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Tavis Smiley is out at WBEZ — and he’s not smiling

Tavis Smiley speaks North Central College Naperville honor Rev. MartLuther King Jr. January.  |  Sun-Times Medifile photo

Tavis Smiley speaks at North Central College in Naperville to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in January. | Sun-Times Media file photo

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Updated: November 16, 2012 6:11AM

The nationally syndicated show “Smiley & West” has been dumped by WBEZ-FM (91.5), one of the nation’s largest carriers of the Public Radio International show. The news, first reported last week by Time Out Chicago blogger Rob Feder, is a blow to both Smiley and the cause of diversity.

The move has triggered a wave of charges and countercharges and has resurrected a long-simmering controversy over the role of black voices in the era of Obama.

Tavis Smiley, a one-man media juggernaut, and the noted Princeton Professor Cornel West, are on a high-profile “poverty tour” to promote their best-selling book, “The Rich and the Rest of Us” (Smiley Books.

They have been blasting away at political leaders, particularly presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, for failing to support anti-poverty programs.

But Torey Malatia, president and CEO of Chicago Public Media, says the show’s cancellation is not about politics.

Smiley’s original, daily show aired on WBEZ from 2002 to 2004. “It was a very fine, very popular show,” Malatia told me last week, adding he is a Smiley fan. But “Smiley & West” has been “losing audience pretty dramatically at our station.”

The show’s audience has declined from 37,900 to 13,200 weekly listeners, according to Malatia.

“Programs go through life cycles, and over the last year Tavis’ program showed multiple signs of significant sloppiness,” Malatia wrote in an email. “This was evident in the vehicle’s slackening of its overall production rigor and focus.”

On the phone, he was more blunt: Lately, the show’s offerings have been “a lot of seat-of-the-pants kind of crap.”

I called Smiley. Naturally, he was not smiling. He was hot. He takes no prisoners. No one knows that better than me. He called my past critiques of him “a hatchet job.”

Smiley noted that he was the first African American to host a National Public Radio show and cited his 20 years in the business.

The real culprit behind the cancellation: WBEZ is not committed to diversity and is gun-shy about his challenging the political establishment, particularly President Barack Obama, Smiley said. “We are being punished by WBEZ for advocating for the poor. That’s a compliment to us.”

Malatia told me the duo’s political critique of Obama has no connection to his decision to drop the show.

“If you believe that, I’ve got some swampland right here in Beverly Hills that I want to sell,” Smiley responded.

The real deal, he added, is that the station can’t handle “the truth.”

Especially when that “truth” comes via a black voice.

“Chicago Public Radio has been, for far too long, lacking in any ideological and ethnic diversity, and everybody in the city of Chicago knows it,” Smiley said.

WBEZ has “aggressively” worked to make Chicago Public Radio “pluralistic in voices, life experiences, and cultural perspectives to serve a pluralistic community,” Malatia responded. He hopes to replace “Smiley & West” with a “cross-cultural” program and plans to create more local programming that will “reflect the Chicago area’s diversity.”

Meanwhile, Smiley said he is negotiating with two other Chicago area stations that are eager to pick up the show, and he pledges to be back on the air soon.

I say: the more, the merrier. Stay tuned.

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