Empowerment Zone Travis Smiley fuses brilliance, charisma and the lessons of a tough childhood into a call for action on the airwaves.


Tavis Smiley is anxious.

He's on a plane flying from Los Angeles to Dulles Airport, and the plane is an hour late.

Smiley simply can't be late. He is the host of an 11 p.m. talk show that is broadcast live across the country. No Smiley. No show. Big trouble.

"Everyone was sweating that one," says Smiley, who, 10 hours later, is looking supremely at ease as he sips an apple juice in the dining room of the Washington hotel he lives in while in town.

He did make it in time to sit in the host chair, conduct an interview with Pentecostal Bishop T. D. Jakes and take on-air telephone calls. The show is called "BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley." A mix of politics and entertainment, it is only part of who Smiley is.

Besides doing the BET gig, Smiley is a hugely popular commentator on the nationally syndicated "Tom Joyner Radio Show." Heard locally in the mornings on WHUR-FM (96.3), the show has a primarily African-American audience of about 5 million, plays top hits and includes a cast of characters including Joyner, Smiley and comedian J. Anthony Brown.

When the radio show goes on the road, hundreds of audience members -- OK, mostly female audience members -- scream "Tavis, Tavis, Tavis!"

Part of Smiley's gift, say the people who know him, is getting people excited over politics in a down-home way they can relate to.

His take on the "R" -- as in racism -- word on one of his radio commentaries: "There are times when we get a little footloose and careless throwing the 'R' word at random. We would do well to remember that the 'R' word can make like a boomerang and come back to bite you in the behind."

And on Hollywood:

"Will somebody tell me what Samuel L. Jackson has to do to get nominated for an Oscar? We all know they played Jackson in 1994 opposite John Travolta in 'Pulp Fiction.' Gave him a nomination for best supporting actor, when he was on screen more than John Travolta. And I love John Travolta, but how you going to play Samuel L. Jackson?"

Smiley has written three books, all political commentaries. The latest is "The Best of Tavis Smiley" (Pines One Publication, 1998), a collection of commentaries from the radio show. Part of the proceeds goes toward a scholarship fund for students at historically black colleges.

He is a sought-after speaker. He's a guest commentator on CNN and CNBC. In 1994, Time magazine selected him as one of America's 50 most promising young people, along with Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey.

Smiley declines to disclose what he earns from his various enterprises. But it's been reported that it is somewhere just under the million-dollar mark -- and that was before the new BET contract he just signed.

He turns 34 Sunday.

Negotiations at BET, he confides, were a little rough, but he is happy things worked out.

So are the people at BET.

"Tavis is very bright, inquisitive and well-read," says Deborah Tang, the show's executive producer. "He's a good listener. And as a young man who is well-rounded, he makes a very good talk-show person."

There will be changes on the show, primarily its location. Half of the shows will be taped live from Washington; the other half will be live from Los Angeles. This lets Smiley spend more time at home.

"I live in L.A., and I really never wanted to do the show from Washington," says Smiley, who is 6 feet tall, single but dating. He is handsome with a direct gaze and a stocky build that he keeps in check by running and working out.

"Now that I have been in Washington, I appreciate having the show here," he says. "The show is about entertainment and empowerment. But empowerment turns me on the most, and Washington is a good place to be for that."

Two points to remember

Anybody who is the least bit familiar with Smiley understands these two things about him. He loves empowering people, and he respects his mama.

One of his opportunities for empowerment came when Christie's, the New York auction house, was scheduled to hold an auction of slave items. Smiley got wind of it. What really irked him was what he saw as unequal treatment: Christie's has a policy of not auctioning items related to the Holocaust. Instead, they are donated to museums and other educational institutions.

Smiley took to the airwaves on "The Tom Joyner Radio Show" to express his outrage.

His commentary that day was, in part: "Christie's has a house policy to not sell any paraphernalia related to the Holocaust. Now where, I ask, is the moral consistency here? How does an auction house decide to not sell paraphernalia from the Holocaust, a decision which I applaud, by the way, but instead decided that it's OK to sell slavery paraphernalia?"

Smiley implored his 5 million listeners to call Christie's to voice their feelings. He gave the telephone number -- twice -- on the air. The auction was set for the very next day.

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