When Tavis Smiley does things, he does them big.
The talk show host's March 2001 dismissal from cable network BET prompted national headlines. Smiley regrouped the next year by launching a new program on, of all places, National Public Radio. Although his overtly political sensibility is not to every taste, The Tavis Smiley Show has enjoyed stirring success in drawing new listeners to more than 60 stations in major cities.
"The miracle here is that public radio is overwhelmingly listened to by white folks," Smiley says. "This show started to bring in African-Americans and other people of color."
The Tavis Smiley Show, which dwells on politics, pop culture and social issues, is one of NPR's fastest-growing programs, though it's still building its list of stations. According to Arbitron estimates, about 30 percent of the audience for Smiley's NPR program is black - six times the proportion of the typical NPR program. The program attracts the youngest audience of any in the NPR roster, with a median age of 47 years old. That's two years younger than the median age for other NPR shows.
None of this is by accident.
"This is an increasingly diverse nation," says Kevin Klose, NPR's president and CEO. "Even with that there are many segments of society who don't know about public radio and who could be very interested in it." The creation of Smiley's show, Klose says, is very much part of NPR's attempts to "widen and deepen our content."
Smiley, never content to rest, is set to start a PBS show early next month that is intended to serve as a complement to Charlie Rose's evening talk show.
WEAA (88.9 FM) general manager Maxie C. Jackson III, one of the key architects of Smiley's program, used it to establish the Morgan State University radio station's first morning news presence. And Jackson found new underwriters - the public broadcasting version of sponsors. Spurred by Smiley's success at WEAA-FM, AT&T provided a grant of about $36,000 to support its growing news and information programming.
As Smiley's California-based production started taping later in the morning, Jackson shifted the show to the early evening and slipped Daybreak, a news and interview show with host Anthony McCarthy, into that drive-time slot.
The moves have paid dividends, Jackson says, as the audience is strong both for Daybreak and the new Smiley show. He credits Smiley for providing "that quality of journalism that WEAA had yet to establish in its early years but is now quickly approaching." Along with First Edition, an evening interview show, WEAA has a weekly program with longtime Baltimore journalist George W. Collins.
Smiley is scheduled to appear here Friday night at the Lyric Opera House in a joint appearance with two frequent commentators on his program - Princeton University's Cornel West and the University of Pennsylvania's Michael Eric Dyson. The Baltimore gig is a tribute to Jackson's early support of Smiley's show. His tour includes stops in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Atlanta.
Why not Washington? Well might you ask. Smiley is livid - livid! - that his show cannot be heard during normal listening hours in the nation's capital, home to NPR headquarters and one of the largest black audiences in the country.
American University's WAMU, heard at 88.5 FM, plays his show at 2 a.m. Smiley says he was bitterly disappointed by the cavalier treatment his show received from former general manager, Susan Clampitt, deposed by university officials after a groundswell of discontent over her leadership at the station.
Anne Segerson, a spokeswoman for WAMU, says the station has no plans to alter its schedule, saying loyal listeners have responded strongly to the stability of its news and information shows in recent years. And, she said Smiley's criticism of the station hasn't helped. "There are ways to court program managers other than to complain in the media," Segerson says.
Some listeners have recoiled from Smiley's inclination to explore racial aspects of social issues and news stories. Some NPR stations, such as WHYY-FM in Philadelphia, encountered resistance to Smiley's show, according to Current, a publication that tracks the public broadcasting industry. Jay Nordlinger, managing editor of the conservative National Review, dismissively referred to Smiley as a "black leftist radio personality."
But Jackson and other backers of Smiley say his presence is invaluable as NPR attempts to meet its mandate of serving up news relevant to all Americans. "We are drastically underrepresented in public radio and public broadcasting - both as listeners and as talent and producers of content," Jackson says. "That's why I think Tavis is so vital for public radio and why I think he's going to be so vital for public television."