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BILL RADKE: “The Oprah Winfrey Show” begins its final season today. The show’s been taped in Chicago for 25 years and Chicago Public Radio’s Tony Arnold reports the city is starting to contemplate the concept of life without Oprah.
TONY ARNOLD: There’s no question Oprah has had a sustained economic impact on Chicago. There are the 400 people she employs at her production studio. There are her retail stores. There’s all the tourism dollars her audience members spend. And, oh yeah, there’s the entire neighborhood she helped revitalize.
Ina Pinkney recalls what Chicago’s West Loop area used to look like.
INA PINKNEY: You would see all the hookers on Lake Street on Friday afternoon with the truckers coming by and it was a very unpleasant place to be.
Pinkney runs a restaurant just down the block from Oprah’s studios.
PINKNEY: The thing that has helped the most was Oprah. When Oprah came to this neighborhood, she really stabilized this neighborhood.
The West Loop is now home to dozens of Chicago’s hippest clubs, restaurants and art galleries. Oprah opened her studios there in 1990.
No study has ever been done on her precise economic impact, but University of Chicago economist Charlie Wheelan says that the annual amount is easily in the millions.
CHARLIE WHEELAN: At bottom, the most significant thing that Oprah did was to produce a show that people wanted to watch more than they wanted to do anything else for that hour that it was on. So at the end of the day, that’s the supreme accomplishment here and she did it for decades. That’s an enormous economic value.
Oprah and the show have also been a source of free marketing for Chicago. Her final episode isn’t until May — but Wheelan says, even without the show, Oprah’s Harpo studios can still be a regional hub for film and video production.
WHEELAN: One would hope that it would actually continue to have a relatively positive effect. That if you were in the Midwest and you were looking for a place where you needed to produce television, you needed to produce documentaries, you needed to cut film, that the existence of Harpo would be a reason that you would come and do it in Chicago.
Still, a Harpo spokeswoman says not all 400 employees will be kept on staff once the show ends. But details aren’t yet available.
In Chicago, I’m Tony Arnold for Marketplace