10 Questions For Tavis Smiley

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The host of National Public Radio's three-year-old Tavis Smiley Show said last week that he will be quitting on Dec. 16, criticizing NPR for not doing enough to reach minority listeners. In his first interview since his announcement, Smiley, 40, whose show drew nearly 900,000 listeners a week but alienated some longtime subscribers, spoke to TIME's Christopher John Farley.

WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO LEAVE NPR?

We had agreed on the destination we were to arrive at, but somewhere along the line NPR wavered in the journey. Our show is the most multiracial in NPR's entire history, it has the youngest demographic of any show in NPR's history, so progress was being made. My concern was the pace the network was moving at-- it wasn't fast enough.


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ARE YOU PLANNING A JUMP TO SATELLITE RADIO SO YOU CAN MAKE HOWARD STERN — TYPE MONEY?

My decision was based on my convictions. I have no deals signed, no deals on the table. I wanted to return to NPR. I love NPR. But I had to ask myself: Are we doing all we can to bring new audiences to public radio? And I don't think that we are.

IS IT TRUE YOU GOT ANGRY LETTERS FROM LISTENERS WHEN YOU STARTED AT NPR?

I can't begin to tell you the hate mail that I received when I started three years ago. I remember one listener emailing me to complain that my laughter was too boisterous. They didn't like the way I talked, the way I sounded. Because my whole style was so antithetical to what the traditional NPR listener had been accustomed to. And they really didn't like the substance of what I was talking about, initially. But they came to appreciate it.

WHAT'S MORE DIVERSE THESE DAYS — NPR OR PRESIDENT BUSH'S CABINET?

Bush's Cabinet. It is ironic that a Republican President has an Administration that is more inclusive and more diverse than a so-called liberal-media-elite network.

BUT DO BUSH'S MINORITY SELECTIONS REFLECT THE VALUES OF THE COMMUNITIES FROM WHICH THEY COME?

There is a distinction between symbolism and substance — Zora Neale Hurston once said, "All my skinfolk ain't my kinfolk." But whether one likes or loathes the people Bush has chosen to be part of his Administration, he is reaching out.

WHY DID JOHN KERRY LOSE?

We live in a world that is gripped by fear. I believe that in this last election people voted more out of fear than out of hope. We've got to find a way to give people what they need, which is an authentic reason to believe they can do better. Most people I know that voted for Kerry didn't love Kerry; they were simply voting against the other guy. That doesn't get the job done.

ON HIS NEW CD, THE RAPPER NAS NAMES YOU AS A BLACK ROLE MODEL. WHAT DO YOU THINK OF THE TRACK?

I felt stupid when I first heard it. Nas was on my [PBS] program a few weeks ago. We did a whole conversation on the show, and it never came up. I didn't ask him about it because I hadn't heard it yet. But when a rapper drops my name in a song and says something positive, I'm humbled.

PBS JUST PICKED UP YOUR TV TALK SHOW FOR A SECOND YEAR. VENUS WILLIAMS HELPED DESIGN YOUR SET. WILL SERENA PUT TOGETHER SOMETHING NEXT?

We're going to keep the Venus Williams set. But two or three things are going to be different next year. We're going to be part of the PBS prime-time lineup on Fridays. I'm also going to produce three prime-time specials for PBS.

WHAT OUTRAGES YOU?

I get concerned when our national dialogue can be trumped at a moment's notice by the exposing of a breast or the dropping of a towel. I did not spend any appreciable time on my NPR show talking about Scott Peterson, Kobe Bryant, the Terrell Owens incident or Janet's exposing her breast. It just doesn't interest me.

YOU HAVE A TV SHOW, A TOUR — COULD A CLOTHING LINE BE FAR BEHIND?

I can tell you that there will not be Tavis-wear. That I can assure you.