Tavis Smiley rose to fame starting in the 1990s for his wide-ranging interviews of newsmakers on BET, NPR and PBS. But over the years he has become nearly as well known for his outspoken opinions on politics and race.
Born in Mississippi, Smiley was raised in Indiana after his stepfather received a military transfer. Money was tight and at one point 12 members of the extended family were crammed into a trailer home. Smiley and a sister were briefly sent to foster care after local authorities discovered the stepfather had been using beatings to discipline the children.
Smiley attended Indiana University but did not graduate and moved to Los Angeles to work as an aide to Mayor Tom Bradley; he later earned a degree from Indiana. In 1991 he unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the Los Angeles City Council.
He then started work as a commentator on local radio stations and by the mid-'90s was hosting a public affairs show on BET. An NPR show followed, but Smiley reached perhaps his greatest prominence with "Tavis Smiley," a PBS talk show featuring half-hour interviews with movie and TV stars, authors and other well-known figures.
In a 2013 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Smiley complained that the grind of fundraising for his PBS show was taking a toll: "As the handlers get younger and younger and as the artists crave more and more to be in the social media zeitgeist, it becomes harder and harder for my producers to get through to clients the value of being on PBS," he said. "It's not an easy sell."
Meanwhile, he courted controversy with his remarks on President Barack Obama, who he claimed was "boxed in by his blackness." The remarks led some radio stations to cancel his show.
However, Smiley remains one of the most recognizable and laureled African Americans in the media business, with numerous honorary degrees to his credit as well as his own media company, the Smiley Group.