You know, BET celebrated its 20th anniversary last fall, yet the cable channel still gives the perception that it's broadcasting from 1986. (It still plays videos in mono, for chrissakes!) Black people still watch the channel -- where else can you get an endless supply of Toni Braxton videos, stand-up comics who talk about how much they looove oral sex, and Amen reruns, all on the same channel? -- but they don't have the reverence for it that they should have. Black folks watch BET for the same reason white folks watch E!: It's a guilty pleasure.
Yet there are still some things on that wacky network to be proud of, like Tavis Smiley. Every weeknight the Mississippi-born, Indiana-bred Smiley assumes the position of the no-bullshit talk-show host of the channel's topical call-in gabfest BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley. A hipper Chris Matthews, Charlie Rose with a fly fade, Bill O'Reilly with rhythm -- Smiley, 36, can be called all these things. But the man has managed to make an impact that is all his own. When he interviewed Bill Clinton during the height of his little "presidential sex scandal," Smiley officially became a playa in the television medium game. He has gone on to interview figures as diverse and dubious as Fidel Castro, Warren Beatty, Toni Morrison and Rick James (that's where the dubious part comes in).
But Smiley is not just another talking head fawning over his guests like a black Bryant Gumbel. Oh, hell no! From his frenetic, fast-talking tone (one writer called him "Walter Winchell on speed") to his attentiveness as an interviewer, Smiley wants answers. And it's answers he wants to give black America. Smiley has made it his life's work to make African-Americans more aware of and active in social, cultural and political affairs both nationally and abroad. A blazing liberal, Smiley shares his viewpoints anyplace he can. The head aide to former Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley began his career as a political commentator for The Tom Joyner Morning Show (which airs locally on KMJQ Majic 102 FM). When he's not putting in his two cents on that program, he is also a veteran of the lecture circuit. His liberal yet logical stance serves as a contrast to the loudmouthed diatribes given by such black-conservative media pundits as Larry Elder and Ken Hamblin. Instead of rambling about how blacks can't motivate themselves, Smiley chooses to motivate black audiences through his media outlets. Smiley is that most savvy of sociocultural activists: He knows the right places to speak to the masses.
With television, radio and speaking gigs all crowding his time, the brotha still has time to write a book once in a while. Smiley is currently touring the country hyping his latest book, How to Make Black America Better (Doubleday), in which Smiley gives, among other things, 12 "challenges" to the African-American community. Since Smiley is already working on a TV show that challenges the minds of African-Americans instead of giving them the umpteenth booty-shaking Cash Money Millionaires video, it looks like he's already doing his part.