"It's not National Some-of-the-Public Radio"

Tavis Smiley tells Salon why he decided to ditch NPR.

Published December 16, 2004 11:20PM (EST)

Thursday marks the last day that Tavis Smiley will appear on his eponymous show on National Public Radio. Smiley says he is leaving the network after three years on the air because the show, the first and only in the history of NPR with an African-American sensibility, didn't receive enough support.

"NPR has simply failed to meaningfully reach out to a broad spectrum of Americans," he wrote in a Nov. 29 release. "In the most multicultural, multiethnic and multiracial America ever -- I believe that NPR can and must do better in the future."

In the weeks since Smiley's announcement, NPR has refused to fire back. A version of the show (though, of course, with a different name) will continue -- insiders say BET's Ed Gordon has the inside track as host -- but no new minority-themed shows have gotten past "the rough-sketch stage," according to NPR public relations manager Chad Campbell. Says NPR spokesman David Umansky: "We're very lucky and fortunate to have had Tavis as our founding host, and we agree that more needs to be done."

That, however, will not be as easy as it sounds. Public radio has been enormously successful in recent years, thanks in part to David Giovannoni, a public-radio analyst the New York Times calls "quite possibly the most influential figure in shaping the sound of National Public Radio today." Giovannoni's research shows that NPR's core audience -- affluent white baby boomers -- doesn't want programming geared toward minorities, or young people, even in moderation. Every time they turn on the radio, he argues, that audience wants to hear the dulcet tones of the Linda Wertheimer sound-alikes who've come to define public radio. Many stations believe that following the advice of Giovannoni and his disciples means they will attract more listeners, which means more donations. As a result, their programming has become aggressively unsurprising, rarely straying far from the predictable approach of "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered."

Smiley has resisted pressures to adapt his sound, and by many accounts he's still done well at NPR. Eighty-seven stations now carry "The Tavis Smiley Show," more than twice what NPR expected at this point in the show's development, and he has the youngest and most diverse listeners of any show in the network's history. While some critics felt he was too deferential to his high-powered interview subjects -- "He got great guests but he isn't a great interviewer -- kind of like Larry King," says Brent Cunningham, managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review -- he brought buzz and an impressive Rolodex to NPR.

Smiley will still have plenty to do: He hosts and produces a late-night PBS show, maintains a book imprint, and appears regularly on "The Tom Joyner Morning Show," a radio show geared toward African-Americans that attracts 8 million listeners a week. On the eve of his departure, he reflected on his time at NPR, his future, and where he expects public radio to go from here.

I was listening to you interview Princeton professor and author Cornel West, talking about recently fired Notre Dame head football coach Tyrone Willingham. West talked about two kinds of liberalism, the "brave version" and the "weak version." The "brave version" believes in "equal status for black people and is not threatened by black excellence," while the "weak version" is "frightened by the Tyrone Willinghams, who exemplify such high levels of excellence" -- it embodies "a kind of cowardice that really doesn't want to follow through on the very principles that they enunciate and articulate." Do you think NPR and its listeners fall into either category?

I think that the notion that is so often promulgated by our friends on the right, that NPR is the liberal media elite establishment, is wrong. It's wrong for a few reasons. Number one, I believe that NPR makes an effort in its programming to truly be fair and balanced. Number two, it's wrong because it took them 33 years to find me. That is to say, in 33 years this network had never had a program hosted by a person of color that was specifically designed to help expand the audience and the reach of the network. But it's wrong, thirdly, because if the network were as committed to the notion of inclusion as I would like for them to be, then I would have re-upped with NPR. I decided not to re-sign because I just could not secure the kind of commitment that I felt we needed to continue to grow the program.

David Giovannoni, the public-radio researcher, has numbers that show that NPR listeners want a unified sound. They don't want to hear a show geared toward younger or minority listeners. If that's true, it seems like NPR has a problem, because if it wants to be more diverse it's potentially looking at a smaller audience.

I think, with regard to the researcher, that would be an exclusionary way of looking at the reality that is America. That said, "NPR" stands for National Public Radio. It's not National Some-of-the-Public Radio, it's National All-of-the-Public Radio. And NPR has got to do a better job of making that moniker -- National Public Radio -- a reality. The fact of the matter is, with regard to the researcher, my research says the exact opposite, that if you have a person of color who gives the audience a program that is smart, that is thoughtful, that is diverse, that has high energy, where the host is not trying to sound like NPR sounds -- this is National Public Radio -- a host who is more willing than most others to be expressive and to expose himself -- and to laugh, for God's sakes -- when you have a host that attempts to do those things, my research shows that the show can defy the minimal expectations that the network has for it.

