Tavis Smiley and Public Radio: Sounding Off for Change That's More Than Skin Deep

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 30, 2006

Tavis Smiley grew up in a largely white community in Indiana. His friends were almost all white. He went to Indiana University, a predominantly white college. Yet Smiley, a radio and TV host and best-selling author who came to fame through his nightly talk show on Black Entertainment Television, was elected high school class president and voted most likely to succeed.

"I do not accept the notion that there has to be a racial divide," Smiley says. "I'm not scared of these white people." So when his success on "BET Tonight" led National Public Radio to offer Smiley a daily talk show, he jumped at the chance to change the complexion of public radio's overwhelmingly white audience.

But "The Tavis Smiley Show" lasted only three years. In 2004, NPR let Smiley go after a dispute over marketing. Smiley wanted the network to advertise his program widely; NPR contended it simply didn't have the resources to do that.

Smiley says race, however, was at the core of the breakup. "I'm loud, I laugh loud, I was younger than what they're used to, and certainly blacker," he says. "Everything about my personal aesthetic was antithetical to public radio."

Smiley, 41, drops into a stereotypical public radio announcer's voice -- soft, mellow and mellifluous -- to illustrate the difference between what public radio listeners expect and what he offers.

But then Smiley laughs, because despite his clash with expectations and executives at NPR, he is back on public radio, through NPR's competing program provider Public Radio International. Smiley's new two-hour weekly show, heard Sundays at 2 p.m. on WETA (90.9 FM), continues his effort to push public radio beyond its comfort zone.

"It's not all that unusual for elites to want to have their own place," Smiley says. "It's not unusual for elites to engage in monologue. When you turn on NPR, you know what you're going to hear. This thing called public radio is a club, and they're not trying to let everybody in."

Public radio executives strongly disagree.

"Mr. Smiley is a smart man," NPR spokesman Andi Sporkin says, "so one would assume that he'd done his homework before joining NPR and understood that . . . NPR and public radio overall do speak to a very diverse audience and don't have TV-level budgets for marketing or advertising of any individual show. Given his concerns, we're frankly surprised he's remained in public broadcasting."

NPR has added Ed Gordon's "News & Notes," a daily hour of news and talk focusing on, as NPR puts it, "concerns of interest to African Americans today." The show airs on WETA daily at 11 a.m. and on WAMU (88.5) at 2 a.m.

Yes, 2 a.m.

Which happens to be the same convenient hour when WAMU broadcast Smiley's old NPR show.

"WAMU is a four-letter word to me, literally and figuratively," Smiley says. "It was elitist. This is Chocolate City and you're telling me you don't have room for [me], the only national voice of color on public radio?"

Then and now, WAMU has had a local daily talk show hosted by Kojo Nnamdi, who is black, but as station General Manager Caryn Mathes notes, the goal of the station is not to attract minority audiences by giving them their own program. Rather, the idea is to make all programming attractive to anyone.

"Developing discrete shows for specific audiences is not the way to go," Mathes says. "Public radio is for anybody who's interested in how we are more alike than we are different."

Mathes, who was not at WAMU when Smiley's old show was around, says Smiley has misread public radio's motivations. "If I could talk to Tavis one on one, I'd tell him: 'Don't feel dissed. It's not a sign of lack of respect for your show. It's a lack of marketing resources and a basic reluctance to add new programming. We are so listener gift-dependent that you just don't want to tamper with the apple cart.' "

WAMU's audience is about 15 percent minority -- unusually high for public radio, yet not close to representing the Washington area's population mix.

For many years, public radio executives have studied the makeup of their audience and concluded that its single most defining characteristic is college education. Yes, public radio listeners tend to be more affluent and whiter than the general population, but college was the primary shared experience among public radio listeners. Consultants advising programmers on how to shape their stations blame the audience's lack of racial diversity on "longstanding educational inequities."

Whatever the cause of the divide, more and more public stations are trying to broaden their mix of listeners. That's part of the thinking behind WETA's new format; the station dropped classical music last year and moved to a news-and-talk mix with many of the same programs that WAMU airs, but with the addition of some shows aimed at drawing racial minorities and foreign-born listeners.

Smiley is trying to support that effort by paying extra attention to his Washington affiliate. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles-based host came to the District to broadcast a special all-jazz edition of his show from the Smithsonian's American History Museum.

"I want to get the word out to black folk that there's finally something on public radio for you," Smiley says. "Most black people have never heard of NPR. Unless you market and advertise, I am never going to reach the massive numbers of black and brown people who don't listen."

But Smiley is also eager to reach traditional public radio listeners. "They're more educated, they make more money, and they're mostly white. So you'd think they'd realize the way to be more enlightened is to be exposed to different ideas. So I have Republicans and conservatives on all the time. When I speak with Colin Powell, it's going to be a different conversation than he has with [NPR "Morning Edition" host] Renée Montagne."

Will Smiley's second attempt at changing the tone of public radio work out better than the first? So far, his show has been picked up by 65 stations, almost as many outlets as his NPR program had. But a weekly show isn't likely to have nearly the impact of a daily program.

Still, Smiley says, "It's all about taking some risks. We still have a Balkanization thing going on in this country: 'Tavis is our Negro programming.' But this is something that should be done for everyone, black or white. It's called broadcasting, after all, not narrowcasting. As my grandmother would say, 'It's too much like right.' "

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