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Tavis Smiley marks 10th year on PBS

Published on NewsOK Modified: May 24, 2013 at 7:49 pm •  Published: May 24, 2013

"Since Obama has been president, I've had not one, but two, New York Times best-selling books, been on the cover of Time and made its 100 list," the magazine's tally of the world's most influential people, in 2009, Smiley said.

The books are "The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto," written with West, and an inspirational text by Iyanla Vanzant that was published by Smiley's book imprint.

"Whether black or white America, people have their opinions ... but ultimately it hasn't stopped my work or momentum," Smiley said.

He's a popular keynote speaker for a wide range of events, including the upcoming unveiling of a monument to slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers (although one Peoria, Ill., event replaced him as speaker last year, reportedly related to his Obama stance).

The Indiana University graduate has received honorary degrees from universities including Tuskegee and Fisk, and he created an exhibition, "America I Am: The African American Imprint," that wrapped this year after a national tour.

His Tavis Smiley Foundation provides leadership training for youngsters.

"He's got a lot of energy, that man," PBS' Kerger said.

He also has a knack for controversy. In 2004, He left his first public radio show, on NPR, in a squabble over matters including its marketing budget.

He was fired from the "BET Tonight" talk show in 2001 after he offered an exclusive newsworthy interview to ABC instead of BET. There was speculation that new BET owner Viacom Inc. forced the decision, although BET founder Robert L. Johnson said it was his.

A commercial network talk-show job failed to materialize, but Smiley said he ultimately gained the advantage of producing and owning his PBS show. That's also a challenge because he is responsible for its funding.

The recession prompted some of his sponsors to drop out, including an auto insurance company, said Smiley. He's relatively candid about the financial issues he's faced but, understandably, would rather focus on his broadcasting track record.

As Smiley said in 2003 when he launched the PBS show, "Most of the issues that matter to white Americans matter to black Americans."

Smiley's program aimed for diversity from the start, with his first week's guest list including Bill Cosby, Wesley Clark, Newt Gingrich and Magic Johnson. His 10-year list also boasts, among others, former President Jimmy Carter, Coretta Scott King, Yo-Yo Ma, Toni Morrison and Prince.

Smiley welcomes celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie and Kanye West, but they have to be ready to talk about more than their latest projects.

When Harrison Ford was making the rounds to promote the new Jackie Robinson biopic, Smiley says his audience got something unique "because I'm the only black guy Harrison Ford is talking to."

It's a valid point in a genre dominated solely by white interviewers, including "Tonight" show host Jay Leno and his designated successor, Jimmy Fallon, and Fallon's "Late Night" replacement, Seth Meyers.

"Things that matter to me about Robinson, what he had to endure. ... My questions are going to be different than Jimmy Kimmel's," Smiley said. In his interview with Ford, he questioned the actor about whether Hollywood has a role in adding to American divisiveness.

Smiley speaks to an overwhelmingly white audience on his Public Radio International shows and on TV, and said he appreciates the opportunity to introduce them to a different perspective. Kerger said she looks forward to his "next 10 years" on public broadcasting.

So does Smiley, come what may.

"You're going to be challenged when you address inconvenient truths. Sometimes you're challenged with merit, sometimes without merit. I try to be authentic and be a truth-teller. I have no monopoly on the truth but can try to raise questions that get at the truth."




Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber(at) and on Twitter (at)lynnelber.