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A Different Voice - NPR

A Different Voice Comes to Public Radio


LOS ANGELES -- TAVIS SMILEY has a considerable talent for summing up the issues of the day, and recently — during a brief hole in his schedule at 6:30 a.m. — he did not disappoint.

"When Bob Edwards goes to work on any given day," he said, referring to the host of "Morning Edition," one of National Public Radio's two flagship news programs, "he does not have staff meetings in which he tries to determine whether the program he's doing is 'too white.' "

Mr. Smiley, 37, said this while sitting in his comfortable office in the building he bought a year and a half ago in the Leimert Park neighborhood of South Central Los Angeles. It's the home of many of Mr. Smiley's enterprises, including "The Tavis Smiley Show," NPR's newest news program and the first predominantly African-American-oriented series in the network's 33-year history.

"Every day at 6 a.m. we have a staff meeting," Mr. Smiley said. "And in them, one of our big concerns is finding a balance while maintaining the authentically black nature of the show. No other show on NPR has that burden except mine."

It's a burden Mr. Smiley can't escape, given the unusual circumstances of the program's birth: NPR created "The Tavis Smiley Show" in response to a campaign by public-radio stations at historically black colleges for more programs aimed at minority audiences.

"Why Tavis is so important," said Maxie C. Jackson III, acting general manager of WEAA-FM, owned by Morgan State University in Baltimore, "is that for the first time we're hearing the voices, thoughts and opinions of African-American intellectuals — and we're hearing these voices on a regular basis.

"And keep in mind that we are reaching an intelligent, highly cultured and civic-minded audience, which wants to hear a balanced debate as much as anyone."

The question of balance is one of several that hang over "The Tavis Smiley Show." How will the outspoken Mr. Smiley, whose political views start from the assumption that racism still permeates American society, fit in on NPR, where the appearance of an omniscient objectivity always seems to be the goal? More pragmatically, can Mr. Smiley — who has two book contracts; several other jobs on commercial radio and television; his own foundation and quarterly newsletter; a full speaking schedule; and promotional ties with companies from Wal-Mart to Microsoft — spare enough time for the program?

And finally, how well will an admittedly ambitious and restless man best known for being fired by the Black Entertainment Television cable channel in 2000 deal with NPR's famously slow-moving bureaucracy?

So far the results are positive. At last count "The Tavis Smiley Show," which has a $1.5 million annual budget, was being heard on 20 stations, including big-market outlets like WNYE-FM (91.5) and WNYC-AM (820) in New York and WHYY-FM (90.9) in Philadelphia, where it has a plum 8 p.m. spot following "Fresh Air." The majority of the stations carrying it, however, are stations at black colleges and universities. (It is also available on the Internet at

The program's mix is that of a typical newsmagazine: news, interviews, commentary and political debate, along with self-help, sports, pop culture and humor. The difference is in the voices carrying on the conversation.

The show's regular commentators and guests include Cornel West, the well-known professor of Afro-American studies who recently announced that he was leaving Harvard for Princeton (on the show's premiere episode, he talked about his strained relationship with Harvard's president; last week he discussed his departure); Michael Eric Dyson, the writer and professor of religious studies at DePaul University (who came down firmly on Yasir Arafat's side while discussing the Israeli-Palestinian crisis); and Constance Rice, a left-liberal Los Angeles-based civil rights lawyer (and cousin of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice) who split with some of her fellow feminists in advocating the right of Mike Tyson to obtain a boxing license.

Other guests have ranged from Senator John McCain, arguing that campaign reform would ultimately benefit black voters, to Al Sharpton to — two weeks before her Oscar victory — Halle Berry.

When it comes to more serious subjects, Mr. Smiley has so far maintained a neutral or, if anything, devil's advocate position. Ward Connerly, the black member of the University of California Board of Regents famous for leading the successful battle against affirmative action in admissions, has been a frequent guest on the show, espousing his conservative views on race relations and immigration.

"I find Tavis to be balanced and fair," Mr. Connerly said. "The times that I've been on I've had every opportunity to make the case for my position. I think he's good for public radio."

It took a long, cooperative effort to put Mr. Smiley's show on public radio. In the mid-1990's, alarmed by what they saw as an effort by NPR to save money, and to increase ratings and pledge revenue, by cutting back on programming that appealed mainly to minorities, representatives of 38 black-oriented stations banded together to lobby the network's hierarchy. Years of meetings, debates, surveys, studies, consultants, conference calls and proposals followed. In 2000 a new president and chief executive of NPR, Kevin Klose, was ready to kick the project into high gear. "As our discussions continued," Mr. Klose said, "it became clear we were headed toward a morning-drive-time-compatible, current affairs program." By March 2001, NPR was ready to hire a host for its new news show.

