Tavis Smiley is the host of a 30-minute weeknight television program (Tavis Smiley) broadcast on approximately 104 stations of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Each show typically features one or two interviews and tilts left in its choice of topics and guests. Smiley also heads The Smiley Group, Inc., a media conglomerate that co-produces his radio show and oversees Smiley’s ventures in publishing, workshops, conferences and other activities.
The third of ten children, Tavis Smiley was born in 1964 in Gulfport, Mississippi. At age two he moved with his family to Kokomo, Indiana when his father, an Air Force noncommissioned officer, was transferred to nearby Grissom Air Force Base. His mother was an associate minister in the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World church.
While attending Indiana University in the 1980s, Smiley was active in student government and became an intern for the Mayor of Bloomington. After graduating in 1986, he moved to Los Angeles to work as an aide to the head of the City Council and then with the local office of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From 1988-90, Smiley was an administrative aide to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.
In 1990 Smiley ran for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council and finished fourth among 14 candidates. To build his name recognition and earn money for his next political run, he began doing a daily one-minute commentary on the local black-owned radio station KGFJ, personally recruiting sponsors for The Smiley Report. These commentaries were soon syndicated to other stations, and Smiley was then hired to do commentaries for ABC Radio.
In 1996 President Bill Clinton introduced Smiley to the popular leftwing African-American talk radio host Tom Joyner, on whose program Smiley became a regular commentator. Two years later, a first volume of Smiley’s commentaries was published under the title On Air.
In the fall of 1996 Smiley became host of BET Tonight, a magazine show on the cable television channel Black Entertainment Television (BET). The views he brought to this program, as to his radio commentaries, were summed up by Smiley during a 1996 Metro interview about his book Hard Left: Straight Talk About the Wrongs of the Right: “I don’t waste time in my book, or anywhere else, defining terms…. The country needs to take a ‘hard left’ away from the policies espoused by conservative extremists.”
On another occasion Smiley said, “I think the term ‘pragmatic progressive’ is an accurate description of what I’m about.”
Smiley promptly inked deals to be a contributor to the ABC shows Prime Time and Good Morning America. He continued to do daily commentaries for the “urban” stations of ABC radio, and to appear on the Tom Joyner Show.
In April 2001 Smiley was hired to begin his own hour-long weekday program, The Tavis Smiley Show, on National Public Radio (NPR).
In a 2002 speech to an audience of black journalists, Smiley raised the topic of the 9/11 rescue workers and asked why “African-American teenagers in New York City should make heroes of the policemen who have harassed them and the fire department that wouldn’t let their parents or grandparents join.” He also suggested that government anti-terrorist tactics would be misused to violate the civil rights of minorities.
In his 2002 book Keeping the Faith: Stories of Love, Courage, Healing, and Hope from Black America, editor Smiley included stories of how actor Danny Glover had conquered dyslexia, and of how radical Princeton professor Cornel West had overcome three life crises.
To promote their works, Smiley and Cornel West teamed up with Michael Eric Dyson, charging attendees $50 to $60 apiece to attend their traveling “Pass the Mic[rophone]!” tour.
The Smiley Group, Inc. entered into a venture with Hay House publishers to produce, under a “Smiley Books” imprint, books, mini-books, audio cassettes, CDs, success seminars, and “Empowerment Cards.” Smiley developed promotional ties with companies ranging from Microsoft to Wal-Mart. He signed with Buena Vista Television to develop and star in a late-night television talk show.
In January 2004 PBS began airing Tavis Smiley weeknights. Eleven months later Smiley announced that he would be leaving NPR’s The Tavis Smiley Show, complaining that the network had been unable to reach a more diversified audience.
Smiley reacted passionately to a February 26, 2012 incident in Sanford, Florida, in which a “white Hispanic” neighborhood-watch captain named George Zimmerman shot. When Zimmerman was acquitted of murder and manslaughter charges in a July 2013 trial, Smiley said:
“This is, for many Americans, another piece of evidence of the incontrovertible contempt that this nation often shows and displays for black men….
“Something is wrong with this nation. Fifty years after the March on Washington…something is wrong when adults can racially profile children—Trayvon Martin was a child—racially profiled and gunned down—”
In the October 18, 2016 edition of Time magazine, Smiley published an article titled “Why I Fear America Could Enslave Black People Again.” Therein, he wrote:
“When I hear [Republican presidential candidate] Donald Trump suggest that he wants to ‘make America great again,’ it always triggers the same three questions in my head. One: How is Trump defining ‘greatness’?… Two: Since so many fellow citizens have yet to experience the true ‘greatness’ of America for the first time, for whom are we making America great again? And, three: To what specific period of American greatness are you wanting us to return? When black folk suffered segregation after slavery? When women had no right to vote or control their own bodies? When gay brothers and lesbian sisters felt ceaseless hate? When we stole land from the Native Americans? When we sent Japanese families to internment camps? When America lynched Mexicans? I just need Trump to give me some clarity on the time period he wishes to travel back to….
“[C]ould the Constitution be thwarted and black folk end up enslaved again? Legal scholars, of course, will find the question ludicrous and laughable…. With the hair-raising, bone-chilling, spine-breaking, nerve-wracking path we’re on right now, I shudder to think where this democracy could end up one sad day, if we don’t get off this low road and make our way to higher ground soon.”