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LES BROWN : New Directions for a Path Well Traveled

September 05, 1993

He's been a disc jockey, a radio station manager, a state legislator, a civil-rights activist and one of the country's most in-demand motivational speakers. But now Les Brown is about to embark on a truly frightening career challenge: TV talk-show host.

"The Les Brown Show," which premieres nationally on Monday, is being touted as "pro-active," "inspirational" and "empowering"--an alternative to sensationalistic, tabloid TV. What Brown has in mind, he says, is a show that will offer people real solutions to real problems.

Brown's own life is enough for several movies of the week: Abandoned along with his twin brother as a 3-week-old infant, Brown was deemed "educably retarded" as a child. But with the help of his adoptive single mother and a tremendous sense of resolve, Brown remade himself into what he is today: the best-selling author of the autobiographical "Live Your Dreams" and the man behind five award-winning specials for PBS, which have raised more than $4.6 million in membership pledges.

Since July, Brown has been taping segments of his upcoming show at King World's studios on the East Side of Manhattan, where Newsday writer John Anderson caught up with him.

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What's going to make "The Les Brown Show" different from the myriad other talk shows hitting the airwaves this fall?

Most shows are problem-oriented and spend an hour, for the most part, talking about the problem. On our show, we want to be solution-oriented, and so we start at the top looking at a problem, and looking at possible solutions. That's going to be characteristic of what we do, as opposed to creating conflict and controversy just for the sake of having screaming and yelling matches.

Our show is designed to entertain people, to inform people and to empower people, but the bottom line, as we all know, is the personality, what I bring to the table. I think I have a personality that's ranging, that people can relate to and identify with.

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Are the topics always going to be of the interpersonal nature?

It will be ranging, from people working out problems in their relationships to people reinventing themselves, changing their lives, handling tragedies, the daily human experience. How people grapple with those things. And we'll be giving them some methods, some techniques, some information that will perhaps help them to move from where they are to another level.

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Isn't this going to be an enormous change for you, moving from public speaker to talk-show host?

When you're a speaker, you're talking; as a talk-show host you listen. As a speaker, you give information. As a talk-show host, you ask questions, you're a facilitator, you want people to tell their story. As a speaker, you speak with power and conviction to ignite people to get up and move and run. As a talk-show host you create intimacy, a conversational tone. There's very little transferable from one to the other. When I first looked at this arena, I said, 'Talk-show host? It's a piece of cake.' I was humbled. It has not been a piece of cake. It's been a learning experience.

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What's made it difficult?

It's the difference between being a stage performer and one who acts on television, where "TO BE OR NOT TO BE! ... " the exaggerated moves and that kind of projection, just doesn't fit. It's a different type of dynamic. It's not as challenging physically for me. When I give a speech, I'm drenched; it's physically exhausting. When you do a show, it's challenging to you mentally.

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How does one get into the motivational-speaking business?

The way I did it was sitting in an audience. I used to go to all these workshops and seminars with the Dr. Norman Vincent Peales, and the Zig Zieglers, and watching them, watching these guys give these presentations, I said, 'I can do this.' So I joined the National Speakers Assn. and began following them around and learned some ways of how you can market yourself. I have a partner, Mike Williams, and he put together a marketing strategy for us.

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How do you view the effect talk shows have had on American mass communications?

Some people see it as a therapeutic couch. A lot of people, which surprised me, look to talk shows for answers in their lives, and they relate to it and are very involved emotionally and committed to it. It's a part of their life, it's a source of company, it's an outlet for their frustrations and for their concerns. It's their connection to the larger world. It's an interesting phenomenon.

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But won't there be people who look at your show as just another TV program, just another entertainment?

I think it's been proven that television has tremendous power to move and to influence people and that's what our goal is, to use television as a force to activate people in a positive direction. I think to a large extent that's because television has given such prominence to the weird and the bizarre and has become a freakish carnival act in many cases.

People, in particular young people, will begin to believe that the bizarre and the weird and freakish is normal. We want to go in the opposite direction. I believe very strongly in that old saying, "Do not go where the path may lead, but go where there's no path, and leave a trail." I believe you can have high standards in television, and still get numbers, and don't have to be sleazy to do it.

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