Punditry, audience declines cost Smiley & West stations

By Mike Janssen

Tavis Smiley is defending the tone and content of his weekly public radio show Smiley & West after Chicago’s WBEZ became the latest and largest-market station to drop it from its schedule.

The hourlong show, now airing on 71 stations, features longtime public radio and TV host Smiley riding shotgun with author and activist Cornel West, interviewing guests and sounding off on current events. It debuted two years ago, an offshoot of Smiley’s hourlong interview show, which he continues to host solo. Both programs are distributed by Public Radio International.

Hosts West and Smiley have riled some listeners with their comments on politics, but Smiley says the show welcomes diverse points of view. (Photo courtesy of SmileyBooks/Earl Gibson III.)

For some stations, Smiley & West’s political content has become too strident. Thirteen stations have dropped the show since June 2011, with several taking issue with the co-hosts’ political opinionating or citing complaints from listeners.

WBEZ dropped Smiley & West mostly because of a steep decline in audience, President Torey Malatia told Current. Its cume dropped by two-thirds over the past year and a half, he said, and its share by 75 percent. Shows airing before and after its noontime slot on Sundays had not seen similar declines.

Malatia can’t say for sure, but he speculated that the decline may have been due to the co-hosts’ political punditizing. “No one is against someone having a political point of view, but it does nothing to advance your vision if you’re not willing to hear an opposing point of view,” he said. “There are indications that Tavis and Cornel were going in that direction.”

Malatia also told a Chicago Sun-Times columnist that the show had been showing “multiple signs of significant sloppiness,” and recently featured “a lot of seat-of-the-pants kind of crap.”

Smiley shot back with an open letter to Malatia that circulated in the Chicago and media blogospheres. Malatia’s comments about the show were “demeaning, derogatory and dead wrong,” the host wrote.

“That’s not an explanation,” Smiley said of Malatia’s “crap” comment in an interview with Current. “That’s pejorative. That’s punitive.”

As for the cancellation of his show, Smiley questioned the timeslot it occupied in WBEZ’s lineup, an hour when many black Chicagoans could have been at church and unable to tune in, he said.

He also contested Malatia’s opinion that the show was developing an exclusive tone. The first 15 minutes of the show are devoted to Smiley and West discussing the news, but the balance of time features listener comments and interviews with guests.

Smiley & West’s website also invites interaction from listeners. “We want to be democratic and give the audience a chance to respond,” Smiley said.

Chicago Media Action, a media activist group that has often criticized WBEZ, launched a Facebook page, “‘Smiley & West’ dumped by WBEZ Chicago Public Media: Take Action.” As of this writing, it has 101 likes.

Complaints in the Midwest

Whatever the cause of Smiley & West’s cancellation on WBEZ, it had hit other speed bumps in the race to build carriage. Some stations dropped the show because it was the only PRI offering they aired apart from the BBC World Service, says Joe Zefran, producer for Smiley & West. When American Public Media took over distribution of the BBC, those stations could no longer afford the show.

However, Sam Fleming, managing director of news and programming at Boston’s WBUR, cut the show partly because it had become too political, according to comments he shared with PRI, which Zefran then forwarded to Current.

When asked by Current, Fleming did not cite politics as a reason for dropping Smiley & West, but said the station wanted to air Snap Judgment in that timeslot, in part to attract a younger audience.

KWMU in St. Louis dropped the show because it was “not good radio” and had drawn complaints from African-American listeners, according to PRI. And Minneapolis’s KMOJ, a station that targets an African-American audience, cut the program in part because listeners disliked Smiley and West’s criticisms of President Barack Obama, said Candice Breedlove, p.d.

KMOJ also lost listeners when it aired Smiley & West, Breedlove said, but the audience rebounded after KMOJ scheduled a gospel show in its time slot.

Smiley is taking the carriage declines in stride, and said none of the stations that dropped the show contacted him about poor audience or production values.

