Tavis Smiley Doesn’t Take to Kindly to Being Cancelled: His Open Letter to WBEZ Says it All

Kevin Ross | Posted Tuesday, October 16th, 2012 - Category: URBAN


 data-recalc-dims=Well, it seems like Tavis Smiley is on another crusade and this time its regarding his own personal interest.  Tavis emailed the following letter Monday to Torey Malatia, President and CEO of Chicago Public Media, regarding the recent cancellation of Smiley & West from Public Radio International  by WBEZ.

Peep the letter in it’s entirety below:

Dear Mr. Malatia,

In my 20 years of being a broadcaster, this letter represents the very first time I have felt compelled to write a personal note to the head of a local station.

I was content to simply move on beyond a cancellation decision I vehemently disagreed with, because I respect the public media model that stations know best. That is until I was made privy to the content of your written response to listeners who have been expressing disappointment about the cancellation of Smiley & West on Chicago’s WBEZ 91.5 FM. I must say that the spin found in your letter is beneath you, the station you work for, and moreover the people you serve. Say nothing of the fact that to my knowledge, at no point did you or your staff ever attempt to communicate to me any of the impressions you so freely shared in your letter to listeners.

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.

Furthermore, I have two public radio programs as you well know. One that I continue to host solo, the other co-hosted with Cornel West. These two programs, deliberately and unapologetically, could not be any more different in content and style. NOTHING has changed about the format of my solo show which has NONE of my opinion expressed as a part of the production. You no longer carry that program either, which again, is absent of my personal opinion and continues to feature guests almost weekly who express differing opinions on the issues of the day. Additionally, nightly on my PBS program I provide a national platform to a variety of guests, including an entire week this past summer featuring exclusively conservative voices. I am as “inclusive” as I have ever been because I am as curious as I have ever been. I reject and resent the very suggestion by you in letters to listeners that I do not demonstrate a willingness to “respect and hear opposing views.”

IF Smiley & West has experienced any erosion in listenership, it might have something to do with being heard over WBEZ on Sundays at 12Noon when most Black Chicagoans are in worship service. To so blatantly disregard an obviously critical mass of listeners in the scheduling of this program suggests one and or two things: that you don’t get it or that you don’t care. A premier station in a world class city should not be still struggling with how to truly represent the voices of ALL fellow citizens in the most multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-ethnic Chicago ever. That’s a leadership deficiency. One could argue that it is easier for an African American to be president of the United States than it is to host a primetime radio program on Chicago Public Radio. It seems that WBEZ thinks that just because WVON exists, that it is somehow exempt from being “inclusive.” Respectfully, Mr. Malatia, it takes brass for you to accuse me of being less than “inclusive.” Your job is to program a station that is “reflective of a complex society of varied and uneven life experiences, backgrounds, races, cultures and economic circumstances.” Is this the best that WBEZ can do? How does cancelling Smiley & West advance that mission?

When Smiley & West was rolled out two years ago at the annual PRPD convention, Dr. West and I made it abundantly clear that we were trying something a bit different for some public radio stations. A program that would feature our opinions, but a program that would also have built into every show a segment called “Take ‘Em to Task,” where everyday people all across America could call in to do just that — disagree with us over the airwaves. It has turned out to be one of the most popular parts of the program, giving listeners a say, whether their disagreement with us is cosmetic or monumental. In addition, we heavily promote in each show our “Speak Out Network” where the conversation continues seven days a week on-line, and listeners can at anytime register or post their feedback. Indeed they do. Smiley & West couldn’t be more democratic.

Finally, since each of my radio shows is produced by a different team of professionals, I find it curious that you would suggest to listeners in your letter that my programs were “showing signs of significant declines in production effectiveness and focus.” It’s hard to imagine that all of my producers and engineers suddenly just lost their way. That particular statement in your letter to listeners hurt most. I do not abide insults to my hard-working and dedicated staff. I would never insult the fine team at Chicago Public Radio in that way. Besides, have you paid any attention to our most eclectic guest roster? High caliber guests keep appearing on my programs week in and week out.

