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Tavis Smiley

PBS's Tavis Smiley looks forward to a new season of diversity

By Lynn Elber
The Associated Press

January 11, 2005

As Tavis Smiley begins the second season of his PBS talk show, his guest list isn't lacking for high-profile personalities.

In the first week, actors John Travolta, Don Cheadle and Kevin Bacon, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and writer Christopher Hitchens are among those scheduled on Tavis Smiley.

But for Smiley, the public television series is just one forum -- and, to hear him tell it, maybe not even the most important.

Spurred in part by his new relationship with Texas Southern University, where he helped fund a new media studies center, Smiley said he intends to focus on journalism students and what he can teach them.

Part of the lesson, he said, is to prepare for a changing society.

"Somebody has got to talk to this next generation of journalists to let them know of the responsibility they have in this multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America," he said.

In a competitive world "they've got to have relationships and appreciation for communities of color and people who live there," Smiley said.

That insight is lacking in the news and entertainment industries, he contends, as exemplified by the hiring of Brian Williams and Craig Ferguson, two white men, to replace two other white men (anchor Tom Brokaw and talk-show host Craig Kilborn, respectively).

The failure to seriously consider and hire women or minorities for such jobs is "wanton hubris," he argued, and something that will ultimately prove costly.

"Television programmers will eventually see the light or feel the heat. Clearly, many of them are going to have to feel the heat" of shrinking viewership in an increasingly diverse America, Smiley said.

For Smiley, 2004 generated heat in unexpected ways.

A disheartening and "painful" event, he said, was his decision to leave his National Public Radio daytime talk show.

Smiley, who three years ago became host of NPR's first black-oriented show, alleged NPR didn't make his renewal a priority and failed to live up to promises to expand marketing efforts.

The show started on 16 stations and was reaching more than 80 when Smiley exited in December; it attracted the same kind of multiethnic, upscale and educated audience he draws to PBS.

Smiley stood out among NPR hosts with his dynamic baritone and topics aimed at minorities as well as whites. But many in the black community remained unaware of his show because NPR itself isn't on their radar, Smiley said.

"At the end of three years, they still would not commit to outreach this program to those underserved communities, people who could appreciate and be empowered by NPR but are unaware of it," he said.

The experience made him question NPR's commitment to diversity, Smiley said.

NPR was eager to renew his show and remains intent on expanding its minority audience, responded spokesman David Umansky. But as a nonprofit that focuses on production and last year spent only $165,000 on marketing, he said, NPR couldn't meet what Umansky alleges was a $3 million demand for promotion.

Negotiations were under way for a series with Ed Gordon, a former Smiley colleague at Black Entertainment Television, when Smiley left, Umansky said. News & Notes With Ed Gordon will debut in late January.

Smiley's absence from a daily radio gig may be brief. He said he's weighing offers for a new show that he expects to be heard nationally -- and maybe even on public radio stations, whose programming decisions are independent of NPR.

That, he said, would be "an interesting twist."

Copyright Ā 2005, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Copyright © 2002, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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