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IMAGE: Tavis Smiley
Kevin Foley  /  AP file
This undated studio portrait, provided by PBS, shows Tavis Smiley, whose talk show features interviews with newsmakers, politicians, celebrities and everyday people. Smiley marked 15 years in broadcasting in 2006.
updated 1/4/2007 8:29:22 PM ET 2007-01-05T01:29:22

For TV and radio host Tavis Smiley, 2006 was one for the books — and the best-seller lists.

Smiley celebrated 15 years in broadcasting, wrote a memoir focused on his childhood and education and was the force behind another book, “The Covenant with Black America,” an examination of black social and political concerns.

Smiley’s “What I Know for Sure” and “The Covenant,” which he conceived and vigorously promoted, both landed on The New York Times’ list of top-sellers.

Among the issues addressed in “The Covenant” are health care, public education and justice. Contributors include Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, and prominent scholar Cornel West.

Smiley, 42, who hosts the PBS show “Tavis Smiley” and Public Radio International’s “The Tavis Smiley Show,” doesn’t plan to slack off in 2007. A sequel to “The Covenant” is in progress, and his annual symposium, “State of the Black Union,” which airs on C-SPAN, is set for February and will expand from one day to two.

His career path hasn’t been entirely smooth, as he recounts in his memoir. His tenure at Black Entertainment Television ended with a messy firing that drew viewer protests, and he had a falling-out with National Public Radio.

But Smiley, who boosted himself from a trailer park to Indiana University despite his parents’ opposition, has a fierce drive that’s reflected in his dynamic, rat-a-tat speech and his tightly scheduled days. He spoke with The Associated Press from his Los Angeles offices and studio between working on his radio and TV shows and working out.

AP: Your memoir recounts your journey from rural Indiana to the national stage. How do you view the distance between your past and present?

Smiley: For me, not a day goes by, first, that I’m not grateful for the opportunities I do have. Secondly, where I don’t take them seriously. ... There’s so few of us — certainly black males, but so few people of color — who get the chance to do what it is that I’m fortunate to do. There are a lot of people watching, listening and reading, hoping that you’re going to ask the right question, praying that you’re going to raise the right issue, that nobody else raised. And hoping that you’re going to profile certain people that they think ought to be profiled, who don’t have a shot at getting on so many of the other shows.

AP: It’s been an eventful year for you. Any special inspiration?

Smiley: Doubleday had been after me for years to write this book (the memoir). ... I resisted for years for a number of reasons, not the least of which I was way too young to sit down and do a memoir. But over time ... I thought, well, maybe I do have a little something that I could offer to help people live better lives. ... Now, we’re working on the follow-up to “The Covenant for Black America.” It’s called “The Covenant in Action.”

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The difference essentially is that the first book lays out the agenda, the top 10 issues important to black people, what are the facts on these issues. It was the “what book,” if you will. This new book is the how-to. It lays out the strategy for how we take “The Covenant” and put it into action — how do you make this a living, breathing document.

Q: Do you see this as a pivotal time for activism among black Americans?

Smiley: Absolutely. Three reasons, right quick: The fact “The Covenant” went to No. 1 without mainstream media support. That is to say, the “Today” show didn’t touch it. “Good Morning America” didn’t touch it. Oprah Winfrey didn’t touch it. We sent it to everybody. ... Which means that everyday black people put this book on the list. When that happens, it says to me loud and clear, and to everyone else paying attention, that there is a hunger and a thirst in black America for a plan to make black America better. That hunger and thirst in part derives from the fallout of Hurricane Katrina.

Black folk have not forgotten and will not any time soon. In the aftermath of the hurricane, everybody was ready for it, ready for an agenda. Second, look at the midterm elections. There’s no way Democrats do that without their primary, most loyal base, black folk. Now I’m not arguing that black people should be as loyal to the party as they have been, but it’s a reality. ... Three, “The State of the Black Union.” It’s Feb. 9-10 this year in Jamestown, Va., and the energy and expectation around that event (shows) there’s a lot of energy for some change in black America.

Q: Does the buzz surrounding Barack Obama as a possible contender for the White House indicate America is ready to elect a black president?

Smiley: I think we are, but it’s got to be the right person. And I think in some ways Barack has the right image. Whether he has the right agenda and whether he can sell that agenda is another issue.

Q: Is there an ultimate goal for you?

Smiley: There’s no grand prize here for me. There’s no ultimate goal. What I am attempting to create is a life that’s built around love and service. I love people, and my greatest joy comes from serving people. So long as there is a need in our world and work to be done, as long as the media looks the way it looks, then somebody’s got to be there asking these questions. As long as there are books being written that tell one side of the story but not the other side of history, somebody’s got to write a book. ...

As long as there is a need for a more enlightened dialogue, then there’s a role for people like me. As long as I have access to radio, TV, print, there’s no end game. It’s just trying to find a way to be of greater service. That’s what makes me sleep better at night.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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