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Tavis Smiley looks for new season of diversity

Talk show host on mission to teach journalists to reach out to wider audience
/ Source: The Associated Press

As Tavis Smiley begins the second season of his PBS talk show, his guest list isn’t lacking for high-profile personalities.

In the first week alone, actors John Travolta, Don Cheadle and Kevin Bacon, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and writer Christopher Hitchens are among those scheduled on “Tavis Smiley.”

But for Smiley, the public television series (returning Friday; check local PBS stations for times) is just one forum — and, to hear him tell it, maybe not even the most important.

Spurred in part by his new relationship with Texas Southern University, where he helped fund a new media studies center, Smiley said he intends to focus on journalism students and what he can teach them.

Part of the lesson, he said, is to prepare for a changing society.

“Somebody has got to talk to this next generation of journalists to let them know of the responsibility they have in this multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic America,” he said.

In a competitive world “they’ve got to have relationships and appreciation for communities of color and people who live there,” Smiley said.

Trying to shatter the status quoThat insight is lacking in the news and entertainment industries, he contends, as exemplified by the hiring of Brian Williams and Craig Ferguson, two white men, to replace two other white men (anchor Tom Brokaw and talk-show host Craig Kilborn, respectively).

The failure to seriously consider and hire women or minorities for such jobs is “wanton hubris,” he argued, and something that will ultimately prove costly.

“Television programmers will eventually see the light or feel the heat. Clearly, many of them are going to have to feel the heat” of shrinking viewership in an increasingly diverse America, Smiley said.

For Smiley, 2004 generated heat in unexpected ways.

Last September’s announcement of the Tavis Smiley School of Communications and Media Studies Center at Texas Southern University in Lubbock was a highlight of the year in which he turned 40.

The facility, built with a $1 million donation from Smiley and money from the state of Texas on the campus of the historically black school, officially opens Feb. 24.

It helped inspire him to add to his already busy lecture schedule. Smiley, whose nonprofit Tavis Smiley Foundation includes a Web site, conferences and newsletter, has said his mantra is to “enlighten, encourage and empower.”

A disheartening and “painful” event, he said, was his decision to leave his National Public Radio daytime talk show.

Failure to fulfill promisesSmiley, who three years ago became host of NPR’s first black-oriented show, alleged NPR didn’t make his renewal a priority and failed to live up to promises to expand marketing efforts.

The show started on 16 stations and was reaching more than 80 when Smiley exited in December; it attracted the same kind of multiethnic, upscale and educated audience he draws to PBS.

(When he was first weighed the job, he recalls, Bill Cosby advised him that NPR “represents the kind of credibility card you can throw down anywhere in the world.”)

Smiley stood out among NPR hosts with his dynamic baritone and topics aimed at minorities as well as whites. But many in the black community remained unaware of his show because NPR itself isn’t on their radar, Smiley said.

“At the end of three years, they still would not commit to outreach this program to those underserved communities, people who could appreciate and be empowered by NPR but are unaware of it,” he said.

The experience made him question NPR’s commitment to diversity, Smiley said.

NPR eager to expand minority audience
NPR was eager to renew his show and remains intent on expanding its minority audience, responded spokesman David Umansky. But as a nonprofit that focuses on production and last year spent only $165,000 on marketing, he said, NPR couldn’t meet what Umansky alleges was a $3 million demand for promotion.

Negotiations were already under way for a series with Ed Gordon, a former Smiley colleague at Black Entertainment Television, when Smiley left, Umansky said.

“News & Notes with Ed Gordon” will debut in late January, and NPR continues to work with the African American Public Radio Consortium on increasing its minority audience, Umansky said.

But Smiley contends the contrast between public radio and TV is sharp: PBS already has programming that appeals to a varied audience, he said. It’s also increasing his role with a Friday night public-affairs show and has put up “seed money” for four 2005 specials (the topics are under discussion).

“That’s the kind of commitment I’m talking about,” he said.

His absence from a daily radio gig may be brief. Smiley said he’s weighing offers for a new show that he expects to be heard nationally — and maybe even on public radio stations, whose programming decisions are independent of NPR.

That, he said, would be “an interesting twist.”