The Two-Sided Battle Over
Smiley & West Radio Show

December 9, 2012 | Revolution Newspaper |


From a reader in Chicago:

In late September, the Smiley & West radio program was taken off the air by WBEZ in Chicago, a major and influential station in the so-called “public” radio broadcasting sphere. Three other radio stations around the country had also recently removed the program.

Smiley & West is co-hosted by Tavis Smiley and Professor Cornel West. Tavis Smiley is the most prominent African-American broadcaster in the country. He hosts his own weekly television and radio talk show. Cornel West is known as one of the most prominent public intellectuals in the U.S. He is a professor of Religious Philosophy and Christian Studies at the Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Each week, the show brings a mix of interviews, commentary, and listener feedback to around 70 radio stations across the country. The show is unapologetically partisan to the dispossessed and disenfranchised and delights in “speaking truth to power.” In particular the hosts have made no secret of their criticisms of President Obama. Coming in the last weeks leading up to the elections, in Obama’s home town, the cancellation raised to many the question of whether this was straight-up political censorship.

WBEZ did not contact or consult with the show’s producers in advance of the cancellation announcement, nor was it announced to listeners. Afterwards, WBEZ stated that “...the show had developed much more of an ‘advocacy’ identity, which is inconsistent with our approach on WBEZ. The goal is to present public affairs content that is reasonably balanced. We feel that Smiley & West had become a departure from this approach.” The station also tried to justify its action by claiming that the show’s listenership had dramatically declined in recent months.

To add insult to injury, Torey Malatia, the CEO of Chicago Public Media, WBEZ’s parent company, complained to a Chicago Sun-Times columnist that Smiley & West was not produced well and had become characterized by “a lot of seat-of-the-pants kind of crap.” According to several media commentators, and referred to later by Tavis Smiley in an open letter to Torey Malatia, Malatia actually compared Tavis Smiley to Bill O’Reilly, the fascist television and radio attack dog. Malatia also reportedly said that Smiley & West was “becoming like Democracy Now!,” Amy Goodman’s progressive news program, which is also not broadcast on public radio in Chicago.

Coming on top of the cancellation, WBEZ’s statements are an unprecedented public attack on one of the very few progressive radio shows in the whole country. And this is part of a pattern. Veteran Chicago media observer Robert Feder wrote in his blog that “WBUR-FM in Boston dropped the show earlier this year for being ‘too political,’ and KWMU-FM in St. Louis and KMOJ-FM in Minneapolis dropped it last year, citing pressure from listeners for Smiley and West’s controversial and outspoken views of President Obama.”

And get real, WBEZ! What is wrong with so-called “advocacy journalism”? The reality is that there are almost NO voices on broadcast television and radio that even come close to the honest and penetrating challenging of the powers-that-be that characterizes Smiley & West. The show regularly features interviews with people who are taking on various aspects of this oppressive capitalist-imperialist system. It has news features about outrages the system tries to sweep under the rug, such as the murder of Trayvon Martin—outrages that shine a great deal of light on the structural economic, political and cultural underpinnings of the crimes that take place regularly in this society. The recent 30-minute interview by Cornel West with Bob Avakian (to listen or download, go to "Cornel West Interviews Bob Avakian on PRI Smiley & West radio show, October 2012.") is an outstanding example of the ethos of the show that courageously tries to expand the room for voices that are suppressed in the “mainstream media.”

For this, the Smiley & West show has been punished by those who control the gateways to reaching millions of people over the airwaves.

But this has been a two-sided battle. Many have come to the defense of the show and there has been a lot of exposure of what WBEZ and other stations have done. Most importantly, Tavis Smiley has launched a counter-offensive. He issued a powerful open letter to Torey Malatia that called out Malatia’s lies and his phony stance of “balance.” Smiley dissected some of the real functioning of those who hide behind the disguise of “public radio” in order to regurgitate the values of the present system and to stand as guardians of the established order. Among other truths, Smiley pointed out: “One could argue that it is easier for an African American to be president of the United States than it is to host a prime time radio program on Chicago Public Radio.” (See Tavis Smiley’s full open letter on the website

On November 8, Tavis Smiley, Cornel West, and Amy Goodman hosted a public forum in Chicago with the title “Poverty, Power, and the Public Airwaves.” Coming only days after the presidential election, the call for the event said, “While trading barbs on the narrow range of issues on which they differ, Pres. Obama and Mitt Romney were united in ignoring issues of critical importance to a vast majority of people, from poverty, to war and climate change.”

Around 1,000 people turned out for the forum, and Tavis Smiley spoke quite a bit about the attacks on the show. At this program over 1,100 palm cards advertising the interview with Bob Avakian were distributed by supporters of Revolution newspaper. A number of people commented that they were glad to see the revolutionaries at this event.

At the forum, Smiley also announced that two stations in Chicago had agreed to carry the Smiley & West program: WVON, a major “Black/urban” FM station, and WCPT, a well-known AM talk station that used to carry the liberal “Air America” programming.

It is vital to defend broadcasts like Smiley & West. And there is much to be done to fight for the truth about this system and the possibility of a vibrant communist society that is fit for humans to live and thrive in.

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