The way Tavis Smiley sees it, one challenge of being an African American broadcasting pioneer is striking a balance between reaching a broad audience and remaining, as he calls it, "authentically black." Another challenge is getting up for work at 2:30 a.m.
Starting Monday, Southland listeners will get two chances a day to hear how he does it, when his 5-month-old, hourlong show debuts on KPCC-FM (89.3) and KCRW-FM (89.9). National Public Radio is touting the program as its first signature show with an African American host, and its first to originate from Los Angeles.
"You're going to hear issues discussed on our show you won't hear discussed anywhere else on NPR--not by default but by design," said Smiley, a 37-year-old author, commentator and businessman who was once an aide to former L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley and in 1994-95 co-hosted a talk show on L.A. outlet KMPC-AM.
On Thursday the show examined diversity--or the lack thereof--in the nation's newsrooms. Last week Smiley discussed a university study showing that blacks and whites both discriminate based on the lightness or darkness of skin color. Another recent show looked at the proliferation of black/white buddy movies. His assembly of regular analysts includes Connie Rice, feminist commentator and cousin of Condoleezza Rice; Princeton professor Cornel West; and Karen Grigsby Bates, journalist and guest host.
While Smiley plans to bring African American perspectives to the broader NPR audience, the L.A. native said he just as strongly wants to expose the country to West Coast viewpoints.
"Los Angeles gets short shrift when it comes to the contributions we have to make to the national debate on a variety of issues," he said. "California politics can either cast a long shadow or a long sunbeam and show the rest of the country how to deal with an issue."
He'll debut in Los Angeles with a two-part interview with Magic Johnson, talk to L.A. Mayor James Hahn about secession and also host Gov. Gray Davis during the week. "The Tavis Smiley Show" will air weekdays at 5 a.m. on KCRW and at 8 p.m. on KPCC.
Smiley is uncomfortable with the term "crossover" and doesn't want to belabor the comparison to Arsenio Hall, but he said his show is somewhat like the comedian's talk show of the early '90s.
"I was trying to come up with an example of what our mission was, and Arsenio was a pretty good example," Smiley said. Every day he did a show that was authentically black for the hip-hop audience, "but at the same time, the show was of interest to people not of African descent. Every night he would book the biggest names, never mind their color. His show was relevant to everybody."
NPR president and chief executive Kevin Klose said the show, which began in January and now airs on 23 stations, is key to the network's efforts to diversify--demographically and geographically.
The program arose out of discussions between National Public Radio and the network's stations with predominantly African American audiences, such as those based at traditionally black colleges, including WEAA-FM at Morgan State University in Baltimore, and WCLK-FM at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta.
"African American stations had begun to be disappointed in the amount of programming that was really compatible with their audiences. There was some excellent jazz programming; there wasn't enough news and information programming," said Loretta Rucker, a New York-based radio consultant working as a liaison between the stations and NPR. In 2000 the network and the stations began designing the show, and "it was very serendipitous at that time Tavis Smiley became available."
Black Entertainment Television, the network where Smiley had hosted a talk show for five years, fired him in 2001 when he aired an interview with former Symbionese Liberation Army member Sarah Jane Olson on ABC. BET said it deserved first refusal of the exclusive.
"Eight weeks after I was fired, it turned out in retrospect to be the best thing that ever happened to me professionally. I sat at my desk one day looking at about 35 different offers and phone calls," including the NPR program, Smiley said. "I didn't know about the frustrations of the African American stations, but I recognized the value of the network and the opportunity. NPR is pure credibility."
He's not the first host of color on National Public Radio. Juan Williams helmed "Talk of the Nation" from 2000-2001, Korva Coleman co-hosts the classical music program "Performance Today," and Kojo Nnamdi hosts the Washington, D.C.-based call-in show "Public Interest." But Smiley's is the first program built around a black host, Rucker said.
KPCC has been monitoring the program since it began, mulling where to fit it in the station's lineup.
"We made a strategic decision to wait until they worked some of the bugs out of their system," said Bill Davis, president of Southern California Public Radio, which manages KPCC for Pasadena Community College. KPCC is pulling the evening re-broadcasts of its daytime "Air Talk" and "Talk of the City" shows for Smiley and the BBC newsmagazine "The World Today."
While KPCC had been eyeing the show for months, KCRW general manager Ruth Seymour heard Smiley two weeks ago at the national Public Radio Conference in Washington, D.C.
"I went, I saw, he conquered," she said. "I wasn't looking for it. He's fast, he's funny, he's extraordinarily engaging. He's a powerhouse."
That convinced KPCC to move up its planned July start date, and now Smiley's show will be one of the few programs that the competing stations both air.