In a firey open letter released Monday, public television and radio host Tavis Smiley issued a series of firm rebukes to Chicago Public Radio CEO Torey Malatia, whose flagship station, WBEZ, cancelled Smiley and West at the end of September. In that letter Smiley says that he was willing to “simply move beyond” the cancellation because, because while he “vehemently disagreed with” the cancellation, he also “respect(s) the public media model that stations know best.” But Smiley says he changed his mind when he became aware of the written responses Malatia had sent to listeners writing to complain about the loss of the program.
Smiley minces no words in characterizing his reaction to Malatia’s criticisms of Smiley and West, telling Malatia,
“I must say that the spin found in your letter is beneath you, the station you work for, and moreover the people you serve. Say nothing of the fact that to my knowledge, at no point did you or your staff ever attempt to communicate to me any of theimpressions you so freely shared in your letter to listeners.”
Having not yet seen any of Malatia’s letters to listeners, one can only infer his criticisms from Smiley’s responses. Evidently, Malatia has compared Smiley to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, which Smiley says, “is to defame me in the worst way.” He goes on to say that if his interview style really were “remotely akin to the intellectual bullying of Bill O’Reilly,” then he never would have survived 12 years on public radio as “an African American in the still-too-lacking-in-diversity world of public media.”
Addressing the station’s statement that Smiley and West was experiencing declining ratings on WBEZ, Smiley responds that the program’s time slot of Sundays at noon bares responsibility, because that is “when most Black Chicagoans are in worship service.” He then takes a more cutting tact, writing,
“To so blatantly disregard an obviously critical mass of listeners in the scheduling of this program suggests one and or two things: that you don’t get it or that you don’t care. A premier station in a world class city should not be still struggling with how to truly represent the voices of ALL fellow citizens in the most multi-cultural, multi-racial and multi-ethnic Chicago ever.”
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington wrote about the Smiley and West cancellation in her Monday column, characterizing the move as “a blow to both Smiley and the cause of diversity.” She talked with Malatia, who told her that the production values of the program have declined and characterized recent programs as “a lot of seat-of-the-pants kind of crap.” For his part, Smiley tells Washington that, “We are being punished by WBEZ for advocating for the poor. That’s a compliment to us.”
Malatia also defends Smiley’s critiques of WBEZ’s diversity, telling Washington that the station was worked to make Chicago Public Radio, “pluralistic in voices, life experiences, and cultural perspectives to serve a pluralistic community.” He also tells Washington that he hopes to replace Smiley and West with a “cross-cultural” program that reflects Chicago’s diversity.
The full text of Smiley’s open letter to Malatia is after the jump.
Dear Mr. Malatia,
In my 20 years of being a broadcaster, this letter represents the very
first time I have felt compelled to write a personal note to the head
of a local station.
I was content to simply move on beyond a cancellation decision I
vehemently disagreed with, because I respect the public media model
that stations know best. That is until I was made privy to the content
of your written response to listeners who have been expressing
disappointment about the cancellation of Smiley & West on Chicago’s
WBEZ 91.5 FM. I must say that the spin found in your letter is
beneath you, the station you work for, and moreover the people you
serve. Say nothing of the fact that to my knowledge, at no point did
you or your staff ever attempt to communicate to me any of the
impressions you so freely shared in your letter to listeners.
The disregard and disrespect for my work one reads in your letter to
listeners is too extreme to adequately address in this email; but when
you suggest that I have become “far less inclusive” in my work, you
advance a lie. A big lie. I’m about to celebrate 10 years on PBS and
12 years on public radio. As an African American in the
still-too-lacking-in-diversity world of public media, one does not
survive in these environs — much less thrive — if one’s interview
style is remotely akin to the intellectual bullying of Bill O’Reilly.
To compare my work to his in your letter to listeners is to defame me
in the worst way. I take pride in being the first African American in
the history of PBS and NPR to simultaneously host his own signature
weekday public television and radio shows, opening the doors for other
persons of color to now host or co-host award-winning programs over
Furthermore, I have two public radio programs as you well know. One
that I continue to host solo, the other co-hosted with Cornel West.
