Imagine having an articulate Black man always ready to enlighten your world at the flip of a switch. Now imagine that same man opening people’s minds about potentially overwhelming topics like HIV/AIDS. That’s what Tavis Smiley does for countless viewers and listeners who invite this hero into their homes, almost on a daily basis. Jay Leno calls him the king of late night public television. Those infected by and affected by AIDS might call him a valuable ally in the struggle.
From his celebrated conversations with world figures to his work to inspire the next generation of leaders, as a broadcaster, author, advocate and philanthropist, Smiley continues to be an outstanding voice for change. Newsweek named him one of the “20 people changing how Americans get their news” and dubbed him one of the nation’s “captains of the airwaves.”
His vehicles of choice are the talk show, Tavis Smiley on PBS, and the radio show The Tavis Smiley Show on public radio. The first American ever to simultaneously host signature talk shows on both public television and public radio, he also offers political commentary twice weekly on the Tom Joyner Morning Show and has also authored eleven books. Smiley made publishing history when the volume he edited, Covenant with Black America, reached #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. His latest offering is What I Know For Sure: My Story of Growing up in America.
In 2007, Smiley moderated and executive produced the Democratic and Republican All-American Presidential Forums on PBS, marking the first time in history a panel exclusively comprised of journalists of color conducted a prime-time presidential debate. He introduced the topic of the pandemic by pointing out that “candidates have talked about AIDS, but not how HIV/AIDS is the leading killer of Black women.” While some of the debaters tried to sidestep, Smiley is a man who tackles the issues head-on. He and the six other journalists at the forum sought to ask tough, pointed questions about racism, HIV/AIDS, and reconstruction of the Gulf Coast post-Hurricane Katrina—questions mostly ignored by mainstream media and most campaigns. Regardless of the responses, simply asking the questions forces these issues deeper into the mainstream consciousness, and with enough repetition, Smiley hopes that he and his colleagues can force candidates to pay attention to and address these issues.
He’s also doing his part on his own shows, featuring the likes of former Hero honorees Tony Wafford and Dr. Gail Wyatt, Associate Director of the UCLA AIDS Institute, as well as Dr. Ernest Darkoh, an AIDS expert. The conversations are blatant. Smiley is not afraid to bring up provocative questions, such as whether or not others have become complacent after seeing people like Magic Johnson live longer with HIV.
One creation helping many live longer is the broadcaster’s Road To Health television and radio series, designed to promote the benefits of health and fitness and help communities of color develop healthier lifestyles. The show went on the road for two-day, multi-city health, fitness, and wellness expos featuring local and national celebrities, seminars for youth, men and women, dance and nutrition demonstrations, medical screenings, CPR certification training and a blood drive, cardio zone for kids, and a mile walk-a-thon. Road to Health is the first traveling broadcast (radio and television) series aimed at communities of color to promote health awareness and education.
“This tour was created for communities of color to address health from a cultural perspective and to show that simple changes in diet and lifestyle can lead to a healthier life,” said Smiley. “People often think an intervention has to be a new drug or something really high-tech and expensive in order to be powerful. They often have a hard time believing that the simple choices that we make in our lives every day—what we eat, how we respond to stress, whether or not we smoke, and how much we exercise—can make such a powerful difference in our health, our well-being, and even our survival. But they often do.”
The first day of the expo is aimed at youth aged 11-15, and features a variety of fitness demonstrations, meal and snack selection, seminars to build self-esteem, and activities designed to show how exercise can be fun. Activities include a kids’ cardio zone featuring rock climbing, tennis, golf, boxing and interactive exercise video games. The second day focuses on family health and fitness and is targeted towards African American and Hispanic adults aged 18-65. Featured seminar topics include HIV/AIDS, diabetes, exercise, diet and nutrition, senior health, and prenatal care.
Like many intelligent and highly motivated people, Smiley’s efforts to better the world seem limitless. In 2004, Texas Southern University honored Smiley with the opening of The Tavis Smiley School of Communications and The Tavis Smiley Center for Professional Media Studies, making him the youngest African American to ever have a professional school and center named after him on a college or university campus. Smiley cemented his commitment to TSU with a $1 million gift to the Center.
The mission of his nonprofit organization—Tavis Smiley Foundation—is to enlighten, encourage and empower Black youth. Tavis Smiley Presents, a subsidiary of The Smiley Group, Inc., brings ideas and people together through symposiums, seminars, forums and town hall meetings. For his efforts, he has received numerous awards and honorary doctorate degrees, including from his alma mater, Indiana University.
One of ten children, Smiley lives in Los Angeles. In his spare time, he enjoys a good game of Scrabble with friends.