Tavis Smiley Biography

Talk Show Host, Radio Talk Show Host, Philanthropist, Journalist (1964–)
African-American media personality Tavis Smiley is known for his successful career in television, radio and print.

Who Is Tavis Smiley?

Tavis Smiley was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, on September 13, 1964. He grew up in Bunker Hill, Indiana, and attended Indiana University before working for Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. He began his national broadcasting career in the 1990s, appearing on The Tom Joyner Morning Show and then on his own program on Black Entertainment Television. Since 2000, Smiley has hosted his own shows on public radio and public television, and has written numerous books. In 2017, PBS announced it was indefinitely suspending the distribution of his talk show, Tavis Smiley, due to allegations of sexual misconduct.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - APRIL 11:  Talk show host Tavis Smiley attends The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences Presents The 50th Anniversary Screening Of 'To Kill A Mockingbird' at AMPAS Samuel Goldwyn Theater on April 11, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California.  (Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images)

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - APRIL 11: Talk show host Tavis Smiley attends The Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences Presents The 50th Anniversary Screening Of 'To Kill A Mockingbird' at AMPAS Samuel Goldwyn Theater on April 11, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Valerie Macon/Getty Images)

Background and Early Life

Tavis Smiley was born in Gulfport, Mississippi, on September 13, 1964. His mother, Joyce Marie Roberts, was a single, teenage mother. Two years later, she married Emory Garnell Smiley, a non-commissioned officer in the United States Air Force. Smiley did not learn the identity of his birth father until many years later, and he has never publicly revealed his father's name.

The Smiley family moved to Bunker Hill, Indiana, when Smiley's stepfather was transferred to Grissom Air Force Base. At home, Smiley suffered from poverty as well as from physical abuse by his stepfather. He attended Bunker Hill's Maconaquah High School, where he participated in student government and the debate team.

Early Career in Politics and Broadcasting

After graduating from high school, Smiley left home to attend Indiana University at Bloomington, where he studied public affairs, was involved in student government and joined the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.

Smiley left Indiana University in 1988 to work for Tom Bradley, the first African-American mayor of Los Angeles, through 1990. (He had left Indiana without the full credits for graduation; he finished his degree several years later, in 2003.)

After an unsuccessful campaign for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council in 1991, Smiley began working as a radio commentator for an L.A. radio station, broadcasting short, daily segments about issues affecting the African-American community.

In 1996, Smiley was hired as a political commentator on the radio program The Tom Joyner Morning Show—a position that he held through 2008.

Radio and Television Host

Smiley hosted BET Tonight with Tavis Smiley, on the Black Entertainment Television cable network, from 1998 to 2001. In 2001, he began hosting The Tavis Smiley Show on National Public Radio; he resigned from this position three years later, citing NPR's lack of reach to diverse audiences.

In 2004, Smiley began hosting Tavis Smiley, a nightly talk program shown nationally on Public Broadcasting Service television stations, for which he was given the NAACP Image Award. He also signed up for two programs on Public Radio International, serving as host of The Tavis Smiley Show and co-hosting Smiley & West, with African-American professor and intellectual Cornel West.

Additionally, Smiley became a special correspondent to the ABC and CNN networks. Through all these radio and television programs, he has interviewed noteworthy individuals from politicians and authors to athletes and actors, usually with an emphasis on the African-American experience.

Sexual Misconduct Accusations

On December 13, 2017, PBS announced it was indefinitely suspending the distribution of Tavis Smiley after investigating complaints of sexual misconduct against the host. 

"This investigation included interviews with witnesses as well as with Mr. Smiley," the company said in a statement. "The inquiry uncovered multiple, credible allegations of conduct that is inconsistent with the values and standards of PBS, and the totality of this information led to today's decision."

Smiley subsequently defended himself in a lengthy statement and video posted to Facebook and Twitter: "To be clear, I have never groped, coerced, or exposed myself inappropriately to any workplace colleague in my entire broadcast career, covering 6 networks over 30 years," he wrote. "Never. Ever. Never."

Books and Other Projects

Smiley has also written more than a dozen non-fiction books. His titles include Doing What's Right: How to Fight for What You Believe and Make a Difference (2000), Keeping the Faith: Stories of Love, Courage, Healing and Hope from Black America (2002), What I Know for Sure: My Story of Growing Up in America (2006) and Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure (2011).

In 2006, Smiley edited The Covenant with Black America, a collection of essays by African-American scholars discussing social and political crises faced by the African-American population, and in 2012 he co-wrote The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto with Cornel West.

Smiley founded the Tavis Smiley Foundation in 1999 to provide young people with leadership training and opportunities for social action.

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