Tavis Smiley, host of PBS’s late-night talk show Tavis Smiley and Public Radio International’s The Tavis Smiley Show, sat down with NBN before his keynote address to talk about the Big Ten, writing speeches and Martin Luther King Jr.
You graduated from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University. How did you end up working in media?
As it turns out, I studied law and public policy in the SPEA school at IU, moved to L.A. to work for Tom Bradley, who was at that time the mayor of Los Angeles, the first black mayor of the city of L.A. Because I was doing so much talking about issues on his behalf, I was always in the media, always on radio, always on television, you know, as a representative of the mayor’s office. One thing led to another, and the more I did it, the more I ended up liking it. Long story short, it was the exposure to the media, vis-à-vis my work in the mayor’s office that allowed me to get into media outright.
That makes a lot of sense, because you talk about issues with your guests — even celebrities — on your talk shows.
When you get policy wonks on, you get authors on, you get politicians on, you know, they’re turned on by conversation about issues that are important. But in Hollywood, you’d be amazed, or maybe not amazed, at how many celebrities love talking about issues. The problem is that most interviewers on television want to keep them in the lane they run in. So if you’re talking to an actor, all you’re talking about is the movie. If you’re talking to an artist, all you’re talking about is the music. So our show, I’m not as interested in the song per se, or in the career, in the movie, as much as I am in the humanity of the person. And once you tap into the humanity of the person, they just open up because nobody on TV really gives them a chance to really express what they think on what matters in the world.
What are you hoping to get across to the audience with your keynote address?
I never speak from prepared notes, so all of my talks, when I walk to the podium, all I have is the program. I believe in speaking organically because I want whatever that audience is supposed to receive that day, I want the audience to receive it organically. I don’t like writing a prepared speech and then traveling around the country, giving that same speech everywhere I go. Most folk on the lecture circuit like I am, they do that. They have one or two really good speeches, and everywhere they go, they give the same speech. And I’m not like that. I want to make sure that it’s organic, that it’s in the moment, that it’s timely, that it fits the occasion. So that oftentimes, I don’t know what I’m going to say literally until I get up.
You have said before that Martin Luther King, Jr., is the greatest American ever produced. Why do you feel that way?
I think King is the greatest American for a couple reasons. One, because the only weapon he ever used was love. It is the most difficult thing in the world to do when people are hating on you to turn around and love them anyway. Secondly, you look at what he was up against. FDR was up against the Depression, Lincoln, the Civil War, but Martin was up against an entire country that for years, you know, for decade after decade after decade, a country that was steeped in slavery, steeped in division, steeped in inequity and unfairness and racism. And here he comes along with the audacity to believe that things could be different. Three, the courage that he had to stick with it. In the face of every obstacle that could be thrown at Martin King, he never wavered. He stayed committed to the truth unto death.
How can Northwestern students help tackle the most important issues facing Americans today?
Change is inevitable, but growth is optional. Our country doesn’t need just to change, our country needs to grow. The only way you grow is be committed to telling the truth. Somebody’s got to have the courage, commitment and conviction to stand up and call it like they see it. You’re not always going to be embraced for that, you’re not always going to be celebrated for that, you’re not always going to be adored for that, but you’ll sleep a lot better at night. Your life will be a lot more meaningful. Your legacy will be a lot more rich.