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It's Tavis Smiley's show

From podcasts to PBS, the TV and radio personality, author and speaker is everywhere.

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published November 19, 2006


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Tavis Smiley the TV show airs weeknights at 11:30 on WUSF-Ch. 16. Public Radio International's Tavis Smiley Show is not broadcast locally but is available as a podcast at www.tavistalks.com.

Tavis Smiley is having a moment. And it's a long one.

It got a big start in April, when his collection of experts' plans for saving black communities, The Covenant With Black America, hit the top of the New York Times bestseller list.

Now it's continuing with the reception for his 10th book, What I Know for Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America. Smiley's memoir about growing up black and poor in rural Kokomo, Ind., shipped 60,000 copies in its initial printing last month.

There's more: a half-hour, nightly PBS program, Tavis Smiley; a two-hour weekly public radio program, The Tavis Smiley Show; his twice-weekly appearances on commercial radio's popular Tom Joyner Morning Show; and the more than 80 personal appearances he has made across the country this year.

The only thing more remarkable than the grueling pace required to fill all these jobs is what unites them: Brand Smiley.

That's what Smiley has called the media image he has created. Based on his trusted connection with America's black communities, Smiley's brand turns on his status as both activist and journalist. He exposes and discusses the problems faced by African-Americans even as he suggests possible solutions.

"I read an article that suggested I was ushering in a new era in black politics where communicators directly and dramatically impact the political process," said Smiley, 42, during an interview earlier this year.

"We think of communicators as covering the story, not creating the story. . . . We've created a new paradigm . . . birthed a new conversation about what leadership is in our communities. And it is a moment which must be maximized."

Adjusting the script

In some ways, Smiley's achievements follow a well-worn path. Martha Stewart built a media empire as the voice of high-class domesticity. Oprah Winfrey improved on Stewart's strategies to craft a brand based on spirituality, glamor and wish fulfillment stretching across TV, film, magazines, books and satellite radio.

But these moguls operate mostly in the for-profit entertainment world. Smiley earned Black Enterprise magazine's label as "one of black America's biggest multimedia brands" by leveraging a network of outlets that includes the nonprofit world of public broadcasting.

And his role shifts, depending on where he appears. One moment, he's in quasijournalism mode, scoring a buzzed-about interview with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez; the next, he's leading town hall meetings on strategies from The Covenant.

Looking for a leader

Smiley's biggest asset - the trust of America's black communities - lets him focus buying power and attention on the projects he highlights.

"Because (something) has my name on it, folks will at least pick it up and read it," he said. "I have developed a relationship with black people built on integrity and trust . . . (and) my personal model is to never betray that trust."

That message resonates with fans hungry for a champion to promote their perspective and goals.

"Everybody wants to know how we can get to the next level as African-Americans . . . and people are drawn to that," said Felecia Wintons, owner of the black-focused store Books for Thought in Temple Terrace. "He still centers around what's best for the community . . . that's what makes people believe in what he's saying and support him in whatever he does."

Critics say Smiley's ego and eagerness to glad-hand superstar buddies such as noted Princeton professor Cornel West can hamper his interviews.

Others have questioned his ties to mega-retailer Wal-Mart, which underwrites his TV show, wondering whether an advocate for social justice should align himself with a company accused of underpaying and overworking low-level employees.

Smiley shrugs off the criticism, even as he insists he has no master plan.

"If you're on radio, people say 'Why aren't you on television?' " he said. "I have never auditioned . . . My whole career has come from people offering me things."

Control of the product

A former aide to then Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, Smiley got his national TV break when he began hosting the evening interview show BET Tonight in 1996.

In What I Know for Sure, he writes that he clashed personally with Black Entertainment Television founder Bob Johnson, who fired him in 2001 for selling an interview to ABC News. He followed that gig with a show at National Public Radio, which he has said he left in 2004 over its failure to adequately promote his program.

Smiley says it wasn't part of his plan, but both departures eventually allowed him to create public TV and radio shows he owns outright. He presents the programs to Public Radio International and PBS for distribution.

Adam Clayton Powell III, a former vice president of news at NPR, calls it the Bill Moyers model.

Referencing the longtime documentarian's deal with PBS, Powell noted how Moyers set up his own company to obtain financing for his TV projects, ensuring that he owned the end result and controlled the content.

"What Tavis has done is . . . (build) a franchise as an activist," said Powell, who now directs the Integrated Media Systems Center at the University of Southern California. "He's every (bit as much) a franchise as McDonald's.

"But when Tavis is on public radio or on public television, he has always incorporated his activism, which is precisely what made it problematic for a venue he did not control."

Powell, who is black, had hoped to help a half-dozen or so broadcasters of color develop similar products for the public broadcasting system. But Smiley is the only one who has fully implemented the idea - right down to offering podcasts of his radio show, "empowerment cards" with inspirational sayings printed by his own publishing house, and more.

"What Tavis realized early on, is he has the . . . ultimate brand: himself," Powell said. "You don't have to have a channel or a network, all you have to have is Tavis. If people want to see him or listen to him, the technology is there to put him on any number of platforms."

Aiming high

Smiley, who says most of his income comes from speaking fees and book sales, maintains he could make a much more lucrative living in commercial broadcasting or with giant-sized endorsement deals.

According to the profile featured by the agency Black Speakers Online, Smiley's fee ranges from $30,000 to $45,000 per speech - though he often gives speeches for free.

Smiley's charitable foundation aimed at developing young black leaders took in more than $2.7-million between 2002 and 2004, according to federal tax records. And his array of companies - which include TS Media, Smiley Radio Properties and Smiley Books - all operate from a 6,000-square-foot office building he owns in South Central Los Angeles.

The personal story in What I Know for Sure foreshadows some elements of Smiley's current life: a drive for personal success born of growing up as one of 10 kids in a trailer on an Air Force base. A sensitivity to race issues sparked by his mostly white, rural Indiana hometown. A moral sense forged in the constant church involvement demanded by his mother.

Smiley has even bigger plans for the future, including a huge observance of the 400th anniversary next year of the first English settlement in Jamestown, Va., where black Africans were brought to the New World as involuntary laborers. He also plans two town hall-style forums for Democrats and Republicans to discuss issues raised by The Covenant before the 2008 elections.

"I do public radio because commercial radio doesn't inspire deep dialogue," he said. "I like working a subject without a bunch of commercial interruption and I like not having to talk about something that is titillating, just because your commercial bosses know that will make people tune in."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.

[Last modified November 18, 2006, 22:34:34]


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