“My audience is informed, educated and well-read. We’ve come a long way from, ‘If I stand next to someone with AIDS, can I get it?’”
If there are people in America and the world who understand that AIDS doesn’t leap from person to person in a crowded room, in part, we can thank Bev Smith and the Bev Smith Show.
Smith began her television and radio career in 1971 when she was named Pittsburgh’s first African American Consumer Affairs Investigative Reporter for NBC affiliate, WPXI Television. In 1975, she was named News and Public Affairs Director for Sheridan Broadcasting. Bev also hosted a lively talk show on Sheridan’s flagship station, WAMO. Since then, Bev Smith has taken her “firebrand” style of talk shows to KDKA and WTAE Radio in Pittsburgh; WGBS (now WNWS) in Miami; WKIS in Orlando; and WRC in Washington.
Along the way, Smith has lost a lot of friends to AIDS. “Too many to count without crying,” she notes, then mentions news anchor Max Robinson and tennis legend Arthur Ashe, just to name two of the seemingly countless number of people gone far too soon from her life. “Our community is still dying of AIDS, still having unprotected sex,” she says, thinking of the years of devastation. “Wake up the drummers, this is killing us. We need a national discussion on AIDS in the Black community.”
Smith isn’t just talking the talk. She’s dealt with issues around HIV/AIDS on many a radio show. She’s taken people with AIDS into her home. She’s held babies with AIDS, addicted to cocaine via their mothers habit. With a mouth that roars with clarity and purpose, Smith is nothing if not full of candor. She freely admits to being celibate and notes that it’s nothing more than a choice. Another choice she’s made: being someone who won’t remain silent in the struggle. “I will continue to have on my show infectious disease doctors, advocates like Phill Wilson (of the Black AIDS Institute) and organizations like Balm in the Gilead. The issue of AIDS is still not front and center. We’ve made it leprosy.”
Never afraid to tackle issues, Smith has lived with the homeless, walked the streets investigating prostitutes, raised money for AIDS charities, talked with inmates on death row, and learned to shoot a gun with the FBI. She’s interviewed personalities such as Bill Cosby, Vice President Al Gore, Senator John Kerry, Dick Gregory, Patti Labelle and a host of other guests, many of whom she now refers to as her “special friends.”
Smith aims to deal with AIDS from every angle she can think of, from myths surrounding the disease to addressing stigma and education in prisons to dealing with women’s issues. She even dreams of super heroes who have the impact of people like, say, “Superman, Malcolm X, Spiderman, Batman, Peter Pan—whatever it takes”—because of the horrific judgments bestowed on people with AIDS.
“We need someone who can call a meeting together,” laments Smith. “There’s a new phase of the epidemic, elderly women who are preyed on. It’s devastating.”
Over the years, Smith has received nearly 300 awards, citations and trophies for her contributions in radio and television. Among them was the 1990 Radio Air Crystal Award for her live radio town meeting, “Children Killing Children Over Drugs.” Mayors from Pittsburgh, Pa.; Jacksonville, N.C.; Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio have declared special Bev Smith Days. Bev Smith was selected by Talkers Magazine in 2005 and 2006 as one of the “Talkers 250, Featuring the Heavy Hundred” – and is recognized nationally as one of the most important radio talk show hosts in America.
In 2005, the Black AIDS Institute selected Smith as the recipient of the prestigious Max Robinson Media Award for her work on the frontline in the fight against HIV/AIDS. At the time, she commented that the honor was “especially gratifying, for it is named after a journalist I knew, loved and respected immensely.”
Still, this is a woman who wants to do more. “The church is missing a golden opportunity,” she says of her desire to put the onus on Blacks to do more in the pandemic. She evokes words like love and compassion in her comments, adding, “You have a lot of ministers who are gay, masquerading on the down low, but you can’t fool God. The church as been hypocritical of gays and ignorant about the translations of Sodom and Gomorrah.” Smith also wants the onus to be shifted to other organizations already a prominent part of the lives of many African Americans. “Where are the fraternities and sororities in all this?”
Like all highly motivated people, Smith is someone who doesn’t quit and someone whose tireless efforts are fueled by a passion that’s innate. “This is who I am,” she says of being labeled a hero. “To be honored for who I am, it’s a blessing I don’t take lightly. When I do something, I do it in memory of those we’ve lost. I will not stop talking about AIDS and getting the message out. I can’t carry that on my soul.”
Smith is in it for the long haul because that’s the kind of person she is. She’s also a breast cancer survivor, something you might not know after a long conversation with her. You see, it seems as though Bev Smith would much rather talk about what she can do to help out those in the struggle.
That’s what heroes do.