Smiley's show on NPR gets auspicious start


Radio: The host's exclusive interview with scholar Cornel West gets wide exposure.

Television and Radio Column

January 09, 2002|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

Tavis Smiley has launched his new program on National Public Radio in style.

Smiley's debut show Monday featured a lengthy interview with Cornel West, the distinguished Harvard University professor who is in a public tangle with the university's new president.

After Harvard President Lawrence Summers' pointed inquiries about West's political activities, West and several of his colleagues issued a statement saying they would consider leaving the Cambridge, Mass., campus.

But Smiley was the first to interview West, and his remarks were excerpted on NPR's main newscasts and quoted widely elsewhere.

"This was not just a story that interested Cornel's fans - the legions of them - in the African-American community," Smiley said. "This was reported on the front pages of many of the nation's most notable newspapers. It was an exclusive that bridged both worlds."

Smiley's program can be heard locally weekdays at 7 a.m. on WEAA (88.9 FM), the public radio station of Morgan State University.

"What Tavis brings to the table is a national African-American perspective," said Maxie C. Jackson III, the station's general manager. "He alone has the contacts and the persona to bring all these voices to the table."

Jackson was a key mover in the drive to create the show by a consortium of public radio stations that primarily serve black listeners.

WEAA-FM draws one of the largest audiences of any black-oriented public radio station in the country, and its pre-eminence in jazz led it to be crowned as the nation's top jazz station in 1999 by a trade publication.

But Jackson said he wants to do more, particularly in the morning hours, to appeal to potential listeners.

"It's sort of a spotlight on the African-American intelligentsia," he said. Along with interviews of newsmakers, entertainers and business executives, the show will broadcast commentaries by leading academics such as West, Michael Eric Dyson of DePaul University, Harvard Law School's Charles Ogletree, former Spelman College President Johnetta Cole and Kimberly Crenshaw of UCLA.

Last March, Smiley was fired from his job as a host of a public affairs show at cable television channel BET after airing an exclusive interview on ABC. The move raised such an outcry that BET founder Robert Johnson appeared on the air live to defend the decision.

Smiley will continue his own work for CNN and ABC News, as well as his regular commentaries on Tom Joyner's program for ABC radio. But Smiley says his show is important for NPR.

"We have the opportunity to do for NPR what Arsenio Hall did in late-night television," Smiley said. "He brought his blackness with him every night. We are showcasing the kinds of voices that you do not hear routinely on NPR."

Meanwhile, Jackson is reshaping his own station's programming schedules. Longtime Baltimore political figure and journalist Anthony McCarthy - a former WEAA host on the local public affairs show First Edition - will headline the twice weekly talk show One to One With Anthony McCarthy. That program will be heard on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. And, along with its locally based music programs, Jackson said his station is now broadcasting four of NPR's five jazz programs.

In the cable world

A different kind of talk show - a very different talk show - can be expected from firebrand Alan Keyes on MSNBC. The one-time Reagan administration official, erstwhile Republican presidential and Senate candidate from Maryland has traded verbal assaults many times on his new employer's competitors, CNN and Fox News Channel.

Now, Alan Keyes Is Making Sense at 10 p.m. will replace an hour of taped shows on MSNBC, whose ratings lag behind CNN and Fox News. According to MSNBC spokesman Mark O'Connor, the addition of Keyes' provocative style is part of an effort to make the station more competitive. Now, instead of reformatted stories, MSNBC can offer a six-hour block of live television from 6 p.m. to midnight each night.

Meanwhile, the tangle between CNN and Fox News continues to bubble up into public view. Last week, Fox hired away liberal legal analyst Greta Van Susteren from CNN; Fox executives were outraged when CNN lured Paula Zahn away from Fox as host of a new morning show.

This week, Fox News tweaked CNN for an ad for Zahn that ran last weekend calling her "provocative, super-smart" and "just a little sexy." CNN officials fell all over themselves to get the embarrassing spot pulled, according to the network.

"Virtually every senior executive at CNN objected to it," said spokesman Matt Furman. "Describing a journalist - any journalist, but particularly one of Paula's stature - as `sexy' is inappropriate."

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