Smiley and I embody much of what NPR tries attracting in talent and retains in listeners. Smiley leaving NPR and me trying to get back on air rest on principle.
Once a cult personality on Black Entertainment Television and now an extended brand name across books, lectures, radio and television shows, Smiley suffers the same frustration dogging most smart and ambitious blacks. They've trimmed the fat from their parents' desegregation battles and whittled from its affirmative action topiaries.
They are sometimes rightfully impatient with the snail's pace of normal human progress.
Dynamic and outspoken, Smiley assumes the America that made him can keep up with his ideals of racial progress. But he leaves NPR Dec. 16 because the network failed to "meaningfully reach out" to black listeners, according to The New York Times.
Leaving NPR under vague semantics forfeits a validated all-access parking pass in a perfect neighborhood that never has parking spaces. And most whites and certain classes of blacks seek and find in NPR that validation.
Most of the everyday black folks I know have no idea what National Public Radio is or where it is on the dial. Conversely, I'm treated noticeably different (raise eyebrow here) by some whites after they learn of my NPR affiliation. Anything else is just black rage, get it?
But for those of us swinging from NPR's golden ring, the altitude is dizzying and foreboding. Its listeners are reactionary, informed, dedicated and educated.
Holding their collective attention is an acquired skill set.
I've spent more time brainstorming, pitching, writing, editing and talking myself out of brainstorming, pitching, writing and editing ideas for NPR than I've spent listening to it.
The Tavis Smiley Show was NPR's first black show in its 34-year history, airing daily since 2002 on 87 stations. It drew NPR's largest black audience as well as its youngest audience.
"In the most multicultural, multiethnic and multiracial America ever, I believe that NPR can and must do better," Smiley wrote in a Nov. 29 statement to public radio stations nationwide. On his Web site, he said: "It is my hope that in the future NPR will make a greater effort to use its full resources to make this vision a reality."
If NPR so sorely lacks textured voices and opinions, what am I? What "greater effort" is there than being literally picked raw from the air -- sight unseen -- to hone vaguely believable cultural ideas thrust before a national listening audience?
I was asked to do commentaries in 2001 by Commentaries Producer Sara Sarasohn after Noah Adams, then host of All Things Considered, interviewed me for a one-hour program on post-Timothy Thomas Cincinnati. It was a professional fluke baffling to writers who spend hours purposefully querying the network, but Sarasohn said NPR was looking "for a new thing" in its commentators.
Right place, right time, right talent.
Even I can't accuse NPR of not, as Smiley says, "meaningfully reaching out."
During a marathon commute 10 winters ago, I heard black poet and novelist Paul Beatty reading his meandering, smart-ass poems from Big Bank Take Little Bank on NPR. See, they let us in a little.
When public radio stations at historically black colleges complained about anemic programs for minority audiences, the African-American Public Radio Consortium joined with NPR to bring Smiley to the network. See, they let us in a bunch.
So Smiley's departure is baffling to me. It appeared that he had cachet, access and attention at NPR.
I don't know why Smiley left after only a brief stint without first using his power to demand some of that "do better" he lamented. Wily enough, he could've programmed his frustration into grist for a compelling show.
Sounds soft to say, but because NPR was Wonder Bread-white from the beginning it'll probably take another 34 years to brown that toast. That's the aggravating beauty in progress. When it seems so slow in coming, gauging it up close can be as redundant as watching slow progress.
Perhaps it was so for Smiley. But if those of us with the entree check out before the end of business, the increments grow greater divides.
Smiley could've just been using NPR as a step in a constantly ascending career. He could've just been frustrated that NPR didn't link neatly into his chain.
You might have to listen to Smiley on The Tom Joyner Morning Show, a syndicated black show, to find out why he left NPR. Blacks who don't listen to NPR will be tuned in already.
White NPR listeners will stay tuned to NPR, listening for whatever diversity the next 34 years might bring. Maybe that's exactly Smiley's point.
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