Tavis Smiley has a knack for blunt talk, controversy

PBS host Tavis Smiley, right, during an interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton on 'Tavis Smiley Reports.' Smiley is marking his 10th year this month as host of his PBS talk show.
PBS host Tavis Smiley, right, during an interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton on 'Tavis Smiley Reports.' Smiley is marking his 10th year this month as host of his PBS talk show.

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.

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.

“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.

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).

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.

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.”

“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.