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    Smiley interviewing Rep. Harold Ford Jr. at a rally in support of affirmative actionSmiley (left) interviewed Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.) at a rally supporting affirmative action. (Photo: NPR)  

After storms, Tavis draws diverse crowd

Originally published in Current, April 7, 2003
By Mike Janssen

Tavis Smiley’s voice pounds like a drum, a trademark delivery with a clear message for first-time listeners: We’re not in Lake Wobegon anymore.

The strident cadence sounds in sharp counterpoint to the mellower, less percussive rhythms of other NPR hosts. To some ears that tone has become so uniform as to invite mockery — just think of Saturday Night Live’s parody, the laid-back hosts of “Delicious Dish.”

Now the network’s experiment with The Tavis Smiley Show, which debuted early last year, has found success among listeners and programmers willing to embrace a new focus and vibe.

The quick-moving weekday talk show airs on 56 stations and in nine of the top 10 markets, making it one of the fastest-growing programs NPR has launched.

Though Smiley was built by and for a small group of stations serving mostly African-Americans, it has gained broad carriage on general-audience stations and popularity among their predominantly white listeners.

Listeners say Tavis sounds unlike anything else from NPR. At times, that has been a disadvantage, as some rebel against a black voice they call aggressive and an agenda they dub racist.

Yet early feedback from research, ratings and fundraising indicates the show is reaching a diverse and enthusiastic audience.

By last summer, Tavis was already well received by the African-American stations who, working with NPR, created the show to expand their morning audiences. The show debuted on 16 stations, most of them African-American, and general managers reported that Tavis was boosting ratings, underwriting and audience response.

Since those early months, however, Tavis has been picked up by 37 general-audience stations, some of which have relatively few black listeners or even black residents in their areas. These stations instead banked on the hope that curious white listeners would want to tune in as well.

From the start, NPR and Smiley believed and hoped this would prove true. Without backing from general-audience stations, the show had limited room for growth. NPR’s black audience has grown in recent years but still accounts for less than 5 percent of total listenership.

Jay Kernis, NPR’s senior v.p. of programming, says he’s not surprised at the path Tavis has taken. “I understood immediately why it worked” on general-audience stations, says Kernis, who is white. “Here was a window into a world that I wanted to know about, and every day I wanted to go to this place.”

Stations hear mixed reactions

Smiley’s wider carriage on general-audience stations has changed his audience’s composition. In spring 2002, according to Arbitron, about half of Tavis’s cume audience was black. By fall 2002, general-audience carriage lowered blacks’ share of cume listening to 22 percent.

Smiley sitting at a microphone, wearing headphones and drinking coffee
Smiley's charged-up hosting, popular with black listeners, has gained ground on general-audience stations as well.

Research and stations’ experiences suggest that while black listeners quickly take to Tavis, the show can polarize listeners of other races when it first hits the air. At times, the show’s sound and focus — the very qualities that draw fans — turn others away.

Smiley prides himself on hosting a show that diverges from public radio’s signature sound. At conferences and in interviews, he has often said public radio “needs to sound more like America,” and he strives for a diverse roster of topics and guests.

His ebullience sets the show’s pace as he looks beyond headlines for territory not always explored on other NPR shows — including a heavy focus on issues that top agendas of African-Americans but that may be overlooked by other media. He brings those topics to the air with enthusiastic questioning and a willingness to let his guests challenge each other.

“It takes a more clearly defined point of view at times, but by the same token it’s a very lively conversational hour — probably more so than some of the other shows,” says Cleve Callison, g.m. of WMUB in Oxford, Ohio, which has carried Tavis since September. “He’ll have people on who have clearly defined points of view and mix it up together — in a good way, not a Jerry Springer way. Sometimes the other shows seem a little polite in comparison, I suppose.”

Callison and other programmers who have added Tavis have found the show becomes a pleasurable change of pace for some listeners and an unwelcome intrusion for others.

The negative calls, letters and e-mails often hit first. Some Philadelphia listeners called the program anti-white and “racist” when it debuted, says Christine Dempsey, director of radio programming at WHYY.

In other cities, white listeners objected to Smiley’s delivery, which they called loud, abrasive and overbearing. “I have to turn my radio down on some days,” said a listener in a Seattle focus group.

