He's got shows on radio and TV. He's unafraid of controversy and would love to be the new King of All Media. Just call Tavis Smiley the thinking man's Howard Stern. This year, the author of six books and host of a National Public Radio show has added PBS news talk-show host to his resume.
TV Guide Online: You've talked about having "conversations of substance." How are your interviews different from other talk shows?
Tavis Smiley: I could ask all the regular pop-culture questions. But I try to stay away from that. For example, I interviewed Anthony Minghella, the director of Cold Mountain, and I asked him how he could do a movie set in the Civil War and walk all around the issue of slavery. He was ecstatic. He said, 'You are the first person to ask why I did not do any scenes about that.' So that's what I mean. It's in [my approach]. But more important, [my shows] are the first on NPR and on PBS to come from the West Coast.
TVGO: What have you got against the East Coast?
Smiley: Oh, no, I love the East Coast. I lived in Washington, D.C., for five years when I was at BET. It's just important for me to offer a bit of West Coast vitality because everything in smart television comes out of the East Coast.
TVGO: Speaking of BET, you were fired from BET Tonight for taking an exclusive interview to ABC first. Have you and BET CEO Robert Johnson made up?
Smiley: It wasn't a matter of making up. Mr. Johnson and I never had a relationship. When they decided to hire me, I never talked to him. After they fired me, I never talked to him. So if nothing else, at least there was consistency.
TVGO: Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was on your show. Do you think he has a chance?
Smiley: The real question is "can George W. Bush be beaten?" They said his daddy could not be beaten. His approval ratings were through the roof following the Persian Gulf War. But Bill Clinton not only trounced his father, he went on to be president for eight years. So can George W. be beaten? Absolutely.
TVGO: You once said, "The real power in this country is in the media." Well, you've got two shows now. How do you feel you've handled that power?
Smiley: Wow. Um, I hope, uh, responsibly — to the extent that I have power. And I don't know that I do.
TVGO: You've called yourself an advocate for the people. Yet with your money and fame, you can't possibly be "regular folk."
Smiley: My life is — has always been — very normal. I live in the 'hood, go to church in the 'hood and my office is in the 'hood. Every couple of weeks I go on down to the nail shop to get my manicure and pedicure. The sisters in the shop are always giving me an earful. All that keeps me normal.
TVGO: That is a first for me, a serious talk-show host talking about getting a mani-pedi.
Smiley: What? You've never heard of a brother getting a manicure? What can I tell you? I can't be on TV with ugly nails.