Smiley to WBEZ: ‘Demeaning, derogatory and dead wrong’

Just when you thought radio had lost the power to provoke strong passions, Tavis Smiley is stepping up and taking on Chicago’s public radio establishment.

In a blistering attack on WBEZ-FM (91.5) Monday, the PBS host and bestselling author disputed the reasons given for canceling the weekly radio talk show he co-hosts with Dr. Cornel West, the Princeton University professor. “One could argue that it is easier for an African American to be president of the United States than it is to host a primetime radio program on Chicago Public Radio,” Smiley declared.

It all started here last week with news that WBEZ had dropped Smiley & West from its lineup. The show, distributed by Public Radio International, had been airing at noon Sundays until late last month.

Chicago Public Media officials explained the decision by citing audience erosion (noting a decline in weekly listenership from 37,900 to 13,200) and expressing concerns about the program’s fairness and balance. “The show had developed much more of an ‘advocacy’ identity, which is inconsistent with our approach on WBEZ,” a spokesman said.

Torey Malatia, president and CEO of Chicago Public Media, was more pointed in his criticism of the show, telling PRI and others that it was “showing signs of significant declines in production effectiveness and focus,” and that it was no longer serving the needs of his audience.

Supporters of Smiley & West inferred more sinister motives, claiming that the hosts were punished for their outspoken criticism of President Obama on the show, in their bestseller The Rich and the Rest of Us, and on their 2011 “Poverty Tour” highlighting the plight of the impoverished. (For the record, Chicago Public Media officials denied that any political pressure was involved.)

The cause was quickly taken up by the non-profit Chicago Media Action, which mounted a protest campaign and posted a Facebook page, and by the Oakland, California-based Media Alliance, which elevated the issue to a national call to action (although it mistakenly connected Chicago Public Media to PBS). Neatly summarizing the controversy, Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington wrote: “The move has triggered a wave of charges and countercharges and has resurrected a long-simmering controversy over the role of black voices in the era of Obama.”

On Monday, Smiley personally entered the fray with a 1,200-word open letter to Malatia: “When you suggest that I have become ‘far less inclusive’ in my work, you advance a lie. A big lie. I’m about to celebrate 10 years on PBS and 12 years on public radio. As an African American in the still-too-lacking-in-diversity world of public media, one does not survive in these environs — much less thrive — if one’s interview style is remotely akin to the intellectual bullying of Bill O’Reilly.

“I am as ‘inclusive’ as I have ever been because I am as curious as I have ever been,” Smiley wrote. “I reject and resent the very suggestion . . . that I do not demonstrate a willingness to ‘respect and hear opposing views.’ ”

Calling Malatia’s facts “demeaning, derogatory and dead wrong,” Smiley suggested that any erosion in listenership could be because “most Black Chicagoans are in worship service” at noon Sundays. “To so blatantly disregard an obviously critical mass of listeners in the scheduling of this program suggests one and or two things: that you don’t get it or that you don’t care. A premier station in a world class city should not be still struggling with how to truly represent the voices of ALL fellow citizens in the most multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-ethnic Chicago ever. That’s a leadership deficiency. One could argue that it is easier for an African American to be president of the United States than it is to host a primetime radio program on Chicago Public Radio.”

Concluded Smiley: “At some point, those who steward public media have to stop insulting those who support public media.”

A Chicago Public Media spokesman declined to comment on Smiley’s letter, except to say: “We’re not reconsidering the decision.”

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)