On balance, WBEZ removes ‘Smiley & West’ from lineup

Car Talk’s Tom and Ray Magliozzi aren’t the only recent realignments to Chicago Public Media’s weekend programming. Citing concerns about fairness and balance, WBEZ-FM (91.5) has dropped the weekly talk show hosted by Tavis Smiley, the PBS late-night interviewer, and Dr. Cornel West, the Princeton University professor.

Distributed by Public Radio International, Smiley & West had been airing at noon Sundays on WBEZ before it was canceled at the end of September.

A Chicago Public Media spokesman cited audience erosion for the move, adding: “More importantly, the show had developed much more of an ‘advocacy’ identity, which is inconsistent with our approach on WBEZ. The goal is to present public affairs content that is reasonably balanced. We feel that Smiley & West had become a departure from this approach.”

In explaining the decision to PRI, Torey Malatia, president and CEO of Chicago Public Media, said the show was “becoming like Democracy Now," and veering too far from WBEZ’s declaration of principles. Here is the part of the declaration Malatia quoted:

“Our hosts choose material to inspire cross-cultural understanding and civic engagement, strictly operating under the mandate of public service. Even when our function is not a journalistic one, we recognize that appearing to take sides, or to prefer certain voices to others, will erode our value as a meeting place for all. We attempt to do all of this at a level of energy and creative influence that the visionaries of civic agency had written about since radio’s creation.”

Producer Joe Zefran said he believes Smiley & West had a large following in Chicago, citing hundreds who turned out for live events in the past year, and more than 1,000 who braved a thunderstorm last year to attend a gathering at St. Sabina's Church. “More time was spent taking questions from the audience, including those who disagreed with them,” Zefran said. “Not sure how that doesn't serve the needs of the audience.”

But he acknowledged that WBEZ was not alone in its action. WBUR-FM in Boston dropped the show earlier this year for being “too political,” and KWMU-FM in St. Louis and KMOJ-FM in Minneapolis dropped it last year, citing pressure from listeners for Smiley and West’s controversial and outspoken views of President Obama.

Smiley and West are the authors of The Rich and the Rest of Us, a bestseller based on their 2011 “Poverty Tour” highlighting the plight of the impoverished.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)