As with any program change, the disaffected may be motivated more by the loss of a favorite show than by the newcomer’s arrival. An outcry from disgruntled Morning Edition listeners in Santa Monica prompted KCRW to drop Tavis after less than a week, reinstating the 5 a.m. hour of NPR’s signature morning show.

“I’ve been well-known for changing programming, but this was too pervasive,” said General Manager Ruth Seymour in the Los Angeles Times. “The outcry was just enormous.” The decision disappointed Smiley, but his show still airs on KCRW competitor KPCC.

Terry Rensel, p.d. at WFPL in Louisville, Ky., added Tavis July 1 and met with “a very mixed reaction,” he says. “I did get roughed up some, to be quite honest.” Hundreds of angry listeners wrote and called, some charging that Smiley “didn’t sound like public radio.”

But at WFPL, WHYY, WMUB and other stations, the backlash subsided. As weeks passed, Rensel still heard that Tavis sounded unlike public radio, but the remark was complimentary.

“A lot of the positive reaction was for some of the same reasons as the negative reaction,” he says. “They said this is exciting and interesting and unlike anything that I’ve heard on public radio in a long time. I had a listener say they were just about ready to give up on public radio and then they heard Tavis.”

Programmers hesitate to draw firm conclusions from such early data. But Rensel and other programmers say Tavis seems to be drawing new listeners and members, black as well as other races. WHYY’s black audience in Smiley’s time slot, though admittedly small to begin with, has doubled since the show’s debut.

WFPL’s audience in Tavis’s time slot grew by a quarter from spring 2002 to fall 2002, and fundraising in the hour increased 40 percent between last year’s spring drive and this year’s.

White listeners discussing Tavis in focus groups sound like they’ve just had their first tantalizing taste of soul food. One Seattle listener called the show “very urban.” Another said Tavis gives whites “a chance to be ‘street.’”

A listener told KUOW, Tavis’s Seattle station, “Thank you for giving me something I didn’t know I needed.”

“It was really gratifying to hear people — just average listeners — talk about this show in such positive and glowing terms,” says Jeff Hansen, p.d. of KUOW in Seattle, who also weathered complaints after bumping Fresh Air from 3 p.m. to the evening to make room for Tavis. The new show has held steady audience and doubled pledges in its hour since its debut on a station where blacks account for just 3 percent of the audience.

“We felt after the focus groups that this show will probably work,” Hansen said. “We might have some growing pains, but it will probably work.”

For Smiley, a letdown in D.C.

Smiley recently renewed his contract with NPR for two years and seems to be riding high on his show’s ascent. Wearing a navy blue blazer and cufflinks initialed “TS,” he exudes confidence after polishing off a live broadcast from outside the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. Arguments over affirmative action in higher education drew thousands of demonstrators in support of the policies — as well as D.C. natives who commiserated with Smiley over what he calls his biggest letdown of the past year.

In February, Washington’s WAMU started airing his program — in the graveyard-shift hour of 2 a.m. In a place some locals call Chocolate City, where Smiley lived for five years while hosting a talk show on Black Entertainment Television, it was sour news. Many blacks he spoke with, he says, took WAMU’s decision as an insult. The station carries an hour of the Canadian-produced As It Happens at 11 p.m.

The station also received letters from nine members of Congress, including Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) and D.C.’s nonvoting congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, praising their decision to carry Tavis but urging them to give it a “more appropriate” time.

WAMU has not heard from listeners demanding a better time for Tavis, says Kate Hawken, assistant director of public affairs. The station was unwilling to disrupt its daytime news/talk lineup for the show, she says, adding that host Kojo Nnamdi’s “distinctive African-American voice” is already a midday staple.

Tavis is “traditionally a morning or afternoon-drive show,” Hawken says. A handful of stations, however, air it after 8 p.m.

Smiley is confident his show will earn a better slot on WAMU. He also has an eye on Boston, the sole top-ten market he has yet to crack.

Responding to criticism from stations and listeners, he has tried cooling his sound. He said he has Post-it Notes dotting his desk and microphone chiding him to decelerate his motor mouth, soften his tone, be respectful of guests. The difference over a year ago is obvious. But the focus on black issues, and that attention-grabbing pulse in his voice, remain intact.

“To the extent the show is working, it’s working because I have not tried to transcend my race,” he says. “I have, rather, embraced my race.”

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