To all those who complain about a lack of politically progressive voices in mainstream media: Tavis Smiley wants you. The Indiana native has been running his radio show on WFYI for some time now (at the moment you can hear him weekdays at 9 a.m. on FM 90.1). Last week, Smiley crossed over to television with a half-hour talk show on PBS (WFYI Channel 20), weeknights at 11 p.m. Smiley is a phenomenon worth noting. Although his take on issues is seasoned with an unabashedly African-American perspective, Smiley’s relevance extends well beyond the limitations often associated with identity politics. He’s a rigorous interviewer with a deeply ingrained sense of community who can be skeptical yet civil with his guests — sometimes to a fault. On the show we sampled he was open about past differences with Newt Gingrich but seemed a little too willing to let the former speaker of the House be glib regarding ideas for health care reform.
Working with a compressed, half-hour format may require some fine-tuning — one misses the authoritative array of political counter-punchers Smiley has made a regular part of his radio show. And on this particular night, he added an interview with Whoopi co-star Wren T. Brown as a kind of afterthought. For this segment, Smiley shifted to a kind of penthouse set (designed, he said, by tennis champ Venus Williams) that looked like a Hennessy ad come to life. Smiley’s tendency to shift to full schmooze mode in the presence of entertainers seems genuinely convivial, but may be an acquired taste for some viewers.