NPR -- and I've not discussed this publicly -- but NPR's internal projections were that my show would be on 35 stations by the end of year 3. I started with 16, 16 very small stations. I was missing all the top 10 major markets. And so, they thought, if we were lucky, we might be on 35 stations after three years. We broke through that in the first year. And conquered the top 10. And then conquered the top 25. We're on almost 90 stations, over a million listeners, in less than three years. And, moreover -- and there's no debate, and they will confirm this -- we have the most multiracial audience in the history of NPR, since they've been tracking this data. We have the youngest demographic in the history of NPR. And clearly we have not alienated the traditional NPR listener.

Finally, you know, one cannot succeed on National Public Radio if one plays exclusively to an audience of color. Because there ain't enough colored folk who listen to NPR to register on the ratings radar. The success we've had, we have had clearly because the traditional NPR listener embraced this program. So to that end, my problem is not with the stations who courageously carried the program and gave it a chance. My problem is not with the listeners, who have been empowered by the program, and all of the e-mail that I am receiving from all over the place ... says very clearly that the traditional listener appreciates the program. My problem is with the slow rate of progress that the network is comfortable with.

I'm just not comfortable with that. I think we can do better, and I think we can do better now. I think we need to take this moment where we're hot, where there's buzz around this program, where there's growth that this program is experiencing. We need to build upon that. My granddad said to me all the time, God rest his soul, that insanity is doing the same thing the same way and expecting a different result. So that if we are going to remain stuck on stupid, we never are going to grow this audience to the level that I think it can attain. But we got to have an unorthodox, unusual, creative way of reaching out to a broader audience beyond the traditional listener and they just were not willing to take that journey.

Well, specifically, what should they have done?

The short answer is marketing, promotion, outreach. You'd be amazed at the number of people of color who do not know what NPR is. There are a lot of folk in white America who know what NPR is and just choose not to listen to it. There clearly is another segment that lives and breathes everything NPR. Having said that, NPR is the best at what it does. I love NPR, and this is the most difficult, painful decision I've ever made to leave. I hate the thought of leaving. I dread the thought of leaving. I don't want to leave. But that decision is born of the fact that there is a third category. People who have never heard of NPR. Don't know what it is. Don't know what the letters stand for. Have never tuned in. Don't know that Tavis Smiley, who is -- with humility -- a brand certainly within black America, don't know that my brand is represented on NPR. But if they did, they'd tune in. So there's so much work that needs to be done, that can be done, and after three years of doing most of the heavy lifting, I just wanted a little help.

You've talked about how listeners, at the beginning of the show, would complain that you were too boisterous, or didn't like your laughter, that kind of stuff. Was there a discussion about how much race would be a part of your show -- how black the show could be?

They left those decisions to me. I will say, to NPR's credit, that I was essentially, though I did not bear the title, the executive producer of the show. You almost have to be when the show bears your name. When you're hosting a signature talk show, it takes on so much of your personality. And if the show had failed, I would have said, hey, maybe it was too much of me. But it has succeeded, and so I hope that means that I knew a little something about what I was trying to do here.

So, how have you changed NPR?

I don't know how or, in fact, if I have changed NPR. I hope, and what I hear from the listeners, is that I have changed them. And that's more important to me, quite frankly. That I have made some small contribution in trying to make America a better place by introducing Americans to each other. By challenging people to reexamine the assumptions that they hold. So I hope that I've made the listening audience better. The network says it is going to continue the program and I hope in the coming months and years that they will use all of the resources they have available. I mean, [McDonald's heir] Joan Kroc just gave them $250 million. I hope they'll use all the resources they have at their fingertips to really make some effort to make this network more inclusive.

And I'm not just talking talent. Top to bottom. Top down, this organization needs to be more inclusive. From the people who run it to the on-air talent. To the producers. To the subject matter they cover. To the treatment they give topics. There's a range of things that this network ought to do to make National Public Radio more reflective of the country in which it is established.

There's an old adage that says, "He who breaks through the brush first, gets the thorns." So, I'm leaving with a few thorns that I've picked up here and there, but I can tell you this: I don't know that I made NPR any better, but NPR has sure made me better. I leave NPR not bitter, but better. Better as a person, better as a man, better as a talent, this experience for me -- it's made me feel better about America. I cannot begin to tell you how this program has made me smarter. I've learned so much just hosting the show. I'm going to miss that intellectual vigor, that challenge every day ... I so much appreciate the opportunity and experience that I've had. I just hope that the decision that I've made will, for future generations, be a plus in terms of making this network sound more like America looks.

By Brian Montopoli

Brian Montopoli is a writer in Washington, D.C.

MORE FROM Brian Montopoli

Related Topics ------------------------------------------