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Tavis Smiley’s KBLA Gives Voice to Community as L.A.’s First Black-Owned Talk Radio Station

| lafocus |

Lisa Collins

Tavis Smiley is used to making history. He did it as the first black to have a talk show on NPR and the first African American to have a talk show on PBS. Now, he is making history as with the launch of KBLA-1580, the first Black-owned talk radio format in Los Angeles.

Smiley closed the deal to purchase the station valued at $7.5 million late last year and is calling it the flagship station of what he hopes to build into a nationwide Black-owned and operated talk radio network.

“We’ve already identified other stations,” said Smiley. “So, the plan is long-term to syndicate our program from LA with these other stations that we hope to buy and lease across the country to build finally a black talk radio network across the country.”

For Smiley, the timing couldn’t have been better.

“Everything is properly situated in this moment for this. There is some black talk radio around the country, but it’s not thriving in the way that it once was. That’s why I think there’s an opportunity here. I’m dumb enough to try it and we’ll see if it works.”

So far, so good is the initial response from listeners and potential partners.

“After the first two weeks on the air, we started getting calls from stations around the country about syndicating our program, so we’re off to a pretty good start,” the veteran talk show host said.

The business venture follows a three-year hiatus from the airwaves for Smiley following his highly-publicized firing by PBS in 2017 for sexual assault misconduct in the wake of the “#MeToo movement and the subsequent 2018 wrongful termination lawsuit that led to a $2.6 million judgement against Smiley in favor of PBS in 2020.

Admittedly, Smiley says, “The PBS thing was ugly.

“I was lied on when I was a 12-year-old kid, and my father was so upset and so angry that he didn’t take the time to ask me whether or not the lie was true,” he digresses. “I was beaten so severely that I was in the hospital for almost two weeks and I’ve never forgotten the feeling of having someone stand up publicly and lie on me.”

He pauses for a moment, getting emotional.

“I promised myself as a 12 year old kid that I will never let anybody lie on me. So, I fought back and I’m still fighting back. You’re not going to lie on me and get away with it”, said the Gulfport, Mississippi native who got his start on radio in one-minute daily radio segments called The Smiley Report on KGFJ radio after working as an aide to former L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley.

“They (PBS) don’t care about that truth. It was about not wanting to renew my contract and wanting to get me off the air. Even four years after “me too”, I am still the only black person in the history of PBS to have his own show. What does that tell you about what they were really committed to? And that’s what that fight was about.”

Smiley—who has appealed the judgement— says he’s not bitter.

“Life goes on. You move on,” he states. “I don’t ever let misery have the last word in my life. You fight and you come back.”

The hardest part of the whole ordeal for Smiley was not having a voice during the last nearly four years.

“I would have loved to have been here, to use my platform, to get access to other forces, to be a megaphone and amplify our voices,” he explains. “I mean, frankly, it was painful for almost four years sitting on the sidelines while I saw my brother and sisters being killed by cops and this era of racial reckoning was taking place, but watching that moment allowed me to realize that they’re covering us now because we’re in the streets. But what happens when we know we’re not in the streets anymore? How do we continue to advance our narrative?

“So, the idea crystallized to try to do a talk radio station for us and the beauty of it is that unlike everything else I’ve done in my career, it ain’t about me. My name isn’t on this,”he continues. This is not a Tavis smiley project or venture or show. It’s about the community. It’s about giving them a platform— a megaphone, and letting their voices amplified. I feel really good about the fact that for once in my life, I ain’t got to cradle all the weight.”

Citing Los Angeles as the most multicultural, multi-racial, multi-ethnic city in the country —and given his beginnings in talk radio on KABC—Smiley is surprised that he didn’t think of it sooner.

“The problem is this city and everywhere else, the write up on Talk Radio is all day, all night, all white.”

Smiley’s answer to that is a format whose slogan is “unapologetically progressive”.

“To be clear, we are unapologetic black, but the station is unapologetic progressive,” said Smiley. “We took that slogan because I don’t want to leave out all good people who don’t look like us, who are with us, who came out in the streets during the protest.”

Black Angelenos recall the station’s dial location at 1580 as home to the former pioneering hip hop station, KDAY in the 80s. With 50,000 kilowatts of power, the signal reaches over 12 million in the L.A. basin and stretches from Thousand Oaks to San Clemente.

“The signal is huge,” notes Smiley. “The big boys in town KFI, KABC, KRLA have the same signal strength, so we can put it down as bad as they can.”

