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Is there anything he isn't doing?

Tavis Smiley's activism has put his face on TV, his voice on radio and his causes front and center.

October 01, 2006|Patrick Goldstein | Times Staff Writer

BARRELING through a staff meeting one morning in his Crenshaw Boulevard offices, Tavis Smiley suddenly stops and stares at a copy of Jet magazine. It has a story about Smiley's "The Covenant With Black America," which was a surprise hit earlier this year.

What stops Smiley in his tracks is his photo. "Where'd they get that picture?" he asks his staff. Someone speculates that it came from KCET, the PBS affiliate here that serves as the home for one of his other enterprises, "The Tavis Smiley Show," which airs weeknights at 11.

"OK, first thing, let's get that off the website," he orders. He squints at the photo, shaking his head, as if he were a teenager appalled by a geeky class photo. "Look at my eyes! Makes me look like I've been smoking marijuana!"

Don't worry -- if anyone can pass a drug test, it's Smiley, unless someone's invented a drug that fuels a fierce hunger for recognition and an overwhelming desire to support the disenfranchised. Although he is best known to white America as the genial host of a PBS show, he is quick to correct that myopic view: "Being a TV host is the least of what I do."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 08, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Tavis Smiley: In an article about TV-radio host Tavis Smiley in the Oct. 1 Calendar section, Smiley noted that The Times had never published a major profile on him. In fact, Smiley was the co-subject of a Sunday Calendar cover article about talk-radio hosts in November 1994.

The smooth-talking 42-year-old journalist and social activist has emerged as one of America's bright new media stars. He's penned and edited eight books, with a new one, the autobiographical "What I Know for Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America," due out later this month. He runs a foundation that helps fund programs to develop young leaders in the black community. He also funds the Tavis Smiley Center for Professional Media Studies at Texas Southern University. He oversees an annual State of the Black Union conference, hosts a weekly Public Radio International show, does commentaries on the nationally syndicated "Tom Joyner Morning Show" and spends most weekends on the road, speaking about leadership at high schools and black colleges.

Shaped as much by his religious upbringing as his progressive politics ("I literally spent every day of my life in church till I was 18," he says), Smiley is a product of the post-Martin Luther King Jr. generation of black leaders, his enormous drive having as much in common with the entrepreneurial spirituality of the Dallas-based minister T.D. Jakes as civil-rights activists such as the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. If Smiley isn't one of the most ambitious men in show business, he's certainly one of the most straight-laced. Growing up in Indiana in a deeply religious household -- his mother is a Pentecostal minister -- he wasn't allowed to go to movies or listen to R&B music, much less smoke or drink. The first time he saw a movie in a theater was at 18 after he left for college.

So Smiley doesn't really need to worry about anyone thinking he's been smoking pot. His concern about the Jet photo was more about losing control of his image. In Tavis World, control is everything. When I admire the look of his office one day, he beams. "Look around," he commands. "The carpet, the furniture, the baseboards -- I helped design the whole building."

It is not an uncommon trait among entrepreneurs of Smiley's generation to want to sculpt their image, whether it's Steve Jobs forever having himself photographed introducing his company's new product or Mark Cuban penning his blog to make sure he gets the last word on anything written about him. But a big part of Smiley's need for control comes from a different place.

As an African American, he is keenly aware of how little access even the great icons of Black America had to mass media. When he interviewed King biographer Taylor Branch at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books this April, Smiley made a big point of bemoaning the fact that the civil rights leader never reached an audience as big as -- well -- as the one Smiley reaches on his TV show. He also hasn't forgotten that he was abruptly canned from his first big media platform as host of a public affairs show on BET in a dispute with network founder Robert Johnson. Just to make sure he remembers, Smiley has a framed copy of the kiss-off letter on a wall outside his office.

"After that, I've always wanted to control my own destiny," he says, walking me around his headquarters, whose walls are lined with photos of him and the late Mayor Tom Bradley, the late Johnnie Cochran, and Warren Beatty. "I never do more than one-year deals. I never want to be in the position again of being fired without cause. So I told my lawyer, 'Every project we do, I want to be an owner.' Owning -- that's the way of controlling your future."

Odd pairing of guests

THE great thing about "The Tavis Smiley Show" is not just how much energy and diversity it's brought to staid old PBS, but that its booking policy -- with two guests sharing most half-hour broadcasts -- allows for all sorts of striking pop cultural mash-ups.

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