went to bed that night, and I woke up the next morning, and I said, 'Let me see. What is it exactly?' And I called her back and asked, 'What is that job?' She said. 'I don't know -- you should go and meet with them.' So I came to New York and had a meeting with Ellen and a meeting with Cathie Black, and I realized very quickly that you really need someone who is on staff who really understands Oprah's motivation; her philosophies; her sensibilities; what would work for her and what wouldn't. I realized that I could play a role here, so I called her up and said, 'I think I'm going to do it.'

When I started [in] magazines, Oprah and I kid that we were like Stevie Wonder and Jose Feliciano -- literally it was the blind leading the blind. I mean, when we started out, Oprah said, 'We need to do something. There's too many ads in the magazine.' Or I would be in a meeting and someone would say TOC, and I would say, 'What's the TOC?' Duh, the table of contents. So we didn't even know the basics. But I like to think I've progressed quite a bit since then.

Our mission here at the magazine is "Live your best life." And those aren't just empty or shallow words to us. It really is a mantra and a philosophy that permeates through every single page of the magazine. I've had people come up to me and say, 'The thing I like about the magazine is that I read it and I don't feel bad about myself.' As opposed to other magazines where you look at things that you perceive to be unattainable -- whether it's your body or your finances or your place in life. I think people read our magazine and they feel infinitely better. Nothing thrills us more than for people to read an article and say, 'I never thought of it that way,' or, 'I'm thinking of it differently because of something that I read,' or, 'I'm encouraged by something that I read in the magazine.' It started out as "a personal growth guide," and I don't think that's changed so much. We really do meet women as they are.

Do you prefer working on the magazine to television at this point?
No, television is still my first love.... I'm a TV baby, and my training was in TV, but I realize the value of the magazine and I'm proud of the magazine, and we're going into our 10th year. A lot of magazines have come and gone in the time that we've been here.

Would you ever consider hosting your own TV show again?
I never say "never." But my schedule is really pretty damn good -- and I get to do TV, I get to do radio, and I get to do [the] magazine. Hosting your own TV show, as we know, is more than a notion. But I would never say "never" to any opportunity that comes my way. I just have to figure out if I'm interested, and does it fit with my lifestyle that I have now.

"I don't know what role I will play [at OWN], but I can tell you I want to play a role -- put that in capital letters, exclamation point... And they have made clear that they would want me to."

Tell me a little about the experience of hosting your Sirius XM show.
Well, I love it because it's live every day, and every day is a new show. There's no planning what can happen when you're in a live venue. People can call in and say the craziest things -- or they can say the most heartwarming and gratifying things. I base it off of daily news. To this day I am a news junkie, and so the show is really driven by what is going on in the news, or just my observations of life. I've interviewed a whole range of people, whether it's politics or music or food. I've done everybody from Bon Jovi, to Jay-Z, to Barack Obama and Michelle Obama during the campaign, to people who are just newsmakers, if something in the news catches my attention. So it's free-flowing.

What role, if any, are you going to be playing at Oprah's soon-to-launch OWN network, and what kind of programming do you think we can expect from it?
I don't know what role I will play, but I can tell you I want to play a role -- put that in capital letters, exclamation point. I definitely want to. And they have made clear that they would want me to play a role. So what exactly that will be, I don't know yet.

How involved were you in the decision-making process of Oprah deciding to end her talk show?
Oprah shared her thoughts with people she trusts, but at the end of the day, she made this decision on her own.

Oprah has expressed the idea of retiring before. Why do you think she chose now to finally do it?
I believe she said it best, when she addressed her audience saying, '25 years feels right in my bones, and it feels right in my spirit.' She knew it was the right time, and she's going out on top. She's very much at peace with her decision.

Oprah has said that she doesn't watch TV, and that she finds out about pop culture events through you. What news stories or TV shows are most intriguing to you right now?
I follow so many things. I'm big on Mad Men -- I love that show. And I love Curb Your Enthusiasm. Not a big reality TV person, although there are a couple that I watch. I have something that I like to watch every night of the week. Monday is Two and a Half Men, and I've just discovered Sherri Shepherd's show -- it's very funny. And I have such a big, wide range of stuff that I like. And I love the news -- I watch a lot of news magazine shows.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to get into media?
I always say to people that want to get in this business that you should find an entry-level position and glom onto somebody who is willing to help you -- and along the way you will always find somebody who is willing to take the time, because we all remember how we got started. Everybody has somebody who helped them along the way. I can always tell interns that are going to make it, because those are the ones that go above and beyond the call of duty.

David Hirschman is editor of's Daily Media Newsfeed.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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