Loretta Rucker, a Brooklyn-based public radio consultant who served as a liaison between the station managers and NPR, said that other candidates, including the CNN correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault and the ABC anchor Derrick McGinty, had been discussed but that Mr. Smiley had been the unanimous choice. NPR proposed that the show be developed on a fast track in time for a March 2002 start. Mr. Smiley insisted on a start date of Jan. 7, which was met.

But then Mr. Smiley has always been in a hurry. The oldest of 10 children of a career Air Force master sergeant and a homemaker and part-time Pentecostal minister, he graduated from Indiana University and became an intern, then an aide, to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. At the age of 26 he ran for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council, finishing fourth in a field of 14.

To earn money until the next election, he began doing a one-minute daily commentary on KGFJ, a small black-owned station in Los Angeles. It was called "The Smiley Report," and he recruited the sponsors himself. From there he became a regular commentator on the local ABC radio and television affiliates.

In 1996 Mr. Smiley became the political commentator on "The Tom Joyner Morning Show," the nation's most widely syndicated black-oriented morning radio program. With Mr. Joyner he launched several crusades, including a boycott of the computer retailer CompUSA, which they accused of "red-lining" black publications from its advertising purchases; the company's president eventually went on Mr. Joyner's show and agreed to hire a black advertising agency. In another campaign, a blizzard of listeners' phone calls and faxes persuaded Christies to cancel an auction of slave-trade artifacts and instead donate the objects to a museum.

Mr. Smiley may temper his political and social views on his NPR show (and on ABC and CNN, which use him occasionally as a reporter.) But they're by no means hidden. His first book, published in 1996, was titled "Hard Left" and disputed, point by point, the Republican "Contract With America."

Mr. Smiley is also a powerful speaker. At a recent meeting of black journalists in Los Angeles, he mused aloud about the aftermath of Sept. 11, asking why "African-American teenagers in New York City should make heroes of the policemen who have harassed them and the fire department that wouldn't let their parents or grandparents join." He also suggested that some of the tactics the government has used in its search for terrorists, involving the arrest and open-ended imprisonment of suspects and material witnesses, might remain in place and be used to violate the civil rights of American minority groups.

Sentiments like these were much in evidence on "BET Tonight," the talk show Mr. Smiley had on Black Entertainment Television from September 1996 to March 2001. (Mr. Connerly stopped accepting invitations to "BET Tonight" after deciding that the playing field there was tilted against him.) Mr. Smiley was dismissed, he says, when he conducted an interview with the former Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara Jane Olson and sold it to ABC, after first offering it to BET and BET's corporate cousin, CBS. Whether there were other reasons — having to do with Mr. Smiley's growing popularity on the famously low-budget channel or with BET's purchase by the media giant Viacom — has been a matter of much debate among blacks.

In a news release at the time, the founder and chairman of BET, Robert L. Johnson, said he had made the decision for "a number of public and private concerns." "Recent actions by Mr. Smiley left us little recourse but to make this move," he added.

When discussing the firing during the speech to black journalists, Mr. Smiley's half-serious explanation was, "They feed pigeons and shoot eagles."

In April 2001 Mr. Smiley signed a one-year contract (his preference on all projects) with NPR. He also signed deals to be a contributor to ABC's "Prime Time" and "Good Morning America" and USA Today's Weekend magazine — and he plans to continue appearing on the Tom Joyner show and doing a daily one-minute commentary for "urban" stations on the ABC radio network.

Mr. Smiley also speaks regularly at seminars, many of which he organizes, and he plays host to a series of "Blacks in Technology" conferences organized by his company, the Smiley Group, and sponsored by several major corporations, including Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard. One thing that makes this seemingly superhuman pace possible is that he can conduct interviews and record introductions and segues from any NPR station. A veteran NPR commentator, Karen Grigsby Bates, serves as his substitute host on Fridays.

Mr. Smiley also has a deal with Disney's Buena Vista Television to star in a syndicated late-night show talk beginning this fall. All of which means that it is highly unlikely that Mr. Smiley will ever, like his colleague Bob Edwards, celebrate his 22nd anniversary with NPR.

So listeners may have to tune in quickly to catch him in this singular forum. For the white listeners who may have missed him on "The Tom Joyner Morning Show" or BET, but may find him on NPR, Mr. Smiley has a message.

"This is Tavis Smiley's NPR guarantee to white people," he says with a wry smile. "If you listen to my show, I can guarantee you three things. One, you are going to hear stuff you won't hear anywhere else on NPR. Two, when you go to a dinner party tonight, you'll be the only one who'll be able to raise and be well-versed on the subjects we've covered. And three, you'll become a lot more hip."   

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