Tavis Smiley has what could be deemed the perfect talkshow host name — upbeat and amiable — but growing up, he was often the butt of belittling schoolyard jokes.
“When I was a kid, I hated my name,” says the Midwesterner whose childhood pipedream was to play first base for the Cincinnati Reds. “Tavis Smiley. I got teased so much. It was Travis, Tayvis and Smiley became Smelly and ‘Oh, you’re Tavis Smelly.’ So I hated it as a kid. But, lo and behold, years later you’re a TV guy and it works.”
Indeed it does. Hatched in 2004, Smiley’s eponymous PBS talker kickstarted its 11th season in January. The show, recipient of four NAACP Image Awards, has featured a wide and varied swath of high-profile guests, from Maya Angelou to Cornel West, from Ethan Hawke to James Taylor.
“The first time we met, we just hit it off magically,” says Smiley of the Grammy winning singer-songwriter. “There are very few guests I can say this about, but James and I actually became friends.”
But it was a desire to serve the public in a deep and meaningful way — “My whole career track at that point was to become an elected official,” he says — and not hobnob with celebrities that, in 1996, pushed Smiley, who is receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on April 24, to pen “Hard Left: Straight Talk about the Wrongs of the Right,” a book that worked like a karate chop on conservatives, took note of Democratic Party shortcomings and issued a political call to action.
“1996 was a seminal year in my career,” says Smiley, whose the Smiley Group Inc. headquarters are inconspicuously perched adjacent to a closed-down burger joint in the artsy Leimert Park section of South Central Los Angeles. “Within months of writing my book I was in the White House as a guest of Bill Clinton and then as a regular on Tom Joyner’s radio show on NPR. So now I’m talking to 10 million people every day around the country. A couple of months after that, BET gave me my own latenight show. At that point I realized, well, maybe the political campaign thing of mine is done.”
In 2002 Smiley became the first “person of color” in the history of the United States to have his own daily show on NPR, and then, in 2004, become the first African-American to have his own daily show on PBS. That same year, he became the first and only American — “forget my color,” he notes with a quick flick of the wrist — to host daily talkers on both PBS and NPR.
“The whole thing was always about public service for me, and I saw delivering commentary on issues affecting people as a means to provide that service. My goal has always been to empower people with information that can help them live better lives.”
In addition to Smiley’s philanthropic bent, he’s also a masterful fundraiser. He and Oprah Winfrey are the only two African-American broadcasters with national and international distribution who own all their content. And where other nets have the benefit of advertisers and inhouse PR machines, Smiley has to generate the production costs of his show on an annual basis, a feat not easily accomplished.
“I own everything — I raise the money, I produce the show, I pay the staff,” he says. “The good news, I say all the time, is that I own all of my content. The bad news is that I own all of my content. If my team doesn’t raise the money, then I’m not on the air.”
Currently re-upped for the next three seasons, through 2016, Smiley has no intention of resting on his laurels. His latest print baby, a bio on the final 365 days of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life called “Death of a King: The Real Story of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Final Year” — “It’s the story nobody knows,” says Smiley — is due out this year. Between TS Media, which produces his PBS talker; Smiley Radio Properties, producer of his radio shows; and SmileyBooks, a co-publishing venture with Hay House (just some of Smiley’s entrepreneurial undertakings), he has a sharp and steady focus on what lay ahead in his career.
“There is so much work to be done, and I never lose sight of this,” says the infectiously optimistic media maven. “I say this with humility, that I have quietly become — we have quietly become — the longest-running show in the history of latenight television hosted by a person of color. Arsenio [Hall] lasted five years his first time around. I’m at 11.”