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‘Windy City LIVE’ staff bravely move into ‘Oprah’ spot

“Give us chance let us represent Chicago” said Ryan Chiaverini. Valerie Warner looks forward fashisegments but personally “I’m divdime” she

“Give us a chance and let us represent Chicago,” said Ryan Chiaverini. Valerie Warner looks forward to fashion segments, but personally “I’m the diva on a dime,” she said. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times

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Updated: June 12, 2011 12:31AM

An opening in the Oprah Hour is a once-in-a-quarter-century kind of thing. So when WLS-Channel 7 announced that it was casting a local, live broadcast to fill the lucky 9 a.m. timeslot, it’s no surprise that there was an “American Idol”-worthy response.

After sifting through hundreds of tapes, Marlaine Selip, executive producer of “Windy City LIVE,” devised an “Idol”-style audition process. The top 40 finalists were thrown together to bond and get to know each other.

The out-of-towners all stayed at the same hotel; the station sprang for a pizza party. Over the next few days, the group passed the time together as the candidates, two by two, were called in to ad-lib in various combinations for five or six minutes.

In the end, the two left standing happened to be locals: Valerie Warner, a traffic reporter on WGN-Channel 9’s morning news, and Ryan Chiaverini, Channel 7’s weekend sports anchor.

“It was kind of like speed dating — a lot of it was about chemistry,” says Emily Barr, president and general manager of the station. “It was very intense.”

But like on “American Idol,” even if you don’t win, you get to go on tour. The Travel Channel’s Mark DeCarlo, who was part of the audition group, will be contributing regularly to the show. Another finalist, Roe Conn from WLS-AM (890), is reportedly close to signing on, too.

Billy Dec, club owner and all-around bon vivant, is on board. And Nina Chantele, of WGCI-FM (107.5) and WKSC-FM (103.5), has also been linked to “Windy City LIVE.”

It’s coincidence that they all have local ties. Even DeCarlo, of “Studs” and “Jimmy Neutron” fame, is originally from Downers Grove.

“We’re not replacing Oprah, because she’s not replaceable,” says Barr. And although the show seems like a throwback to the pre-Oprah “A.M. Chicago,” producers say they’re not trying to imitate any predecessors. If anything, they’re hoping for Chicago viewers to connect with “Windy City LIVE” the way New Yorkers do with “LIVE! With Regis & Kelly.”

“When I started with ‘The Phil Donahue Show’ so many years ago, a talk show meant there were three people on a stage that were talking for an hour,” says Selip. This will be closer to a variety show. DeCarlo will visit some of the city’s more colorful characters. There will be celebrity interviews, cooking segments, hot topics, and giveaways to both the studio audience and viewers at home.

“The morning is so hectic,” says Selip. “You’re running around and getting the kids off to school. But there’s that moment when you finally get to sit down and have your second cup of coffee. We want to be that second-cup-of-coffee show.”

“Windy City LIVE,” — debuting May 26, the day after Oprah’s farewell — will be “a local program that is a little bit of fun, a little bit of information, some entertainment,” says Barr. “You can laugh a little, then go on about your day.”

Chiaverini, their in-house find, is a native Californian who was based in Denver until moving to Chicago in 2006. His dad played hockey; his uncle fought Sugar Ray Leonard. His twin brother was in the NFL.

He has a knack for interviewing, says Barr: “When he did ‘The Chicago Huddle,’ he was so good at getting these football players to open up and talk. Ryan just has this very infectious glib quality that is very endearing, and he’s smart and relatable.”

He brings to the table his sports connections, as well as an eagerness to jam with Richard Marx on the guitar. One potentially troublesome quality: Chiaverini admits he has a “very selective” palate that could be challenged in the kitchen. “I’m not a sushi guy,” he says.

Expectations are high, but Chiaverini points out that it took time for “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to evolve. “Give us a chance and let us represent Chicago,” he says. “If I can put this in sports terms, Derrick Rose didn’t try to be Michael Jordan. He just tried to be Derrick Rose, and that worked for him.”

Still, for a show that is not replacing Oprah, the phrase “replacing Oprah” comes up an awful lot. “Yeah, it’s pressure!” says Warner.

The mother of two is from a family of educators in the south suburbs. Her grandmother, who goes by “Mother Dear,” was a P.E. teacher at DuSable High School. Her social worker mom was at DuSable at the same time.

“I’m like the mama bird,” says Warner, distinguishing herself from Chiaverini, “the young, hip stud muffin.”

Her dream guest would be President Obama or the first lady; she’d be equally happy with either one. Warner’s looking forward most to the fashion segments, although she swears Target is her favorite store. “I’m the diva on a dime,” she says. “I don’t have Oprah’s money!”

Once you meet Warner, says Barr, you feel like you’ve known her forever: “She came in and she was just so quick and funny and down to earth — it’s a very easy quality on the air.”

It’ll be hard for Chicagoans to move on after a 25-year love affair with Oprah, acknowledges Barr.

“We feel like we’re entering into a whole new relationship with our viewers, after a very long and wonderful relationship,” she says. “It takes time to develop relationships, and we recognizing that.

“We’re willing to put in the time, and we’re hoping they are too.”

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