LOS ANGELES – Tavis Smiley has stood out in 20 years in broadcasting, and he has no intention of changing his style or substance.
He’s the rare Black host with national TV and radio platforms, one who sees his job as challenging Americans to examine their assumptions on such thorny issues as poverty, education, and racial and gender equality.
In other words, he doesn’t squander his opportunities on PBS’ daily talk show “Tavis Smiley,” which marks its 10th year this month, or on public radio’s “The Tavis Smiley Show” and “Smiley & West,” the latter a forum for commentary he shares with scholar and activist Cornel West.
His quarterly “Tavis Smiley Reports” specials for PBS, in-depth looks at topics such as the relationship between the juvenile justice system and the teenage dropout rate, fit the same bold pattern.
Smiley, marking two decades in broadcasting this year, considers himself engaged in a calling as much as a career: “This is the kind of work I think needs to be done. I’m trying to entertain and empower people.”
PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger was a public TV executive overseeing New York station WNET when she became interested in launching a Smiley talk show as a companion to “Charlie Rose.” The programs air back-to-back on a number of PBS stations.
“The two of them have very different styles. Tavis has done a great job of bringing a wide range of people on to public broadcasting,” Kerger said. “He’s constantly looking at the next big idea” to bring to the national dialogue.
Smiley, 48, also doesn’t shrink from the repercussions that occur when his opinions, delivered on radio and in interviews in his distinctively punchy cadence, strike a nerve. He has drawn the ire of conservatives and, because of his insistent criticism of President Barack Obama’s policies, that of some liberals and African-Americans.
Smiley contends that members of the Obama administration, whom he didn’t identify, have pressured sponsors to drop their support of his projects, including his anti-poverty initiatives. The White House had no comment, said a spokesman, Kevin Lewis.
While Smiley said he understands the desire of Blacks to stand protectively by the first African-American president, he’s adamant about his right to take Obama to task on rising Black unemployment, the use of military drones and other issues.
“This administration does not like to be criticized. And the irony of it is, there’s nothing I have tried to hold the president accountable on that my white progressive colleagues have not,” Smiley said. “They’re labeled courageous critics, but if I say it, I’m an `Obama critic.’ There’s race at play in the very question.”
He’s unlikely to find boosters on the right. National Review senior editor Jay Nordlinger in 2002 dismissed him as “the Black leftist radio personality,” and then-Fox News Channel commentator Glenn Beck spurred anti-Smiley letter-writing campaigns to PBS, Smiley said.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the PBS show’s underwriter since the start, has “consistently stood by our side,” said a Smiley spokeswoman. But others have dropped out or donated money to his projects on the condition of privacy because they’ve heard from a displeased White House, according to Smiley.
“I don’t have an anti-Barack agenda,” he said, “but this is what I do: My job is to raise questions of accountability.”
He interviewed Obama more than a half-dozen times before he was elected but not once since, Smiley said, although Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and others in the administration have appeared on the PBS show.
The public reaction is more generous, Smiley said: While he’s questioned on the street by people about his views on Obama, they give him the courtesy of a hearing _ and continue to pay heed in other ways.
“Since Obama has been president, I’ve had not one, but two, New York Times best-selling books, been on the cover of Time and made its 100 list,” the magazine’s tally of the world’s most influential people, in 2009, Smiley said.
The books are “The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto,” written with West, and an inspirational text by Iyanla Vanzant that was published by Smiley’s book imprint.
“Whether black or white America, people have their opinions … but ultimately it hasn’t stopped my work or momentum,” Smiley said.
He’s a popular keynote speaker for a wide range of events, including the upcoming unveiling of a monument to slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers (although one Peoria, Ill., event replaced him as speaker last year, reportedly related to his Obama stance).
The Indiana University graduate has received honorary degrees from universities including Tuskegee and Fisk, and he created an exhibition, “America I Am: The African American Imprint,” that wrapped this year after a national tour.
His Tavis Smiley Foundation provides leadership training for youngsters.
“He’s got a lot of energy, that man,” PBS’ Kerger said.
He also has a knack for controversy. In 2004, He left his first public radio show, on NPR, in a squabble over matters including its marketing budget.
He was fired from the “BET Tonight” talk show in 2001 after he offered an exclusive newsworthy interview to ABC instead of BET. There was speculation that new BET owner Viacom Inc. forced the decision, although BET founder Robert L. Johnson said it was his.
A commercial network talk-show job failed to materialize, but Smiley said he ultimately gained the advantage of producing and owning his PBS show. That’s also a challenge because he is responsible for its funding.
The recession prompted some of his sponsors to drop out, including an auto insurance company, said Smiley. He’s relatively candid about the financial issues he’s faced but, understandably, would rather focus on his broadcasting track record.
As Smiley said in 2003 when he launched the PBS show, “Most of the issues that matter to white Americans matter to black Americans.”
Smiley’s program aimed for diversity from the start, with his first week’s guest list including Bill Cosby, Wesley Clark, Newt Gingrich and Magic Johnson. His 10-year list also boasts, among others, former President Jimmy Carter, Coretta Scott King, Yo-Yo Ma, Toni Morrison and Prince.
Smiley welcomes celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie and Kanye West, but they have to be ready to talk about more than their latest projects.
When Harrison Ford was making the rounds to promote the new Jackie Robinson biopic, Smiley says his audience got something unique “because I’m the only black guy Harrison Ford is talking to.”
It’s a valid point in a genre dominated solely by white interviewers, including “Tonight” show host Jay Leno and his designated successor, Jimmy Fallon, and Fallon’s “Late Night” replacement, Seth Meyers.
“Things that matter to me about Robinson, what he had to endure. … My questions are going to be different than Jimmy Kimmel’s,” Smiley said. In his interview with Ford, he questioned the actor about whether Hollywood has a role in adding to American divisiveness.
Smiley speaks to an overwhelmingly white audience on his Public Radio International shows and on TV, and said he appreciates the opportunity to introduce them to a different perspective. Kerger said she looks forward to his “next 10 years” on public broadcasting.
So does Smiley, come what may.
“You’re going to be challenged when you address inconvenient truths. Sometimes you’re challenged with merit, sometimes without merit. I try to be authentic and be a truth-teller. I have no monopoly on the truth but can try to raise questions that get at the truth.”