Profile: Smiley’s New PBS Talker Could Widen His Audience

Feb 23, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Tavis Smiley, host of the first PBS talk show to originate on the West Coast-from KCET-TV in Los Angeles-is hardly a new personality in TV public affairs. But he is growing in stature and resonance.
“The Tavis Smiley Show,” which premiered Jan. 5, is seen on 140 stations and is an outgrowth of the 39-year-old Mr. Smiley’s popular talk radio effort on National Public Radio. It is a show with a mission both for content and purpose.
“We want to do three things,” said Mr. Smiley, whose active life seems to be scheduled to the millisecond. “We want to have a show that is ethnically diverse, one that is ideologically challenging, and also one that can appeal to a younger demographic, to bring that age group into a forum where issues and ideas are discussed.”
Born in Mississippi and raised in Indiana, Mr. Smiley has always been loquacious, so much so that when he was a teen an aunt asked him why he would never be quiet. He responded, “Because I have a lot to say.”
Mr. Smiley still has a lot to say. He was the host and executive producer of cable TV’s “BET Tonight With Tavis Smiley” from 1996 to 2001, a talk show for which he snagged a coveted interview with Cuban President Fidel Castro. When that show ran its course he became a contributor to CNN and a special correspondent for ABC’s “Good Morning America,” while simultaneously contributing political and social commentary to Tom Joyner’s high-rated Radio One daily show.
Mr. Smiley is already popular with blacks due to his broadcasting as well as his seven books and frequent lecturing on empowerment. The PBS series has the potential to give him the widest and most diverse TV audience he has ever had. His guests-newsmakers, cultural personalities, athletes and others who are celebrated in their fields-have been from all races.
“There is a mission to this,” Mr. Smiley said. “We want the format to be one where there is an opportunity not just to sell something but to say something. Information is power. Knowledge is power.
“I’m enjoying this,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to reach a broader audience with a format that has been underappreciated and underused.”