To the Editors,
For 20 years now I’ve been blessed to be in the broadcast business, and I’ve spent most of that time in public media.
As we are about to commence the 10th anniversary season of Tavis Smiley on PBS, I am humbled and honored to be the first American to have simultaneously hosted signature programs on both NPR and PBS. To have accomplished this as an African American gives me both pride and perspective.
To be forthright, this journey has been all uphill, but I recognize that he who breaks through the brush first gets the thorns. At times, I have publicly admonished my public media colleagues about our charter’s mandate to serve all Americans.
As uncomfortable as it is to hear about the lack of diversity in public media — and as unpopular as it has made me at times — I believe it is my duty to hold us accountable to that high standard.
In his opinion piece for Current, Chicago Public Media President Torey Malatia waxes almost poetically about the responsibility of public media journalism to foster civic discourse. I agree with much of what he had to say. The problem is that too many of us talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.
This is real simple for me: I have a First Amendment right to free speech, not to a public radio show. This dustup in Chicago is not about WBEZ’s decision to cancel Smiley & West; it’s a broader and much more important debate about the values public radio ought to represent.
I was puzzled by Malatia’s criticism of “advocacy journalism” on Smiley & West. The only advocacy I have done on the program has been in discussing the importance of alleviating poverty in America. Poverty is such a threat to our democracy that it undermines national security. Heaven help us if public media producers and personalities risk cancellation because we shine a light on the suffering of poor people. If that’s my crime, I stand accused and happily plead guilty.
For all the allegations of “liberal media bias” we endure, I’d hate to think that even public media has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the 1 percent. We are the only platform called upon to interrogate critical issues like economic inequality and the maltreatment of the 99 percent.
Mr. Malatia’s argument against “advocacy journalism” — leveled at Smiley & West after WBEZ carried the program for two years — is merely a weapon of mass distraction from the real issue.
When will WBEZ and other public stations get serious about making media that looks and sounds like America? We have a two-term African American president from Chicago but not a single daily program on WBEZ hosted by an African American.
Latino Americans are even more absent from the airwaves. This is why I oppose WBEZ’s efforts to purchase and eventually, in my view, colonize the sound of the Hispanic-flavored WRTE in Chicago. I’ve seen this movie before. It doesn’t end well.
Too many programmers think that the language of “serving” the community is enough, but it’s not. “Serving” is a verb. We have to actively, energetically and aggressively recruit folk to join us not just as listeners and members, but also as managers, programmers, directors and trustees, hosts, producers, etc.
Chicago is a majority-minority municipality. Most of America is headed in that same direction. In the most multicultural, multiracial and multiethnic America ever, we can’t continue to ignore the underrepresented voices of so many fellow citizens.
I’ve been preaching this message for years now, and I won’t stop. I won’t stop raising the issue, and I won’t stop using public media platforms to advance conversations about issues that are relevant and important to people of color and, more broadly, to fellow citizens of conscience and good will.
We need to create new shows to reach broader audiences. Not make excuses to cancel the precious few experiments and models that we do have.
It’s time to stop spinning the story and start serving all the people.
Managing editor and host, PBS’s Tavis Smiley,
PRI’s The Tavis Smiley Show and Smiley & West,
C.E.O., The Smiley Group, Inc.
Los Angeles, Calif.