Tavis Smiley has had a decorated career in the “infotainment” industry. But once one dives deeper, one realizes it was a rollercoaster of highs and lows in a career of a man who never let his past determine his future.
Smiley was born in Mississippi but moved to Indiana, where he grew up and attended Indiana University Bloomington, which came with life-changing challenges. After his first year, Smiley had some financial troubles, and his second year was no better. His friend Denver Smith died at the hands of Indiana police officers who claimed to have acted in self-defense. Smiley helped lead protests to defend Smith, who he believed was wrongfully killed. These protests led him to a work-study internship at the office of past Bloomington Mayor Tomilea Allison. Smiley wrote letters to residents, conducted research for Allison, and helped write position papers on local issues.
Fast forward a few years later, Smiley was living in L.A. and worked for Mayor Tom Bradley from 1985-1990.
In 1991 Smiley campaigned to have a seat on Los Angeles City Council against incumbent Ruth Galanter. Smiley finished fourth among 15 candidates. Smiley then transitioned to radio commentator, broadcasting one-minute daily radio segments called The Smiley Report on KGFJ radio. With his co-host Ruben Navarrette Jr, they talked about their views on race and politics. They also discussed the impact of institutional racism and substandard educational and economic opportunities for inner-city black youth.
Smiley’s comments and views grabbed the attention of the Los Angeles Times and other news programs. This led to him working at other small stations and community news outlets and Canadian television.
Ultimately, in 1996, Smiley hosted BET Talk, which later became BET Tonight. Smiley would interview political figures and celebrities to discuss topics ranging from racial profiling and police brutality to R&B music and Hollywood gossip.
In 1997 Smiley started his Tavis Smiley foundation, which funds programs that develop young leaders in the community. Since its inception, more than 6,500 young people have participated in the Youth to Leaders Training workshops and conferences.
During his stint with BET, Smiley received many accolades, including being recognized as one of America’s 50 Most Promising Young Leaders in 1994 by Time. Smiley was also honored with the NAACP Image Award for the best news, talk, or information series for three consecutive years (1997–99) for his talk show on BET. That partnership would last five years, after which BET decided not to renew their contract.
Smiley was at the height of his career, which spanned over the next 20 years, as he hosted various talk shows and co-hosted several radio programs.
From 2006 to 2017, Smiley worked for PBS, hosting his talk show “Tavis Smiley,” but in 2017, citing work and contract differences, Smiley left PBS. He was accused of breaching his contract with PBS because of sexual harassment allegations. As a result, he was fired, but Smiley cited racial bias and wrongful termination. He sued PBS for $1 million for “trampling on a reputation that I have spent an entire lifetime trying to establish,” Smiley said.
PBS counter sued Smiley, and both parties were in a three-week civil trial that included six women testifying that Smiley sexually harassed them. The jury decided Smiley was guilty and ordered him to pay PBS $1.5 million.
“In the midst of the #MeToo movement, he violated our morals clause… You can’t have a consensual relationship between a manager and a subordinate because of the power dynamic. It’s never consensual because that manager has power over all aspects of that person’s employment,” the network’s lead attorney, Grace Speights, said in court.
Following a brief hibernation, Smiley returned to the radio world as the face of KBLA 1580 AM.
“During a conversation with Prince, he told me ‘content is king,’ but he later emphasized that by saying while content is king, distribution is emperor,” Smiley says as he explained the lead-up to purchasing KBLA. “I held onto that saying as I was thinking about the next phase of my career during my hiatus. It was also during the civil unrest from the death of George Floyd, and it hit me that we do not have a talk radio station in SoCal that will help elevate and amplify Black voices.”
As of this writing, there is only one Black-owned and Black curated talk radio station in California, KBLA, and its birth was not without pains.
“I faced what most Black start-up businesses face, access to capital,” Smiley said. “Fortunately, I had some resources left from my career and had some investors help me out. Once we understood the capital we had, we had to decide on the radio station to purchase, that is when we noticed KBLA 1580 was for sale. Anybody that has some age on them or remembers VHS’s, they understand the importance of KBLA 1580 to the Black community.”
The old 1580 KDAY station had a role in getting hip-hop played on the radio during the 80s, as it was the first station in Los Angeles to promote the genre. Over time, it was owned by various companies and KBLA was a Spanish-language Christian station before Smiley took over.
“It was hard enough accessing capital, but to change station formats, you are essentially losing all of the previous audience and advertisers. We started from scratch on day one, and it took some time before things started to move,” said Smiley.
Once Smiley and his team got things running, he wanted to brand the station’s name and talk show as something Black people could connect with. “Unapologetically Progressive,” was created.
“Originally, it was supposed to be ‘Unapologetically Black,’ but I wanted a bigger audience. I wanted to attract the attention of the people who protested during the racial reckoning and were about progression.”
Smiley believes in the importance of the Black community hearing a Black person on the radio.
“Talk radio is a conservative industry, so as an African-American hoping to hear voices that represent your point of view, addressing issues and topics that matter to you, and profiling people that you want to be made aware of — good luck to you,”
Smiley noted that while L.A. is a progressive city, talk radio is not. Angelenos will hear one-sided points of view on topics that he feels need a broader scope. He wants the Black community to know that he is for the people and will not conform nor change KBLA’s platform to fit the needs and ears of anyone.
“I want them to know that this is their platform and it’s ultimately about amplifying the voices of Black people,” Smiley said. “I want people to know we got our own thing at KBLA 1580, and we will not apologize for amplifying the Black voices, Black topics, and world issues.”
Smiley notes that while he has had a long career, the goal was always the same, to be a leader.
“I have a simple definition of leadership that I use at my foundation to mentor the youth,” he said. “You can’t lead people if you don’t love people, and you can’t save people if you don’t serve people. Leadership, to me, is about loving and serving people. I teach our young people that they have to wrestle with the depth of love they have for people, because you have to love and serve the people you want to lead. I want to use my gifts, skills, and talents to serve my people.”