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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

WORKING his way up the media ladder, Smiley scored his high-profile position at BET but found himself out of a job one day in 2001, fired after a messy incident involving the sale of an exclusive interview to a rival network. By his own account, his relationship with BET's Johnson had already been frayed by an earlier incident. Feeling disrespected after Johnson dressed him down in front of the network's senior staff, Smiley responded with a bitter tirade

After leaving BET, Smiley began hosting a talk show on National Public Radio. He believed NPR would be the perfect outlet for his advocacy journalism, but he quit three years into the job, complaining that the radio network hadn't followed through on promises to hire more blacks in key positions.

"After 33 years of black people paying their tax dollars, they'd finally figured out that maybe they should have a black person on the network," he says. "But they made no effort to get my pieces on 'All Things Considered' or other NPR programs. They weren't bringing in people of color in the executive hierarchy."

It's hard to say whether the dispute was about sticking up for people of color or about Smiley's own aspirations. "If it was all about me, I could've stayed there till I died," he responds. "But I want to expand the notion of inclusion and they couldn't come up with enough things to make that notion of inclusion real."

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.

Smiley insists that PBS is different. "The people at PBS get it," he says. "They see the demographics of America changing and they realize there's a way to reach a broader audience without offending their core PBS viewers."

The biggest difference with his PBS show is that he owns the show, giving him complete control. But that control has come at a price. Smiley is a die-hard progressive who sees himself as an advocate "for people who are culturally and economically disenfranchised." And yet the show's prime sponsor is Wal-Mart, a company that has been hammered by liberals and African Americans for resisting efforts to unionize its stores, violating child labor laws, discriminating against female employees and offering substandard wages and healthcare benefits.

As an outspoken progressive, isn't Smiley guilty of talking the talk but not walking the walk for allowing Wal-Mart to underwrite his TV show?

"It probably is a contradiction for some people," he acknowledges. "But if I had to wait for a perfect company to come along to sponsor my show, I wouldn't be on the air. My staying on the air is precarious. I've had to raise every dime myself and if one sponsor falls out, I'm in trouble. I'm the only brother doing what I do. Isn't it more important to have Tavis there, raising all the issues I do, than having silence?"

Smiley says shacking up with Wal-Mart is a small price to pay for all the consciousness-raising he does on PBS. His show has consistently offered a platform for those you don't see in mainstream media forums, including wonky professors, labor organizers, offbeat authors and filmmakers. Long before "Crash" won the Oscar for best picture, he devoted two shows to the film's depiction of race relations.

He also spends an extraordinary amount of time promoting leadership development in the African American community. Through his foundation, Smiley organized a Road to Health Expo that operates two-day events geared to educating blacks about health and obesity. His foundation has also published numerous empowerment manuals, including a guide to scholarships and fellowships for African American students.

Lessons in humility

SMILEY says his devotion to work has taken its toll. The media figure, who recently moved to Hancock Park, remains single, his nonstop schedule having interfered with past relationships. Smiley's priorities seem clear. He is an advocate, always looking for a message to preach or a cause to advance. For him, the spirit must be moved. "In my day, from start to finish, I'm in constant meditative prayer. When I heard that we got a new book deal at Doubleday, for substantially more money than the last book, I stopped right there and said, 'Lord, I thank you for another victory here. It's a blessing.' "

In Tavis World, one is never shy about giving thanks or trumpeting achievement. When I teased him about relentlessly pushing his book, he was unrepentant. "How often do you accomplish something that's historic?" he responds. "Part of what makes life important for black people is taking notice of the markers, the groundbreaking moments.... And if I'm not out there shaking the trees, who's going to recognize it and give it the appropriate respect?"

During our interviews Smiley often noted that, despite all his success, the big establishment newspaper in his own backyard -- this newspaper, in fact -- had never seen fit to do a major profile on him until now. His frustration was not unwarranted, but it reminded me of a story he tells about his mother who, when he was a boy, was impressed by his intelligence but worried about how he expressed it. Returning from a rare vacation, she brought him a pencil holder with an inscription that read: "It's hard to be humble when you're as great as I am."

Taken aback, Smiley asked what her point was. She told him he should never apologize for his talent. But she cautioned him that people wouldn't like him for pushing his gifts down their throats. It was good advice, for a schoolboy or a media icon eager to change the world.

"In praising yourself, you're making them feel bad," his mother explained. "The trick, Tavis, is to let others praise you."

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