The FishbowlDC Interview With Tavis Smiley


Say hello to Tavis Smiley. He hosts Tavis Smiley, a late-night show on PBS and radio show Tavis Smiley from PRI. Some standout details about him: He doesn’t cuss. Ever. And he doesn’t own a cell phone. His career path has included hosting “The Tavis Smiley Show” on NPR and “Tonight With Tavis Smiley” on BET. In 1999 he founded the Tavis Smiley Foundation. His communications company is The Smiley Group. The third installment of the PBS prime time series, “Tavis Smiley Reports,” is called “New Orleans: Been in the Storm Too Long?” It’s life in New Orleans five years post Hurricane Katrina and airs on July 21. Is that enough “Tavis Smiley’s” for you? We thought so. Read on.
If you were a carbonated beverage, which one would you be? I’m gonna go with Coke, because whatever the strongest carbonated beverage is, that’s what I’m gonna be.
How often do you Google yourself? Almost never. I live with myself 24 hours a day 7 days a week. The last thing I need to do is to read more about myself.
Who is your favorite working journalist? I’d probably say Frank Rich at the New York Times.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever said to an editor, or vice versa? I did a piece one time that somebody had asked me to do. And I guess there was so much truth in the piece that they decided to pass on it. I basically told them, quoting Jack Nicholson, “You can’t handle the truth.”
What’s your favorite word? Next year I’ll celebrate 20 years of being in the media business, and for all of those 20 years I have always closed all of my shows with the same salutation, “Keep the faith.” So I guess “faith” is the word that people have heard come of out my mouth the most, and that’s the favorite.
When did you last cry and why? I have an art exhibition called America I AM that is traveling around the country. It’s in Cincinnati now, but the last week it was in LA, Michael Jackson’s mother, Katherine Jackson, called me. She wanted to come through with Michael’s kids and she asked if I would give them a private tour. And I did. Long story short, when she saw the Michael Jackson memorabilia, she broke down crying and just lost it. She lost it, I lost it. And it hit me in that moment that for all the rest of us that are sad about Michael being gone, this is Michael’s momma. And when I saw his mother break down, all I could do was hold her. I grabbed her and held her. She was crying, I was crying.
What word do you routinely misspell? I’ve always been a very good speller. My thing is not spelling, my thing is grammar. And by that I mean I want to make sure that I have the right verb tense, the right pronoun.
What’s the name of your cell phone ring? I don’t have a cell phone.
What swear word do you use most often? I don’t swear. I used to, 8-9 years ago. And one day I got into it with one of my producers because something had gone wrong on the show that day. She was a friend. But I was cussing at her and she was cussing back at me. And somebody in the studio recorded me. And when I heard myself on tape, I said to myself, this is not how I ever want to be portrayed. There has got to be a better way to communicate what I’m trying to say. And I stopped on a dime and decided I would not use that language anymore.