PHIL DONAHUE, THE first talk-show host to invite the audience into the act, is calling it quits. It's hard to remember now amid all the cacophony, but Donahue was a pioneer. Until the mid-'80s, his was the only talk-back show on television, a mixture of earnest public-affairs chat with the strange-but-true confessions of ordinary women who loved too much. Unfortunately for Phil, his format was easily copied. Oprah, his first national competitor, knocked him off his top-rated perch in 1987.
"Donahue" has been on a steady ratings slide. as ever-sleazier imitators glutted the airwaves. Last year Donahue lost his New York outlet and was due to disappear in Los Angeles and San Francisco, too. After more than 6,000 programs Donahue was, a spokesman said last week, too "emotional" to talk to the press. For a man who interviewed presidents and prostitutes with equal curiosity and bluntness, it was a rare moment of silence.
In 29 years of broadcasting, Donahue won 20 Emmys plus a Peabody award. He broke new ground in television syndication; at the height of his popularity he was seen in more than 200 markets. Dona-hue insisted that what he did was journalism, not just entertainment, and in 1981 he won a ruling from the FCC declaring "Donahue" to be a "bona fide news program."
Boyish-looking even after his hair turned vanilla, Dona-hue brought a wide-eyed Midwestern charm and a slight lisp to the talk-TV format. Trailing his microphone cord, he would confront guests with questions from the studio audience, often mugging in pained response. With a following mostly of morns, Donahue became a feminist even before his marriage to actress Marlo Thomas, whom he met on his show. In recent years. Donahue, now 60, seemed almost bored on camera. But his face. billboard-high, still grins over Broadway. You've come a long way from Dayton, baby.