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Smiley, Tavis(1964–) - Journalist, broadcaster, writer, entrepreneur, philanthropist, Begins Media Career, Chronology

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In the early 2000s Tavis Smiley was recognized as an influential broadcast and print journalist, respected political commentator, noted author, highly sought-after speaker, entrepreneur, foundation executive, and philanthropist. He came from humble beginnings, overcame obstacles, and used his considerable influence to positively influence the lives of others through his work in multiple communications media.

The third oldest among ten children of Emory G. and Joyce M. Smiley, Tavis was born on September 13, 1964 in Gulfport, Mississippi, but spent nearly all of his early life in and around Kokomo, Indiana. The family relocated when his father, a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, was assigned to work at Grissom Air Force Base in Bunker Hill, Indiana. In addition to being a wife and mother, Joyce Smiley was a Pentecostal minister.

The large family lived in a mobile home for a period, in which the young Smiley had to share a bed with several brothers. Despite the family challenges, Smiley became an energetic and inquisitive youngster, with a particular interest in politics. He was elected class president in high school, a notable accomplishment in that the overwhelming majority of his classmates were not African Americans.

After graduating from Kokomo High School in 1982, Smiley attended Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, where he became increasingly interested in politics and activism along with classroom studies. While in the city as a student, he served as an assistant to the mayor, Tomilea Allison. When an African American classmate died after an altercation with the police, Smiley was sensitized to issues facing the larger national African American community and felt that pursuing a political career would enable him to make a difference. As a result, he left Indiana to spend a semester as an intern for Tom Bradley, the first African American mayor of Los Angeles, California.

Smiley then made the decision to remain in Los Angeles, where he worked for a time as a special assistant to the executive director of the city’s branch office of the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) and networked with other young African American professionals. He eventually became an adviser to the city council president, administrative aide to Bradley, and campaigned unsuccessfully for a seat on the council.

Begins Media Career

Shortly after losing the election in 1990, Smiley started doing a short radio news commentary, The Smiley Report , which was favorably received by the local listening audience and eventually was syndicated to stations in other parts of the country. In 1994, Smiley was profiled by Time magazine as one of America’s 50 most promising young leaders, which also attracted attention and recognition beyond his base of operations in Los Angeles.

Black Entertainment Television (BET), which had become a major success in the cable television industry since its founding by African American executive Robert L. (Bob) Johnson in 1980, approached Smiley about taking his talents to television and hired him to host a talk show, BET Talk , which began airing in 1996. During the same year Smiley published his book, Hard Left: Straight Talk about the Wrongs of the Right , and was introduced to Tom Joyner, the nationally syndicated radio host, by President Bill Clinton, who had been interviewed by both men. Shortly afterwards Joyner began to incorporate Smiley’s commentaries into his Tom Joyner Morning Show (TJMS) broadcasts. As a result of this professional involvement, Smiley became a household name among the millions of TJMS listeners in various regions of the United States. Many of these listeners were also subscribers to cable television services, which included BET among their program offerings, and became viewers of Smiley’s appearances on the cable channel.



Born in Gulfport, Mississippi on September 13


Moves with family to Kokomo, Indiana


Enters Indiana University


Becomes aide to Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley


Begins media career as host of local radio talk show


Writes first book, Just a Thought: The Smiley Reportand establishes the Tavis Smiley Foundation


Receives attention as promising young leader by Time magazine


Hosts Black Entertainment Television (BET) talk show and does national broadcasts with radio personality Tom Joyner


Lands multimedia broadcasting deal after being fired from BET


Returns to complete degree at Indiana University


Receives honorary doctorate from Indiana University-Kokomo and makes $1 million endowment to Texas Southern University for school and center named in his honor

The Smiley program filled a void in public affairs programming at BET, and BET Talk evolved into BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley as the program and its host became increasingly popular with its viewing audience. Like TJMS, it had tremendous access and influence, particularly in the African American community. The success of  BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley helped to deflect some of the criticism from detractors of the cable channel, especially after Smiley landed exclusive interviews with world figures such as Clinton, Pope John Paul II, and Fidel Castro, along with numerous African American leaders, celebrities, and other personalities. In the opinion of media observers, Smiley’s access to national radio (through TJMS) and television (through BET) enabled him to speak to more African Americans on a daily basis than any other person. Media research at the time indicated that Joyner’s radio program reached seven million listeners, while BET reached sixty-five million households.

From Advocacy to Controversy

Smiley used his radio and television broadcasts, celebrity status, and considerable influence to advocate positions regarding a variety of issues facing the African American community. As a result, he became involved in controversy for not always assuming the neutral stance traditionally expected of journalists. While Smiley sought to maintain the proper balance of perspective in his role as a television host, as a commentator and author he exercised the right to express his personal viewpoint. Smiley also became an in-demand public speaker, and in 1999 established the Tavis Smiley Foundation with the stated purpose “to encourage, empower, and enlighten youth through education and by developing leadership skills that will promote and enhance the quality of life for themselves, their communities, and the world,” according to his web site.

In September 1999, Smiley and Joyner initiated a boycott of CompUSA, a national retailer of technology products, based on a letter Joyner received after he commented that the company was unwilling to advertise on radio and television outlets that attracted African American audiences. Listeners were asked to send receipts of their CompUSA purchases for totaling and forwarding to the company as proof of the consumer power of the African American community. Minority businesses and individuals were then encouraged to stop buying products from CompUSA, another way to illustrate their impact on the company’s profits.

Smiley noted the poor grammar and spelling in the letter during his comments, and days later, the letter was proven to be a hoax. Smiley and Joyner were obliged to admit mistakes in rushing to judgment and called off the boycott. While an on-air apology was made to Comp USA, Smiley and Joyner received considerable criticism for their actions.

In 2000, Smiley continued to balance his multiple roles as broadcaster, author, activist, and advocate through a variety of platforms. He collaborated with Joyner, the NAACP, and its executive director, Kweisi Mfume, to develop the Live Radio Town Hall broadcast to encourage voter registration and participation in the 2000 elections and sponsored conferences through his foundation to encourage and develop young leaders. In the same year Johnson sold BET to Viacom, a media conglomerate, for $3 billion yet retained the position of chief executive officer for the network. The change in BET ownership was noted as a milestone for African American business and for Johnson personally, yet Smiley and others expressed concerns regarding the future of the network in terms of programming, staffing, and other areas of operation.

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