These two programs, deliberately and unapologetically, could not be
any more different in content and style. NOTHING has changed about
the format of my solo show which has NONE of my opinion expressed as a
part of the production. You no longer carry that program either, which
again, is absent of my personal opinion and continues to feature
guests almost weekly who express differing opinions on the issues of
the day. Additionally, nightly on my PBS program I provide a national
platform to a variety of guests, including an entire week this past
summer featuring exclusively conservative voices. I am as “inclusive”
as I have ever been because I am as curious as I have ever been. I
reject and resent the very suggestion by you in letters to listeners
that I do not demonstrate a willingness to “respect and hear opposing
IF Smiley & West has experienced any erosion in listenership, it might
have something to do with being heard over WBEZ on Sundays at 12Noon
when most Black Chicagoans are in worship service. To so blatantly
disregard an obviously critical mass of listeners in the scheduling of
this program suggests one and or two things: that you don’t get it or
that you don’t care. A premier station in a world class city should
not be still struggling with how to truly represent the voices of ALL
fellow citizens in the most multi-cultural, multi-racial and
multi-ethnic Chicago ever. That’s a leadership deficiency. One could
argue that it is easier for an African American to be president of the
United States than it is to host a primetime radio program on Chicago
Public Radio. It seems that WBEZ thinks that just because WVON
exists, that it is somehow exempt from being “inclusive.”
Respectfully, Mr. Malatia, it takes brass for you to accuse me of
being less than “inclusive.” Your job is to program a station that is
“reflective of a complex society of varied and uneven life
experiences, backgrounds, races, cultures and economic circumstances.”
Is this the best that WBEZ can do? How does cancelling Smiley & West
advance that mission?
When Smiley & West was rolled out two years ago at the annual PRPD
convention, Dr. West and I made it abundantly clear that we were
trying something a bit different for some public radio stations. A
program that would feature our opinions, but a program that would also
have built into every show a segment called “Take ‘Em to Task,” where
everyday people all across America could call in to do just that —
disagree with us over the airwaves. It has turned out to be one of
the most popular parts of the program, giving listeners a say, whether
their disagreement with us is cosmetic or monumental. In addition, we
heavily promote in each show our “Speak Out Network” where the
conversation continues seven days a week on-line, and listeners can at
anytime register or post their feedback. Indeed they do. Smiley & West
couldn’t be more democratic.
Finally, since each of my radio shows is produced by a different team
of professionals, I find it curious that you would suggest to
listeners in your letter that my programs were “showing signs of
significant declines in production effectiveness and focus.” It’s
hard to imagine that all of my producers and engineers suddenly just
lost their way. That particular statement in your letter to listeners
hurt most. I do not abide insults to my hard-working and dedicated
staff. I would never insult the fine team at Chicago Public Radio in
that way. Besides, have you paid any attention to our most eclectic
guest roster? High caliber guests keep appearing on my programs week
in and week out.
I have only a First Amendment right to free speech, not to a radio
program that WBEZ is mandated to broadcast. You’re entitled to your
opinions of that program and your executive decisions concerning it,
but you’re not entitled to your own set of facts. Particularly when
those “facts” are demeaning, derogatory and dead wrong.
I appreciate the opportunity to have been heard over Chicago Public
Radio all these years. Even as other stations around the country
continue to add Smiley & West (including stations in Chicago we are in
talks with even now), I regret that you chose to deny the listeners of
WBEZ an opportunity to hear something a little different ONE HOUR a
week. To make room for yet another repeat of a program about cars
that isn’t even in production any longer. Is that what we need right
now as fellow citizens prepare to decide who is best to lead a nation
where our democracy is being threatened by poverty, where schools are
failing our children, where crime is out of control?
At some point, those who steward public media have to stop insulting
those who support public media.
P.S. Since I do not know how far and wide your letter to listeners has
spread, I feel compelled to release this particular letter publicly,
so that those who have read your letter and heard the station’s
position via various Chicago media outlets can now hear the other side
of the story.