Tavis Smiley’s departure from his NPR show Dec. 16  will leave the network looking for a replacement and other ways to strengthen its black-oriented programming.
Smiley said leaving NPR is “the most painful decision I have ever made.” But the outspoken host says he quit out of frustration with its efforts to reach underserved audiences and hire more people of color.
“I just felt like the pace of progress at which they are comfortable moving is too slow,” he says. “The audience can handle a quickened pace, and the country can’t afford a slower pace.”
NPR agrees with Smiley that more needs to be done to add younger listeners and people of color to public radio’s audience, says David Umansky, the network’s acting v.p. of communications. “We’re working to do that,” he says.
Smiley and NPR were negotiating a new contract when he announced his decision. The network is seeking a replacement host for the hourlong weekday show, which covers issues of particular concern to black listeners.
NPR launched The Tavis Smiley Show in January 2002 to diversify its news coverage and draw bigger morning drivetime audiences to black-oriented pubradio stations.
Landing Smiley was something of a coup for NPR. Before joining the network, he built a high profile in black media as an anchor on Black Entertainment Television and a regular guest on the popular Tom Joyner radio show. He has considered commercial TV deals, published books and spoken at events across the country. Last year, he launched a late-night PBS talk show.
The departure of such a busy and ambitious media figure did not completely surprise managers of public radio’s African-American stations, who worked with NPR to develop his show. Smiley’s contract with NPR, which was set to expire in January, covered two years — relatively long for Smiley.
“We were very fortunate to have had Tavis Smiley for as long as we did,” says Edith Thorpe, g.m. of WNCU-FM in Durham, N.C.
Smiley’s departure coincides with the start of his previously planned winter vacation. Tony Cox, the show’s regular Friday host, will take over as interim host until a replacement is found.
Meanwhile, public TV’s Tavis Smiley, produced by KCET in Los Angeles, enters a second season next month and becomes part of PBS’s public-affairs block on Friday evenings. The show has the youngest and most affluent audience of any primetime or late-night regular PBS series and draws the largest black viewership.
The TV show has been drawing a larger audience than the radio show, at least by some measures. It chalked up a cume of 1.9 million viewers in July, compared with a recent radio cume of 900,000. The average audience on TV was 375,000 households in July, compared with a radio audience of 222,600 individuals in spring 2004.
Taking advantage of his newly freed time, Smiley plans to take the PBS show on the road more often and will produce four primetime TV specials that explore issues in greater depth.
Leaked to the media
In an e-mail to stations, Smiley said that “NPR’s own research has confirmed that NPR has simply failed to meaningfully reach out to a broad spectrum of Americans who would benefit from public radio, but simply don’t know it exists or what it offers.”
“In the most multicultural, multiethnic and multiracial America ever — I believe that NPR can and must do better in the future,” he continued in the message, which generated headlines after appearing on Romenesko, a popular media blog. Smiley regrets that the e-mail was leaked before he could inform the press of his resignation.
NPR needs more creative marketing to reach underserved audiences, the host says. He takes the network to task for lacking a diverse staff. Even President Bush, he says, recognizes the symbolic importance of having a diverse Cabinet. “I’m not really sure that NPR has even gotten on base symbolically,” Smiley says.
Audience research shows that Tavis Smiley has indeed reached black listeners. Twenty-nine percent of its listeners are black, the highest proportion of any NPR program. It airs on 87 stations, 18 of which target black audiences.
Black listenership to general-audience stations carrying Tavis has grown 15 percent, says consultant Loretta Rucker, who helped NPR and the African-American station consortium launch the show. Tavis has performed well both on black stations and on stations with mostly white listeners, such as KUOW in Seattle, WHYY in Philadelphia and WFPL in Louisville, Ky.
But Tavis has also been controversial in some cities. Some white listeners complained that Smiley’s delivery, which diverges from the more reserved sound of most NPR hosts, is too loud and energetic. On some major-market stations, Tavis polarized audiences.
The show meets membership goals in its 8 p.m. timeslot on KERA in Dallas but suffers from low audience and loyalty, says Abby Goldstein, p.d.
“It sounds very, very different from most of the other programming that we have on our air, and I think that can be a bit of a challenge for public radio consumers,” she says. Goldstein has considered dropping the show but says she’ll wait to see how it changes after Smiley’s departure.
