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Tavis Smiley talks, more people are listening

By Lynn Elber The Associated Press
Tuesday June 25, 2002

LOS ANGELES — Word by word, one outlet after another, Tavis Smiley is building an empire of talk. 

He’s talking on radio: “The Tavis Smiley Show” launched in January on National Public Radio and is heard on a growing number of stations. He’s a regular on “The Tom Joyner Morning Show” and has his own “The Smiley Report,” both nationally syndicated. 

He’s talking on television: Smiley appears regularly on CNN’s “Inside Politics” and “TalkBack Live” and on ABC’s “Primetime Thursday” and “Good Morning America.” He has a deal with Disney for a syndicated talk show. 

He’s talking to readers: He’s written and edited books, including “How to Make Black America Better,” and publishes “The Smiley Report,” a quarterly magazine. 

Through his nonprofit Tavis Smiley Foundation, which includes a Web site, conferences and newsletter, he’s talking to young people. 

Just what does Smiley have to gab about? Anything and everything that grabs him, with an emphasis on issues that touch the lives of black Americans. 

But let him tell it. Even after starting at 3 a.m. for his NPR show’s East Coast airing, even with giveaway dark circles under his eyes, Smiley launches into an energetic job description for a visitor to his Los Angeles offices. 

“Enlighten, encourage, empower people” is the goal, says Smiley. His rush of words has a preacher’s cadence, testimony to the hours he spent in church in Kokomo, Ind., where his mother is a minister. 

The pulpit that Smiley, 37, has found for himself requires that he balance his dual roles as journalist and commentator, as well as his two audiences: black listeners and listeners in general. 

His public radio newsmagazine, for instance, is NPR’s effort to meet the needs of about 38 black-oriented stations, many of which are connected to traditionally black colleges such as Morgan State University in Maryland. 

NPR had long been contemplating such a venture. They snapped up Smiley after he left his Black Entertainment Television talk show in a dispute over an interview he sold to ABC (“a godsend” is how Smiley describes his departure). 

Smiley has quickly become a valuable part of NPR, said the network’s president and chief executive officer Kevin Klose. 

“This man’s presence, his charm, his humor about life and his thoughtfulness about the human condition, in a universal sense, is immediately affecting to listeners,” Klose said. 

He added that Smiley has an impressive bank of sources. 

Among Smiley’s NPR reports: a look at whether diversity can be found in newsrooms, and how film depicts black-white “buddy” relationships. He has interviewed prominent blacks including basketball great Magic Johnson and Princeton professor Cornel West. 

While he refuses to dilute his show’s black perspective, Smiley says he wants to appeal to non-black listeners. Trying to include a variety of voices, he featured Microsoft magnate Bill Gates and former President Bill Clinton among his early guests. 

His newsmagazine is gaining ground beyond its black-station core, with NPR outlets in Seattle, Philadelphia and New York among those who have added it. 

(The show stumbled in Los Angeles. A station that was interrupting the popular “Morning Edition” to air Smiley dropped him because of viewer complaints. He is heard on KPCC, another NPR station in the area.) 

Smiley’s goal at NPR is to make news by breaking news, he said. His goal with his separate radio commentary is to stir things up. 

“What is it of all the issues I have in front of me that I could discuss? What are these black folk most likely not to hear if they don’t hear it from me?” he said he asks himself each day. 

Consider the recent indictment of singer R. Kelly on child pornography charges. Smiley’s approach to the story included a caution to listeners that Kelly “does not deserve a ’ghetto pass’ just because he’s black, like a get-out-of-jail-free card.” 

“I try to push stuff out there that makes us think,” said Smiley. 

His boldness has given him star status among black audiences: An uproar greeted his firing from BET. 

While Smiley reaches out to a new audience he can’t be accused of losing touch with his fan base. He lives and works in a largely black section of Los Angeles and not just, he says, because Beverly Hills was beyond his financial reach. 

To create a headquarters for his various enterprises, he took a dilapidated, graffiti-smeared building and transformed it into an elegant space filled with modern art and African artifacts (a design buff, Smiley picked the look himself). 

The office is a way to illustrate a point. “I wanted people in the community to see we could take what was old and ugly and fix it up,” he said. 

A valuable picture. But can it be worth more than a thousand words to Smiley? 

“One day when I was about 3 or 4, I was running my mouth at a family gathering,” he recounted. “My aunt said to me, ’Boy, do you ever shut up? Why do you talk so much?’ 

“I shot right back, ’Because I’ve got a lot to say.’ All these years later, I’ve still got a lot to say.”