The talk on Smiley Radio, TV show host makes historic strides

Posted: June 24, 2004

For so many years, blacks, Latinos and other journalists who form a minority within the profession have demanded greater access and a greater appreciation for a diversity of voices. Many of them, especially those of the youngish generations who are preparing to gather in Washington in August for what is billed as Unity 2004, are seeking "a force for change," to borrow part of their convention's theme. But in a number of instances, we already see the fruit of protest efforts of past decades.

One such result is Tavis Smiley, a 39-year-old former political aide who has parlayed his natural confidence into a ubiquitous media presence.

Smiley has made history by becoming the first black person to host daily talk shows on both National Public Radio and TV's Public Broadcasting Service. His radio show debuted nearly three years ago; the television show began in January.

In part this is, as is the nascent Air America Radio, an effort to counter the conservative talk juggernaut. According to Talkers magazine, there are 4,000 talk shows in the nation; its list of the 100 most significant talk show hosts clearly has far more conservatives than liberals.

"Talk radio in America is a conservative citadel, and Fox is No. 1 on television," Smiley said in a recent interview.

In Smiley, PBS can attempt to build a new audience that is younger and more diverse in race, ethnicity and even geographical grounding, since Smiley's shows emanate from Los Angeles.

He does what too little of talk radio or television does these days: conducts civil conversations with a broad spectrum of politicians, newsmakers, performers and writers in a forum where one first has to declare one's political alliances.

He's comfortable with conservatives, liberals and the undeclared; with the profound and the profane, with elder statesmen and the hip-hop nation. With such stratification in the country, he provides one place that helps promote dialogues that might not otherwise take place before audiences who might not otherwise think they have anything in common.

Since January, his guests have ranged from Bill Cosby to Newt Gingrich to Gore Vidal to Alice Randall, a black novelist who has written hit country songs for singers such as Trisha Yearwood. He can discuss Iraq with Richard Holbrooke, the veteran diplomat who advises John Kerry, but also with the nonpolitical comedian Paul Rodriguez.

He has also featured the producer of a documentary on Al-Jazeera along with one of its leading journalists. I'm all for anything that expands the national dialogue and promotes, in more than a figurative sense, East meeting West.

I believe Vernon Jarrett, the dean among black journalists, who recently died, would be proud of what Smiley is trying to do. And in him the journalists gathering in Washington in a few weeks should find inspiration. *

E.R. Shipp is a columnist for the New York Daily News. She won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1996.

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