Several stations have expressed interest in recent weeks in adding Smiley & West to their lineups , he said, and the show’s social-media footprint on Facebook and Twitter has grown. He expects to secure the show’s first underwriting contracts and line up support from foundations next year.

“The fact that it doesn’t work for every station ought not to call into question the high-quality nature of the program,” Smiley said. When he introduced Smiley & West in 2010, he warned programmers that it would be different from his other programs and would include personal opinions: “I am an acquired taste.”

To Smiley, the attitudes regarding the program validate a point of view that he also shared in 2004, when he quit his daily NPR series and accused that network of not trying hard enough to diversify its staff and audience.

“Public television and public radio . . . are a wholly owned subsidiary of white intelligentsia, and people don’t want to hear it,” he said.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Wallace-Bradley/517213262 Wallace Bradley

    We learned as Negroes in America about censorship of oppressed people, how people didn’t want us to learn how to read or write; then this country and the world stood by as a man in Germany censored a people and was responsible of another crime against humanity.
    In this country we as American have which is known as a first amendment right under the U.S. CONSTITUTION, we will not stand by and let you silent Black voices from Supreme Court Judge Thomas to Tavis Smiley and Cornell West, in this country that will allow a MAN IN CONGRESS TO CALL THE PRESIDENT A LIAR ON FROM THE FLOOR OF CONGRESS AND ALLOW THE SON OF MITT ROMNEY to say that He wanted to slap the President because of what he said about his father, They weren’t censored people felt that they were only standing on the principles of the 1st Amendment.

  • http://www.facebook.com/wattree Eric Wattree

    An Open Letter to Pacifica Radio: Regarding the Dropping of Smiley and West

    Board of Directors,
    Pacifica Foundation:
    .
    I’m writing in response to the recent announcement that the Pacifica
    Foundation has appointed it’s own chairman, Summer Reese, as Executive Director.
    Admittedly, at this point I know very little about Director Reese, but I intend
    to address that issue immediately, so as to gain a better understanding of
    what’s going on within the organization that has caused it to become so far out
    of touch with what’s currently going on in the Black community.
    .
    Ms Reese has started off her tenure as Executive Director of the Pacifica
    Foundation by making one of the worst moves she could have ever made, at least,
    with respect to the Black community. By intervening in the Tavis Smiley/Cornel
    West controversy at radio station WBEZ she has clearly demonstrated that she is
    completely out of touch with the shifting sands in the Black community. On the
    other hand, in discontinuing the services of Smiley and West, Torey Malatia at
    WBEZ and the three other stations that took similar actions, clearly
    demonstrated that they have their finger on the pulse of what’s going on in
    the community. So it is Dir. Reese who is out of touch with the rumblings within
    the community, not the people that she’s criticizing.
    .
    Ms. Reese was quoted as saying, “It is disappointing when the term advocacy
    is used as a smear to trivialize the presentation of intelligent and passionate
    discussion that is sometimes critical of the American status quo.” That quote
    alone demonstrates that Ms. Reese is missing the entire point.
    .
    Tavis and West have tried to preempt criticism by framing the issue in a
    way that suggests that their critics are merely upset because they’re
    criticizing President Obama, and obviously, Ms. Reese has bought into that
    nonsense hook, line, and sinker. But that’s just nonsense, it’s the very same
    kind of RACIST and condescending nonsense that the Republicans are arguing. The
    implication is, Black people are so blinded by race that we don’t have sense
    enough to know what’s in our own best interest. The mere fact that Tavis and
    West would make such a degrading and condescending argument speaks volumes about how little respect they have for the intelligence of the Black communit . . . MORE
    http://wattree.blogspot.com/2012/10/an-open-letter-to-pacifica-radio.html

  • surferdale

    Complaining publicly about a station dropping a show is not a wise marketing stratgey to get other stations to add the program to their schedules. Just sayin’…

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