Tavis Smiley, WBEZ drop the gloves

Oh, its on.

And it its due to Chicago Public Media turning Tavis Smiley off.

The PBS late-night talk show host slammed Chicago Public Media and its President-CEO in a letter to him and made publicly available after WBEZ-FM dropped Smiley & West from its Sunday afternoon lineup on September 30 after two seasons on the air. Distributed by Public Radio International, the one-hour weekly public-affairs show featuring Smiley and Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West.

WBEZ dropped the show due to declining ratings (only 13,000 listeners were left), but also cited a need for “balance” in its public affairs programming, according to a WBEZ spokesperson. Both Smiley and West have been critical of President Obama, saying he has not done enough for the African-American community, particuarly when it came to poverty issues. Smiley said those were the reasons why his show was dropped by WBEZ.

This isn’t the first time Smiley’s views about Obama has gotten him in hot water: in 2008, Smiley was fired from his commentator role on The Tom Joyner Morning Show after critical comments about the then-candidate Obama and after complaints from listeners, though Smiley indicated he “resigned” from the show.

In addition to Chicago, Smiley & West was also dropped by public radio stations in Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and St. Louis.

But it was the Chicago defection that riled Smiley. In a letter he emailed to Chicago Public Media Torey Malatin (which you can read in its entirety here), Smiley wrote:

“The disregard and disrespect for my work one reads in your letter to listeners is too extreme to adequately address in this email; but when you suggest that I have become “far less inclusive” in my work, you advance a lie. A big lie. I’m about to celebrate 10 years on PBS and 12 years on public radio. As an African American in the still-too-lacking in‐diversity world of public media, one does not survive in these environs – much less thrive- if one’s interview style is remotely akin to the intellectual bullying of Bill O’Reilly. To compare my work to his in your letter to listeners is to defame me in the worst way. I take pride in being the first African American in the history of PBS and NPR to simultaneously host his own signature weekday public television and radio shows, opening the doors for other persons of color to now host or co-­host award-­winning programs over public media.”

Smiley later wrote:

“I have only a First Amendment right to free speech, not to a radio program that WBEZ is mandated to broadcast. You’re entitled to your opinions of that program and your executive decisions concerning it, but you’re not entitled to your own set of facts. Particularly when those “facts” are demeaning, derogatory and dead wrong.”

WBEZ has also dropped his other show distributed by PRI, The Tavis Smiley Show.

WBEZ has replaced Smiley & West with reruns of the now-defunct Car Talk. Smiley & West is still available online and on demand.

Thought: There seems to be rhetoric coming from both sides here. Wow, does Tavis Smiley even understand this is a business? While yours truly understands his frustration – you get low numbers, you get canceled – doesn’t matter if the show is on a commercial outlet or a non-com – radio or TV. And ratings for his show with Dr. West dropped from around 38,000 to about 13,000 listeners when the plug was pulled on September 30. And Smiley complained about the time period – Sundays at Noon when “most black people are at church”. Well, excuse me but this black person is done with church by 11:30 a.m. Thanks for the stereotype. Lucky for you the show wasn’t on Monday mornings at 2 a.m., then you would have a real problem.

With that said, Smiley does have a point regarding public radio. Though WBEZ had a right to drop his show because of declining ratings, Smiley was correct to question public radio’s role in targeting minority audiences. Did WBEZ use Smiley & West‘s cancellation and replacing it with reruns of a canceled show as an excuse not to upset those “donors” in Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Wilmette, or Evanston because of the show’s content – i.e. being critical of President Obama? Malatia’s explanation of why he dropped Smiley & West is a a little suspect, saying the show was becoming like Democracy Now! and about “balance”. It’s not about “balance” but the “balance sheet”.

So, instead of creating programming to reach out to the minority community, they throw on some reruns of another canceled show? This is public radio, not TV Land or Lifetime.

While Smiley alienated much of Chicago’s African-American community with his criticism of Obama, this isn’t the issue here. What is the issue is public radio’s role in minority communities. Do communities like Avalon Park (where yours truly lives), Calumet Heights, Burnside, Harvey, Chicago Heights, or University Park even have a voice? What other shows WBEZ have featuring persons of color (besides Latino USA)? In a market where minorities comprise nearly 45 percent of the population – the third-largest in the country where Obama makes his home – there is little diversity in the media industry, as I pointed out in March.  This business would rather recycle pukemongers like Jay Mariotti and Survivor’s Colton Cumbie than achieve this goal.

So when is the WBEZ pledge drive caravan coming to 83rd and Stony Island? Oh. The pledge caravan doesn’t go south of Cermak Road. Figures.

(Updated 10:07 a.m.)

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