Tavis Smiley knows how using technology and creating a personal brand can lead to success. But he's not satisfied with the triumphs he's had in myriad media outlets, because Smiley's other project is to help others follow in his footsteps. He's sharing his secrets with the community, spreading messages of hope and change, and really getting people to listen.
On May 19, when USBE&IT spoke to radio and TV host Tavis Smiley, more than 250,000 copies of The Covenant with Black America, the New York Times non-fiction paperback bestseller, had been sold. The Covenant is Smiley's latest accomplishment; he edited the collection of essays by leading African Americans---including USBE&IT publisher and CEO Tyrone Taborn---that examine and prescribe courses of action for improving important issues in the Black community, such as the digital divide, education, and health care. In his 19-year career, Smiley's relentless pursuit of ventures in broadcast and print media, lectures, symposiums, and the Internet have turned him into a household name. What are the secrets of his success, and where does his ambition come from?
Tavis Smiley was a standout baseball player by the time he was in the sixth grade, and he wanted to play professionally. Then, a meeting with a senator on a campaign stop changed his worldview. Smiley decided, at the young age of 13, that he wanted to devote his life to public service.
Smiley attended Indiana University in Bloomington on a debate scholarship. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in law and public policy, Smiley was offered an internship in the office of Tom Bradley---the five term-serving, first Black mayor of Los Angeles. Within two years, he was launching his own political career.
After Smiley lost a tight race for Los Angeles city council, he decided to venture out into radio. Smiley received various sponsorship for The Smiley Report---daily 60-second commentaries on the state of Black America---at KGFJ-AM, the small, Black-owned station in Los Angeles where he premiered his new show. Smiley moved to become host and executive producer of BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley in 1996, and joined The Tom Joyner Morning Show. His trademark down-to-earth conversations on politics, money, relationships, race, class, and culture quickly made him a well-known voice in the community.
From 1998 to 2002, Tavis Smiley was on the fast track to success, forming The Smiley Group Inc. (TSG); launching his web site, tavistalks.com, and publishing the books Doing What’s Right, Keeping the Faith, and How to Make Black America Better. He began a series of articles for USA Today Weekend, launched a successful campaign on The Tom Joyner Morning Show to award Rosa Parks the Congressional Gold Medal, and founded the Tavis Smiley Foundation, which distributed more than a million dollars to victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In April 2001, Tavis Smiley began the first predominantly Black show on National Public Radio.
Other significant events were "Blacks In Technology" tours in L.A., New York, Atlanta, and Chicago. The Smiley Group, of which Smiley is president and CEO, became a Microsoft small-business affiliate, and Smiley served as tour spokesperson and advocate to help close the business divide in African-American and Hispanic communities.
Smiley's business benefited from integrating technology into its business plan, saving time and money, increasing productivity, enabling networking, and improving customer relationships.
Lena West, founder and CEO of New York-based xynoMedia Development, which provides small business technology planning and project assessment services, was one of hundreds of Black entrepreneurs, professionals, and consumers who converged in downtown Los Angeles for the first Blacks in Technology summit hosted by Tavis Smiley.
West has fond memories of Smiley's message at the opening gala, which struck a cord with the audience.
"He was candid about his approach to technology," recalls West. "It was a challenge for him at first, seeing the value of technology, and the role it would play in growing an organization."
Omar Wasow, a Blacks in Technology tour participant who works to demystify technology through regular public radio segments such as the Tavis Smiley Show, says:
"Tavis embraced technology, and he did it in a way that said 'Hey you can do this, too. If you are somebody who is kind of a novice, a bit nervous, that's okay, because I was in the same boat and look at me now. My business is fully wired, and I am doing all kinds of fairly touch-and-go things. I had the same fears as you did.’"
West adds “He has done a complete 180-degree turnaround. I don’t think anyone recognizes that he was a man who refused to have a Web site or register a domain name. Then he realized that the Internet was a communications medium, because it wasn’t just technology---it was a way to achieve goals.”
"He's done a remarkable job of using his ambivalence about technology as a model for others by incorporating technology as something that could make life better, save you time, allow you to stay close to friends; and he has done it in a way that encouraged other people to do it,” says Wasow.
On April 25, The Tavis Smiley Show from Public Radio International marked its first year on the airwaves by introducing podcasts on TavisTalks.com and Apple iTunes. In an age of blogs, podcasts, and text messages, Wasow says Smiley has really harnessed different tools to reach his audiences.
Smiley should really be seen as a pioneer, adds Wasow. “There are not many people who work across an incredibly broad range of media---radio, television, and online---and are so successful at it."
