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Tavis Smiley responds to Chicago Public Media CEO Torey Malatia

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

public media.

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

views.”

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.

All best,

Tavis Smiley

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.



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8 Responses to Tavis Smiley responds to Chicago Public Media CEO Torey Malatia

  1. ApMinto October 15, 2012 at 8:44 pm #

    Bravo, Mr. Smiley. Well said. May God continue to richly bless you.

  2. Terence October 16, 2012 at 3:49 am #

    DAMN! Tavis can break something down can’t he?

  3. Maureen October 16, 2012 at 10:15 am #

    It was a bad decision, and Mr. Smiley has made it clear that there WBEZ had no good reason for it. So what was the reason for it, Mr. Malatia?

  4. Daniel Opine October 16, 2012 at 5:11 pm #

    Excellent response Tavis!! Prior to moving to the west coast 4 years ago I resided and supported WBEZ for many years. It was thriving and getting better and better with each year, that is until about ten years ago when Mr. Malatia began to make Dictatorial decisions about what HE felt the programming should be. WBEZ had an incredible mix of local programming, national and especially incredible diverse music shows which you could not find on any other station. Initially he caved to many listener complaints including mine, however in one fell individual decision changed his mind and drastically changed the programming overnight. Instead of listening to one of the best Jazz programs nightly, we were subjected to reruns of BBC news, All things considered, Fresh Air, and more….I stopped being a supporter and reduced my listening my more then 80%. While I do give Mr. Malatia credit for producing some great programs such as “This American Life” and sourcing local neighborhood news bureaus, as well as providing leadership to the then struggling college radio station WLUW at Loyola to help it continue on, he has grown an ego so large he truly believes he IS the face of Public Radio in Chicago. For him to make such derogatory comments towards the excellent work of Tavis and West proves that his personal opinion matters more then the public who supports the station. It is time to move on Torie and allow a new, fresh voice to the leadership at WBEZ, and NOT one that you have groomed. This once great public radio station has fallen and lost its way. It is time to bring a democratic leader to the great people of Chicago as you have proven once again that you are concerned about your own voice and small inner circle of opinions. Thanks to Tavis once again for his eloquent democratic voice to stir up the public to demand more.

  5. Jeana Pacheco October 16, 2012 at 9:29 pm #

    Tavis has covered the points. Living in Chicago, choosing to support WBEZ is a bit like voting for Obama. This decision to eliminate Smiley and West is another reflection of the very white lens in charge at WBEZ. If Smiley and West are not considered ïnclusive,” where do programs rank that are comprised of individualistic monologues (Joe Frank, et al) that are in no way

    “reflective of a complex society of varied and uneven life

    experiences, backgrounds, races, cultures and economic circumstances.” Instead we can spend a mindless hour or double on superficial news-spoofing (Wait, wait) and recovering addict nightmares (replacing world-class insightful program On Being). Well, Tavis, the best that may be said is that you join a long line of top-notch programs deemed too good for Chicago Public Radio listeners including Afro-Pop Worldwide, On Being, Whaddya Know, Piano Jazz, and so on.

  6. John Anderson October 19, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

    I had a quasi-argument about this recently with someone who’s pretty well-connected to WBEZ. They touted the acquisitionary activity of the station (Radio Arte, the station over in Gary/Hammond whose name escapes me attm), the Louder Than a Bomb series, and stuff like that to make the case that the station’s making a conscious effort to localize AND diversify their content.

    I’m a big fan of local over national, so I could see their point…until they said, “And, hey, it’s not like there’s no shortage of smart, angry black men in Chicago.” DING! Stations like WBEZ invest in the symbolism of localism, diversity, and inclusion over actually providing agency to those not often represented on the air.

    This is a mentality that pervades public broadcasting nationwide, and it is sad that otherwise smart people end up this way. WBEZ’s come a long way in just the last ten years, but with paradigms like this ruling the roost it’s always going to end up as a disappointment.

  7. Wallace Gator Bradley October 25, 2012 at 11:13 pm #

    Wallace Bradley•a few seconds ago −

    We learned as Negroes in America about censorship of oppressed people, how people didn’t want us to learn how to read or write; then this country and the world stood by as a man in Germany censored a people and was responsible of another crime against humanity.

    In this country we as American have which is known as a first amendment right under the U.S. CONSTITUTION, we will not stand by and let you silent Black voices from Supreme Court Judge Thomas to Tavis Smiley and Cornell West, in this country that will allow a MAN IN CONGRESS TO CALL THE PRESIDENT A LIAR ON FROM THE FLOOR OF CONGRESS AND ALLOW THE SON OF MITT ROMNEY to say that He wanted to slap the President because of what he said about his father, They weren’t censored people felt that they were only standing on the principles of the 1st Amendment

  8. Marc Lawrence June 17, 2013 at 8:39 pm #

    When Malatia cut all of WBEZ’s fantastic music programming, replacing it with hours-upon-hours of BBC World News and re-runs, I cut WBEZ out of my life.

    WFMT Radio (98.7 FM) is a fantastic public radio station, offering a breathtaking selection of music and culture — a different kind of music than WBEZ offered, but fantastic nevertheless. So now I support WFMT.

    WBEZ is dead to me.

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