By Denise Clay
When you see Tavis Smiley on his namesake show on PBS each night, you see a man who is confident and knowledgeable on the subjects he’s taking on with
the guests sitting on his couch.
But in his new book Fail Up: 20 Lessons On Building Success From Failure, Smiley reflects on his 20 years as a broadcaster, the lessons he learned
along the way, and how your failures can become the impetus you need to make the most of your life.
As part of his book tour, Smiley will be in town to receive an award as part of WHYY-91FM’s annual President’s Dinner and will also be the guest of
honor in An Evening with Tavis Smiley on Friday, May 6 at the University of the Arts Levitt Auditorium, 401 South Broad St. from 7-8:30 p.m. This event
will consist of an interview with Marty Moss-Coane, host of the station’s popular Radio Times program.
The SUN sat down with Smiley to talk about his career, the book, and how he’s managed to rise from his personal ashes.
SUN: Thank you for your time today Mr. Smiley. Could you tell me a little bit about your book and why you chose to write it now?
TS: This year, 2011, is my 20th Anniversary in broadcasting. Milestones like this are good for retrospection if they’re not good for anything else. In
many ways, I’ve failed up. You tend to learn more from your failures than you do from your successes. We as a nation have become frozen with a fear of
failure. We’re so afraid of failure in our personal lives and our professional lives. We’re afraid of losing our homes. We’re afraid for the future of
our country. I just saw a survey that says that just over half of Americans think that our best days as a country are behind us. The fear is palpable.
You can feel it.
I couldn’t have written this book 10 years ago and put my “success scars” on display. I’m hoping that these stories can be used to empower people.
SUN: When reading an excerpt of this book, I saw some things that I didn’t know about you. For example, I didn’t know that you had run for political
TS: There are three or four lessons in the book that my parents didn’t know about. They were so embarrassing that I couldn’t bring myself to tell them.
This is the most transparent and hopefully most transformative book I’ve ever written. But if I’m going to write a book about myself, I’m going to be
real about things. It took me a while to decide to write it.
SUN: Once you decided to write the book, how long did it take?
TS: Not long. The reason why it didn’t take a long time is because it is a very personal book. These are things that I’ve lived. While it’s painful to
recount them, I know them well. I live them every day.
SUN: You’re going to be in Philadelphia soon as the guest of one of our public radio stations, WHYY-91FM. Can you talk a little bit about that?
TS: I’m receiving an award from WHYY as part of the station’s annual President’s Dinner. A couple of years ago, they wanted to honor me, but we
couldn’t make it happen. Since I was in the midst of this book tour and a PBS tour that’s celebrating my 20th Anniversary in broadcasting, I wanted to
thank them for carrying my TV show and for carrying my radio show in the past.
As part of the PBS Tour, a local personality turns the tables on me and interviews me for 30 minutes. Then, the audience gets to ask me questions for
30 minutes and I have to answer them. It’s a way of thanking the viewers. We’ve been to Seattle, Memphis and Philadelphia’s our next stop. [He was in
New York when this interview occurred.] It’s usually about 500-700 people and it’s a really good dialogue.
SUN: It’s interesting that you’re still in public broadcasting because of how your show on NPR met its end. You left the network because you felt that
NPR didn’t know what to do with your show. What has been the difference between the success that PBS has had with your TV show and what happened with
TS: I’m still on public radio. I have a program on [Public Radio International] and it’s on the same stations that ran my NPR show. It is easier for me
to work with PRI and PBS. Also, I own both of my shows on PRI, one that I do alone and another that I do with Dr. Cornel West. I also own the Tavis
Smiley Show. I control the marketing on all three. I realize that public radio and television is a good fit for me, but it makes it easier when you get
to call the shots.
Where I had the problem with NPR was that they were trying to tell me how to do diversity when they didn’t have a strong record of it themselves. I
think that it shows a little arrogance and hubris when someone thinks that they can tell you how diversity ought to be done and they haven’t been very
successful at it.
SUN: The fact that you own your own product makes you not only a journalist, but an entrepreneur. If someone wanted to do what you do, especially in
the current media landscape, what advice would you give them?
TS: The main thing to emphasize is a commitment to truth telling. I say that because if you can get [your media venture] off of the ground, do it your
own way, and make an impact on people’s lives, these are good things. But this journey is so tedious that only a handful of people are doing it. It’s
difficult. If you’re going to attempt to take that journey, you have to have a deeper connection to being a truth teller.
The reason that I do what I do is because I have the mission of making it safe for [the Rev.] Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy of justice for all
and service to others. It’s bigger than fame and fortune. You have to have a mission.
SUN: Well, thank you Mr. Smiley. I really appreciate your time.
TS: It was my pleasure.
An Evening with Tavis Smiley will be held on Friday, May 6, 2011, from 7 PM to 8:30 PM at the University of the Arts, Levitt Auditorium at Gershman
Hall, 401 S. Broad Street. Tickets are $15 for WHYY Members and $20 for non-members. If you would like to become a WHYY member and pledge $80, you
get two tickets as part of your membership.