Tavis Smiley's tightrope

So what’s the big deal about Tavis Smiley?

The man gets fired from his commentator slot on Black Entertainment Television in March 2001. Outrage spews forth from the black community. One year later Smiley is hosting “The Tavis Smiley Show,” an up-and-coming weekday program on National Public Radio. Smiley is a hot, new flavor in the media marketplace.

That Smiley is an outspoken African-American who rarely shies from a controversy, especially if it involves race, has drawn more than a little attention. Anyone who listens to Smiley’s regularly featured political commentary on the “Tom Joyner Morning Show” — a program staple since 1996 — knows that he would never characterize himself as a commentator who “happens to be black.”

Smiley is aggressively black. He puts his blackness front and center in his marketing approach.

Smiley and Joyner joined forces several years ago to launch a boycott of CompUSA, claiming the computer retailer “red-lined” black publications, wouldn’t advertise in them. The company’s president eventually went on the show and agreed to hire a black-owned advertising agency. Joyner and Smiley also teamed up to encourage listeners to swamp Christie’s auction house with calls to cancel an auction of slave-trade artifacts and instead donate the items to a museum. Christie’s complied.

More recently, during a speech to the National Association of Black Journalists, Smiley asked why black teens in New York were supposed to now idolize “the policemen who harassed them and the fire department that wouldn’t let their parents or grandparents join” just because of their widely reported acts of bravery on 9-11.

That explains why his show should do well in his 9 a.m. slot on WDET-FM in Detroit, a city that is more than 80 percent black. But how does that explain the response his show is getting in markets across the country, many of them in predominantly white locations such as Idaho? How does it explain why NPR hired this guy as a nationally syndicated talk show host — and the first African-American to host his own NPR talk show?

My answer would be that it’s because Smiley is as aggressively media-savvy on NPR as he is aggressively black during his fire-breathing commentaries for Joyner. He knows how to turn down the volume for a mainstream audience to reap maximum exposure.

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. Thanks to his regular appearances on the “Tom Joyner Show,” with nearly 7 million listeners nationwide, and the well-publicized drama of his firing from BET — where he hosted “BET Tonight” for four-plus years — Smiley is a well-known quantity with an established base of listeners and supporters.

There’s no mistaking that Smiley is anxious to put a “black spin” on the subjects he discusses. Sometimes he does that simply by injecting black slang into his speech. Other times he achieves the same result by calling on a noticeably different panel — and complexion — of “experts” than are heard from on most mainstream talk shows.

But just as much as Smiley wants to put his version of the black agenda out there, he also very much wants to heard by as many folks as he possibly can. Smiley is not one of those ideological purists who takes a perverse pride in a small audience as testament to righteousness. Last week when he was in Detroit as part of a nationwide publicity tour, he was noticeably excited that 50 local markets “and counting” have picked up his show.

“I know they’re all breathing a deep sigh of relief now,” he said, adding that the big question on everyone’s mind was “Will white folks like him?”

This is something that his white peers don’t have to worry about. Not only do they not have to worry whether white folks will like them, but it isn’t really that big a deal if black folks don’t.

The secret of the Smiley formula seems to be in the topical mix. Unlike his take-no-prisoner social and political commentaries, Smiley’s show doesn’t seem as intent on provocation as it does on broadening the bounds of public radio education. He can hold discussions about war with Iraq, interview celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, and feature pieces spotlighting musicians and artists all during the same hour.

While the black approach is still there (how could it not be?), Smiley has created a show that appeals to NPR-type listeners because it’s informative on a wide variety of issues at the same time that it broadens NPR’s reach to folks who will now tune in because “Tavis is on.”

Is he pulling punches to placate a more mainstream audience? To a degree I suppose he has to. He’s got a tough balancing act. There’s no way a black radical will ever build a nationwide NPR following, so Smiley changed course and set sail for the Big Picture, meaning bigger market share. I can’t fault the man for that choice. You can’t broaden many horizons if you’re not on the air.


Dear Jennifer Granholm;

What exactly is up with you and the reparations issue?

If you want to backtrack on previous statements you made implying that you believe reparations are owed to African-Americans for the three centuries of free labor, then say that and say it clearly. Be honest about it.

On the other hand, if you prefer to stand by what you now seem to be saying you never said, then you need to be honest about that.

But whatever you do, please stop running those simple-minded TV ads that water down what reparations is all about so you can dance on both sides of the fence. Contrary to what you say in your ad, reparations is not simply about “equal opportunity for all.” This is not a civil rights issue. Reparations is about the money, and it is about making good on a debt owed to African-Americans. You can either agree with the reparations issue or despise it, but please don’t dress it all up pretty and safe so that you can pervert a very important, very complex issue to suit your own needs — or to save your own rear end.

Keith A Owens is a Detroit-area freelance writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]