Black niche: news listeners
Managers of the African-American stations who helped develop Tavis tell a different story. On their stations, the show has increased morning audiences and boosted underwriting and membership.
Tavis became the highest-rated show on WEAA in Baltimore within six months of its debut, says Maxie Jackson, g.m., and helped double the station’s underwriting revenue. WEAA moved Tavis to afternoons and built on its morning popularity by starting its own news program in the vacated timeslot, Jackson says.
Despite the show’s success, Jackson agrees with Smiley that NPR — as well as public radio as a whole — has more work to do. “We all have got to learn how to effectively market to people of color, which we have not done yet,” he says.
Not only must NPR improve its service to black stations with more programs and better promotion, but the stations themselves need marketing savvy, he says. Tavis has brought more black listeners to general-audience stations but has not done the same for black stations, according to Rucker.
Jackson says black stations are at a disadvantage because listeners know them for airing music, not news. One news show like Tavis is inadequate for building a black news audience.
“It probably would be good if CPB ... could support some effort to study proper marketing promotion methodologies to reach people of color,” says Jackson, who also wants NPR to work with marketing agencies that know how to reach African-Americans.
Rucker says NPR and the stations need to consider which media their potential listeners consume. “We know African-Americans are not monolithic,” she says. Those who might like public radio are probably watching CNN and reading newsmagazines and black-oriented publications, she says, adding, “They wouldn’t necessarily be the African-American audience for commercial music stations.”
Some black stations urgently want to stake out a news audience. Wendy Williams, g.m. of WCLK-FM in Atlanta, says her station has lost listeners to local commercial competitors encroaching on her formats of jazz, gospel and oldies.
“What we’re going to have to do is to program more of a niche and specialize in something that’s not being done well in this market,” she says, and news could be that niche.
African-American station managers see a solution in producing more black-oriented public radio programs that can join Tavis on their airwaves. They met with NPR executives Nov. 17-19 to develop a five-year strategy for serving black audiences.
As part of that planning, the African-American stations have been searching for promising black radio talents. That work will help them replace Smiley, says Rucker, who adds that NPR and stations have already pinpointed “lots of really qualified people” to fill the departing host’s shoes. A successor could be chosen within weeks, she says.
Consortium members agree that Smiley deserves credit for raising public radio’s profile among his potential successors.
“Until the Tavis Smiley Show, all these people did not think that this was necessarily a place for large-scale African-American talent,” says Rucker.
Released Nov. 29, 2004
Tavis Smiley informed us today that he will not renew his contract and that his last day will be Dec. 16. We wish him well. Tavis is a remarkable talent and holds an important place in public radio history. We applaud Tavis for his energy and drive, which contributed greatly to the success of this historic show. NPR and the African American Public Radio Consortium — a nationwide group of public radio stations that serve African-Americans — intend to continue this program with a new host and to expand and build upon its successes.
Four years ago, the African American Consortium and NPR together conceived of a public affairs show for public radio that would build diverse audiences and reflect the interests and perspective of the African American community. Tavis helped us to jumpstart this effort — and for this we will always be grateful.
This partnership has been very successful. According to the Arbitron Spring 2004 research, the show reaches nearly 900,000 listeners each week on 87 stations, including 18 stations serving predominantly African American communities and stations that serve general audiences in nine of the top ten markets. It attracts one of the most diverse audiences to public radio: 29 percent of the listeners are African American, and 40 percent are listeners aged 44 or younger. Each of these measures is the highest of any NPR program.
We are proud that this programming concept has brought new listeners to public radio while presenting the African American perspective to broader audiences. Together, we have made tremendous progress to diversify the public radio audience, and we intend to build upon the initial success of this project.
Two weeks ago, NPR and the African American public radio stations held a three-day meeting to determine how to expand upon the show's success and to develop more programming that will extend the reach and diversity of public radio. As a result of this meeting, we have already begun the process of reaching out to smart, exciting and diverse talent to bring them into the family of public radio.
Tavis had planned to go on holiday from Dec. 16 through January 7. The show's regular Friday host, Tony Cox, is already set to fill in during that timeframe. Working with the Consortium, NPR will launch an aggressive national search for a new host who can build upon the success of the show. NPR and the Consortium are committed to the continuation of this show — and the creation of others, for which it opened the door.
Web page posted Jan. 16, 2004
Copyright 2004 by Current Publishing Committee