Getting the signal was a stroke of faith for the 56-year old broadcaster.

“I was in escrow with another station,” he reveals. As fate would have it, that escrow fell out and I was just crushed. I was praying and 48 hours later, I got a phone call that said, would you be interested in buying KBLA? And I just started crying, because the two stations I was in talks with, were nice stations, but the history of 1580, when you say 1580 to Negroes, you ain’t got to say nothing else. There’s nothing like buying a brand people already know.

“The bad news was that 1580 at the time we purchased it, was a Spanish language/ Christian radio station. What that meant was none of your advertisers are going to stay. So, we’re starting from scratch with no advertisers and flipping the format.”

With almost $650 million in advertising spent every year on radio in LA, the commercial viability adds to the pressure of getting it right and Smiley has $1.5 million of his own money as skin in the game.

But buying the station was only the first step. Now he needed the operating capital to assemble a team as his sales force got up to speed. And that’s where Smiley is getting by with a little help from some rich and powerful friends, including Bill Maher, Ice Cube, Van Jones, some NBA players and even an L.A. pastor, all of whom wrote generous checks.

With adequate financing Smiley was free to engage the kind of talent he believed would captivate listeners and create the kind of content that will lead to solid ratings in what is one of one of the nation’s most competitive markets.

One of his first calls was to Dominique diPrima, long time host of KJLH’s highly popular early morning talker, Front Page.

“I love Dominique on KJLH and Front Page, but I said to Dominique, ‘You have earned a bigger platform and because Stevie is music, he can’t give you a bigger platform. The city deserves an opportunity to hear you for longer than 90 minutes.”

DiPrima had hosted the popular show for more than 16 years and though it was difficult to leave, welcomed the opportunity.

“We all want the opportunity to grow and expand and make history and I think what Tavis is doing with KBLA is historical,” said DiPrima, who is making history as the first black woman to host a morning drive talk radio show.

“When you think about Los Angeles being such a catalyst for change —whether it’s the Watts Uprising or the ‘92 civil unrest or the Black Lives Matter Movement—we are an epicenter of change and black voices and we’ve never had a talk radio station, that’s significant.”

KBLA’s lineup also includes comedian/actor turned political commentator D.L. Hughley, whose syndicated radio show, The D.L. Hughley Show, was not heard in Los Angeles until Smiley made handed him the afternoon drive slot; and Don Amiche who was teamed for years with Tammi Mac on KJLH.

Smiley was also particularly happy to include Danny Morrison into the mix.

“He’s like the Stephen A. Smith of politics,” said Smiley. “He’s loud. He’s brash. He’s bombastic and boisterous, but agree or disagree, he always makes his point.”

And then what would a talk radio station owned by Tavis Smiley be without having him on the air, doing what he does best—interviewing influencers, celebrities and the newsmakers of the day.

What Smiley will not be at a loss for is content. It was one of his dear friends, Grammy-award winning R&B icon Prince, who impressed upon him that content is king, to which end Smiley owns all of his PBS and NPR libraries, his radio content dating back to his days as a commentator on “The Tom Joyner Show” and his more than a dozen books, including his 2006 best seller, “The Covenant With Black America”.

KBLA operates from the Leimert Park office complex that has served as his based for more than 20 years.

“We’re putting bigger studios in the back of the building,” Smiley said. “Once I get my hooks into something, I’m not a hit and quit. We’re going to build this thing with God’s help to make a portal for this community.”

In the meantime, his biggest challenge is getting the word out.

“We don’t have a multimedia dollar budget to do billboards, so right now, more than anything else, it’s about getting the word out.”

For however great the challenge is, Tavis Smiley is more than equal to it.

“If it were easy for black people to own radio and television stations, a lot more of us would”, DiPrima says. “L.A. is very particular. These streets know who you are and you’re going to get credential checks whether you know it or not. But Tavis has a long history of educating and uplifting. He has a high standard in terms of the quality of what he does, and I think he has an amazing track record.”

Indeed, for Smiley, KBLA represents a higher calling.

“I’ve always viewed my career in this way that however long I have to do the work God’s called me to do, I know that the eyes of the future looking back at us,” Smiley shares. “Black children are looking back at us, hoping we get this moment right.

“They’re going to ask that of all of us. What did we do in this moment of racial reckoning to advance our narrative? And my answer will be KBLA Talk. That in this moment, I took the opportunity to try to step up my game and to present to the community a platform that we can all use to advance our narrative.”


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