At 41, Smiley is the first American to simultaneously host signature talk shows on both PBS and National Public Radio. TSG's corporate office building includes a 16-person, fully equipped conference room, a radio broadcast studio, and a computer technology center for Crenshaw-area youth within a contemporary, professional office setting.
"I am not sure what finally made him make the connection," comments West. “Part of it might have to do with the fact that he realizes that he could reach more, could be more, if he used technology within his company and to disseminate his message. He took the lesson of being slow to climb the technology bandwagon. That's the mark of someone able to take a knock on the head and move on."
"What's even more remarkable," Wasow adds, "is how much star power he still had when his relationship with BET ended."
In March 2001, when BET terminated Smiley's contract for "disloyalty," thousands of faxes, e-mails, and letters in support of Smiley were sent to BET and Viacom. The effort illustrates Smiley's rating as a celebrity with a multi-generational audience.
That month, in an online article entitled "Tavis Smiley Fired by BET: Help Him Out!" Davey D. said: "Whether you agree with Tavis' politics or not, his show got us talking. It sparked dialogue. It kept us in the loop. He entertained everyone from rappers to republicans, from preachers to pie makers. It was one of the few shows that a broad cross section of our community could check in [with] and see themselves from time to time. More importantly, it was one of the few shows that attracted a multi-generational audience ... "
His critics say he brings too much to the spotlight.
"What you want in a journalist is to bring attention to the issues,” counters Wasow. "Some people might accuse him of being folksy, of being too personal. If I want news and information with no personality, there are lots of shows I can go to."
On May 25, 2006, the topics in the "Speak Out" section on TavisTalks.com ranged from how much influence graduating seniors should have on selection of commencement keynote speakers, to how women's basketball teams chosen for this year’s NCAA tournament outscore their male counterparts in college-graduation rates, to how much race and class factor into the Duke lacrosse players' controversy.
Mostly, though, topics run from cuts in gasoline use, to debate over the Da Vinci Code, and how The Covenant with Black America can best be tested.
On April 8, 2006, Smiley and a panel convened at Sharon Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland to discuss ways that individuals and communities can implement The Covenant's recommended action plans. Panelists included Tyrone Taborn, author of the book's chapter on technology; professor Eddie Glaude, Princeton University; Iyanla Vanzant, author and life coach; and Joy Thomas Moore, of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The church was standing room only.
On Friday, May 19, Black America celebrated the success of The Covenant with a weekend of book parties in churches, community centers, schools, and in homes.
Providing a road map or some plan of action for others has been a component of Smiley’s larger mission. Smiley said, ”We are very pleased at the response to the book. The fact that it went to number one on the New York Times bestseller list is historic. But at the end of the day, we want the book to inspire hope in people---hope that they can take control of their own destiny."
His newest venture is a $4.5 million state-of-the-art facility known as the Tavis Smiley Center for Professional Media Studies. The center, on the campus of Texas Southern University, houses three production rooms, a talk studio, news rooms, and a cyber café studio. The goal of the new center is to provide minority students with an opportunity to enter the field of communications. With a million-dollar endowment from Smiley to Texas Southern University, KTSU 90.9 FM, or The Choice---the first radio outlet at a predominantly Black institution of higher learning in Texas---is on track to become a magnet for the media industry’s best and brightest. Smiley has committed to help raise another 10 million dollars for the school over the next 10 years.
Rahkal Shelton, a senior telecommunications major at TSU with a long-term goal to produce positive and progressive portrayals of African Americans through the media, is preparing for a summer internship at TSG.
“I’ve watched everything he’s done and is en route to doing; I share similar dreams. I hope to acquire exposure and practical hands-on experience in radio and television production.”
Another, older venture that is very close to his heart is the Tavis Smiley Foundation, which he was moved to start seven years ago. The foundation funds programs to develop leaders in the Black community.
“There are so many young, Black people who write to me, show up to hear me when I speak. So many are looking for direction. They are gifted, skilled, and talented, and want to make a contribution. Well, I used to be a young person, and my heart goes out every time I see young people who are smart and passionate and want to be engaged but don’t know exactly how to do that."
Through his numerous media ventures, Smiley is showing them just how to get started.
The Covenant with Black America, a collection of essays and instructions by African-American leaders, examines prominent issues in the Black community and outlines steps for making changes. Some of the issues discussed include education, economics, health care, and judicial disparities.
The nation's oldest independent Black book publisher, Third World Press, published The Covenant, making the book the country's first nonfiction book by an African-American publisher to reach number one on the New York Times bestseller list. Tyrone D. Taborn, CEO and editor-in-chief of Career Communications Group, contributed the chapter on the digital divide, in which he explains why the Black community's full participation in America's technological future is imperative.