Quite frankly, new talk host Smith has potential -- if he tones it down

OTHER VOICES

August 05, 2005|By Ailene Voisin

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - If rising ESPN star Stephen A. Smith were to solicit advice from a former colleague, as he often did while interning several years ago at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, my only suggestion would be this:

Don't be like all those shrill, self-absorbed, middle-aged white guys who are ruining sports radio and television programming with incessant rantings that preclude any possibility of legitimate discourse.

Lower the volume. Show some manners. Talk to us.

Smith, the bellicose, undeniably charismatic NBA analyst began a new, nationally promoted career Monday as host of his own daily, hourlong television show, Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith, on ESPN2. Go ahead and ask: Dare we ditch the earplugs?

Smith's greatest challenge - besides surviving the ratings game - will be to avoid furthering a culture that endangers a civil sports society, one in which the cloning of the overbearing jock talkers has become a chronic condition.

Can anyone imagine what we would have done all these years without the thoughtful, tempered, yet incisive offerings of Michael Wilbon, Jason Whitlock, Jeremy Schaap and relative newcomer Scoop Jackson? There is not a softball pitcher or a verbal wimp in the bunch.

And kudos to ESPN. The same network that a year ago slipped miserably by releasing invaluable NBA information man David Aldridge appears to be making amends with its persistent promotion of Smith, an unpolished but potentially charming television presence from The Philadelphia Inquirer.

I know, I know, I know: Smith divides and conquers. He overwhelms viewers with the political bite of a Carville or a Matalin. His spin as an NBA analyst is a world of blacks and whites, devoid of shades and nuances. Clearly, he is not an acquired taste; he either is appreciated or reviled, though based on ESPN's research, he increasingly is being watched.

As a result, ESPN2 has targeted Quite Frankly as its signature program, with the edgy, stylish Smith counted on to attract an audience primarily of 18- to 34-year-olds.

Smith's critics are incensed by his sharp opinions, dramatic facial expressions, and a strident, aggressive personality that appears almost menacing as he leans into the microphone. Even his wildly swinging cadence has been assaulted. Others applaud his candor and willingness to address all issues, to voice the insights of a strong African-American male, his exaggerated delivery and unduly loud bark notwithstanding.

"[Smith] is dealing with the perception that, if you come on the show, you better come with a shield because he's coming on the attack," ESPN executive director Mark Shapiro said on the teleconference call. "That's absolutely absurd. There isn't a question he isn't afraid to ask. [But] showing his lighter side is something I've hit him with between the eyes. The No. 1 priority is that, if he can't show the ability to change gears, he'll never be truly likable. He has to show himself to be vulnerable, allow viewers to see his humor, see what those of us see off the air."

Smith, in fact, can be hilarious. He also is inquisitive, experienced and industrious, and often has spoken of a desire to emulate the late Howard Cosell. The sense here is he will succeed ... [and] that he is both shrewd and talented enough to resist becoming another walking, talking, television/radio caricature.

"People are getting tired of the rudeness," said Sacramento State media expert Barbara O'Connor. "We are seeing the change in the Sunday morning political shows. The networks have toned down. Hopefully, that will also lead to more diversity in the programming."

Ailene Voisin writes for The Sacramento Bee.

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