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.

I appreciate the opportunity to have been heard over Chicago Public Radio all these years. Even as other stations around the country continue to add Smiley & West (including stations in Chicago we are in talks with even now), I regret that you chose to deny the listeners of WBEZ an opportunity to hear something a little different ONE HOUR a week. To make room for yet another repeat of a program about cars that isn’t even in production any longer. Is that what we need right now as fellow citizens prepare to decide who is best to lead a nation where our democracy is being threatened by poverty, where schools are failing our children, where crime is out of control?

At some point, those who steward public media have to stop insulting those who support public media.

All best,

Tavis Smiley

P.S. Since I do not know how far and wide your letter to listeners has spread, I feel compelled to release this particular letter publicly, so that those who have read your letter and heard the station’s position via various Chicago media outlets can now hear the other side of the story.

  • Blackclouds

    That’s what they get when those two take the wrong tact in pressuring politicians on their causes (poverty, income disparity, etc). They basically have no friends as blacks don’t take kindly to anybody who would try to undermine the president and certainly conservatives could care less. They misunderstand how power works in this country and their naive assertion that President Obama should put his whole career on the line for people who do not vote, or don’t vote consistently in every election. Poverty isn’t a huge issue in this election cause the poor vote has no clout whatsoever in Washington. Not once have I heard Smiley & West ever mention this problem.

  • Nijour

    The problem is not ‘that is what ‘they’ get’. The problem is black folk (of which I am one) are cowardly sitting by NOT speaking truth to power bc a man of color is in The White House.

    You can disagree with Tavis and West..but tell me why it is ok to become blind, deaf and dumb as it relates. Is there still unnecessary poverty? YES. Does this president and those before him and those to come after to be held accountable for NOT addressing the issue more fully? YES.

    These men are successful in their own right. Friends? They didn’t have friends at first. Because when the likes fo harvey, joyner and others ‘catch an attitude’ because tavis and west DARE (Iz scared boss) to speak up about President Obama then they weren’t friends in the first place.

    President Obama needed Negroes to vote to win…regardless of who else did vote. Blacks overwhelming helped put President Obama in office. But, we are not a part of the conversation. Some in the Hispanic community are looking to get ‘rewarded’ by the president committing to Illegal Immigration Reform. But, our President has not uttered ‘black america’ in any speeches that I have heard.

    Clearly, there is something WRONG with that picture. And, whether you or anyone else likes it, Tavis and West get to speak out about it versus acting deaf and dumb like so many others.

  • http://bedsidereadings.com Sam

    Please, let me clarify my post as follows:

    Tavis Smiley, your program was going to be aired on WPFW FM 89.3 Washington DC, and it is basically becoming so controversial that it is now on hold, among other reasons that listeners are upset is because of the word going around that “you have not had one African American on YOUR program throughout the past 10 months”.

    Please respond to that charge, because it sounds too extreme for someone writing that kind of reply.

    For me the only thing that I found puzzling about you is that you were against president Obama from the very beginning as he was running the first time for the office of the president in 2008. It just seems too personal, because you never even gave him a chance at all. Nor do you acknowledge his major accomplishments in his first term. However, you are entitled to your views.

    Again, the question is this:- Is it true that “you have not had one African American on YOUR program throughout the past 10 months”?

  • JIM GATES

    I think Mr. Smiley should ask those producers and directors,Republican congressmen and Obama opponents who were regulars on his variouis shows as well as all of those movie stars and starlettes what did he do wrong.Oh ,by the way TM PBS already has a Charlie Rose.!!!!You messed up. and it ain’t over.

  • Von

    Tavis…please just go away! Both you and Cornel are so consumed with envy and hate…that you cannot see the forest for the trees! You are so full of yourself that it has clouded your judgment. Just to let you know…your PBS shows are so boring…I, and many others I know stopped watching them years ago! I applause the station that cancelled you two “angry Black men”. Good riddance!