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Who is Tavis Smiley?

A brief snapshot of the talk show’s early life and career


Talk show host Tavis Smiley

Talk show host Tavis Smiley

Frederick Brown/Getty Images

Born in the little city of Gulfport, Miss., in Sept. 13, 1964, Tavis Smiley is today a world renowned author, political commentator, and host of PBS's Tavis Smiley.

But life began back in Gulfport, where Smiley lived with his mother, Joyce Marie Roberts. Roberts was a single mother who became pregnant with Smiley when she was 18. For many, many years, Smiley didn't know who his biological father was.

He did have strong father figure in Emory Garnell Smiley, who became his stepfather when Roberts married him in 1966. Emory was a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Air Force. His position took the small family to Peru, Ind., and Grissom Air Force Base while Smiley was still a tot.

And Smiley wasn't an only child for long. Soon after moving to Peru, the Smiley family took in five orphaned nieces and nephews. The couple had eight children of their own, as well, swelling the house to 15, including Mr. and Mrs. Smiley.

Turning to politics
When Smiley turned 13, he fell in love for the first time - with politics. He was attending a fundraiser for U.S. Senator Birch Bayh when the political bug bit. Smiley turned that itch into a productive career in high school debate and student council.

After graduation, Smiley attended Indian University Bloomington. But not without some hardship. His parents wouldn't help him with financial aid, so Smiley started school with $50 in his pocket. With some help from school administrators, Smiley was able to become a full-time student and begin classes.

Before long, Smiley joined a Greek fraternity, Kappa Alpha Psi. Then he turned around and became his dorm's business manager, joined student senate, and was instituted as director of minority affairs.

Working with the Mayors
While in college, Smiley's friend, Denver Smith, was killed by police officers. The officers said they acted in self-defense, but Smiley was skeptical that that was the whole story. He coordinated and led protests to try to right that possible wrong. His passion and organizational skills attracted the attention of the Bloomington Mayor's office. Smiley soon found himself deeply involved in a work-study program, helping the mayor with research, community communications and more.

During his junior year, a trip to Los Angeles proved serendipitous. Smiley met NFL star Jim Brown who introduced him to another player, George Hughley, who had connections with L.A. mayor Tom Bradley. Persistence paid off for Smiley. After a long letter writing campaign to secure an internship with the Mayor's office, Smiley was soon pursuing his political goals in L.A.

Talking the talk
His internship led to a full-time gig a local radio station KGFJ, where Smiley produced one-minute segments called "The Smiley Report." That turned into a radio talk show, which grabbed the attention of the Los Angeles Times because of Smiley's sharp political commentary. From there he launched into local television and, before long, joined the popular, nationally syndicated Tom Joyner Morning Show.

With Joyner, Smiley hosted a series of town hall meetings dubbed "The State of the Black Union." The meetings were broadcast on C-SPAN. Around the same time, Smiley launched BET Tonight, a public affairs talk show on Black Entertainment Television. Smiley sat with politicians and celebrities about various hot topics, from hip hop to racial profiling.

After his contract was not renewed by BET, Smiley joined National Public Radio (NPR) and hosted The Tavis Smiley Show until 2004. Citing an inability to reach a wide enough, and diverse enough, audience, Smiley left NPR and took his program to Public Radio International (PRI). The show extended from an hour to two hours. Smiley hosted the second half with Dr. Cornel West.

The popularity of his radio show led to a television incarnation of the program, Tavis Smiley on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

Fast Facts:

  • Smiley ran for public office in 1991, coming in fourth among 15 candidates for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council.
  • Has hosted both Democratic and Republican presidential debates.
  • Won an NAACP Image Award for best news, talk or information series three years in a row for his BET talk show
  • Founded the Tavis Smiley Foundation in 1991. It funds programs that develop young leaders in the black community.
  • Was named on of Time's 50 Most Promising Young Leaders in 1994 and one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2009
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