After a three and-a-half year absence from broadcasting, talk show host extraordinaire, Tavis Smiley has returned to public life with a vengeance. In the last quarter of 2020, the media big-wig signaled his phoenix-like rise from scandal and controversy by purchasing the former Soul/R&B bastion KDAY from Multicultural Radio Broadcasting (an Asian-American owned media group).
A former aide to Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, Smiley’s career began in the 1990s, and achieved national attention through his collaboration with veteran radio host Tom Joyner. Moving onto NPR, he segued into television with stints at BET, CNN, ABC and PBS. Returning to radio with NPR’s “The Tavis Smiley Show, “ he eventually launched a new PBS talk show under its parent company, Public Radio International. Along the way, he has accrued a number of honorary doctorates and invitations to make commencement speeches at a host of colleges and universities. He has authored some 15 books, received multiple NAACP Image Awards, and was named one of “The World’s 100 Most Influential People” in 2009 by TIME Magazine. Smiley reached a pop culture acknowledgment when he wrangled an appearance on ABC’s primetime reality series “Dancing with the Stars.” In perhaps the most momentous accolade, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2014.
Fall from Grace
“You’re not gonna lie on me and get away with it.”
—social commentator Tavis Smiley
Smiley’s stellar career was stalled in 2017 over allegations of impropriety involving co-workers on his nightly PBS television talk show, which led to the program being terminated. He has steadfastly denied these claims, while maintaining his commitment to the #MeToo movement against sexual abuse and exploitation. To his credit, Smiley has admitted to having consensual relationships with women on his staff, but made the decision to stop any such relationships 10 years before the allegations surfaced.
The affair devolved into a messy lawsuit to the tune of millions of dollars, as Smiley endured the trauma of a public, protracted persecution.
“When they come after you, they come after you!” he noted, in a reference to the intensity of the backlash against him.
These charges resonated especially deep within his psyche, as they brought up memories of a childhood trauma from his past, wherein he was falsely accused of juvenile misconduct in the middle of his church congregation and beaten so severely by his stepfather that he was hospitalized. He resolved to stand up for himself In the future.
(The incident is recounted in his books and on his Wikipedia entry). Still, he remained steadfast in his determination to weather this potentially career-ending setback.
“Misery will never have the last word in my life,” he declared.
Advancing the narrative through political discourse
“When you say 1580 to Negroes, you ain’t gotta say anything else.”
Since his departure from public life, the Black community has been subjected to a series of landmark racial upheavals. Resolving to provide a response to the volatile events transpiring in the streets last year, Smiley began his professional comeback in earnest. After a series of misfires, including bidding on a transmitter that faltered in the midst of escrow, he jumped at the chance to purchase the radio station 1580-AM, which has a special past relationship with South Los Angeles.
In a previous incarnation, 1580 was known as the Soul/R&B bastion KDAY in the 1970s, before segueing into rap-friendly airplay in the 1980s. It has transitioned into various other formats over the years since then.
The sale of this station (which boasts a 50,000-watt transmitter with reception stretching north from Thousand Oaks to San Clemente to the south) was facilitated by financial contributions from such notables as Ice Cube, Bill Maher, Dr. Charlie Johnson, Van Jones, Bishop Kenneth Ulmer, and some NBA players.
The station started broadcasting appropriately enough on June 19 (Juneteenth). To officially launch this new venue, social communicator and “publicist du jour” Wyllisa Bennett put together a media day titled “Birth of a Station” on July 15 at KBLA’s physical location on Crenshaw Blvd. in the middle of Los Angeles’ “Black Greenwich Village,” Leimert Park. On hand at the event were a score of media and professional individuals from the local community, many who have known Tavis for decades.
Once settled in, Smiley charmed the crowd with the same easy, infectious banter that elevated him to the pinnacle of the broadcasting strata. Ever the consummate professional, he lapsed briefly as he teared up in recounting the process that led to his suspension, and the youthful tramatic memories it brought up.
Reiterating the long ties between the station and Black Los Angeles he termed it as “the history and iconography”), he believes it offsets the lack of established advertising that would have existed with the purchase of a station with an established Black listening audience (it most recently existed as a Spanish language Christian platform). Instead, the attraction will come from African-Americans of a certain age who remember the former iterations of 1580 because, in his words, “when you say 1580 to Negroes, you ain’t gotta say anything else.”
In other words, he is depending on the close ties that remain in the neighborhood in this, a new millennium.
“…ain’t nothin’ like word of mouth in our community,” he explains.
To help him initiate this bold new undertaking, Smiley has enlisted the assistance of academic and Black Lives Matter founder Melina Abdullah; disc jockey and host Don Amiche (formerly of KJLH); actor and comedian Alonzo Bodden; multi-award winning social advocate and former KJLH radio host Dominique di Prima; Clinical Psychologist Dr. Jeshana Johnson; and activist and media personality Danny Morrison. The DL Hughley show, broadcast on several affiliate radio stations across the U.S., is also featured.
While the format’s focus is primarily progressive, Smiley is open to the appearance of folks of a different political ink, including the likes of conservative voices Ward Connerly and Larry Elder, with whom Smiley has worked in the past.
“We’re certainly not afraid of those conversations,” he stated.
Smiley believes this new venue is necessary in what he calls an “era of racial reckoning,” noting that none of the major broadcasting entities have seen fit to implement a talk show geared to audiences of color to fill the vacuum caused by his absence.
During the course of the presentation, a question-and-answer session followed, wherein the possibility of expanding this concept was posed. When pressed about whether a national radio plan had been discussed among his inner circle, Smiley subtly replied “…we have, but I ain’t gonna tell you,” before rattling off a list of existing stations across the country he admired or planned to emulate.
To oversee the whole shebang, Smiley has tapped Elston Howard Butler (formerly of KJLH) as president and general manager of the radio station, and COO of his holding company, Smiley Audio Media Inc.
For more on this important addition to the community and the national discourse, go to the station’s website at https://kbla1580.com/, or simply turn in to KBLA, 1580AM.