Tavis Smiley's departure on Thursday from National Public Radio is a loss not only to blacks but also to all NPR listeners.
For its part, NPR issued a vague statement that is long on happy talk about how Smiley helped to ''jump start'' its effort at reaching blacks.
Smiley's departing letter to local stations asserts that NPR has ``failed to meaningfully reach out to a broad spectrum of Americans who would benefit from public radio.''
Smiley may simply have been tired of banging his head against the racial wall. When I interviewed him a year ago, he said that he often was frustrated and exhausted from doing the work involved in putting together a meaningful show five times a week, while at the same time tussling frequently with NPR over the show's tone and guests.
''The most difficult thing that I have had to do,'' he said, ``is fight a culture at NPR, a culture that is antithetical to the best interests of people of color.''
The African American Public Radio Consortium, which helped recruit Smiley four years ago, has meanwhile urged Smiley's listeners to stay with NPR. Perhaps they will, as NPR embarks on a search for a new permanent host to replace Smiley. But Smiley is a personality with particular cachet among many blacks. He has a fan base that has followed him from his days on Black Entertainment Television to The Tom Joyner Morning Show on black commercial radio.
And there is a strong possibility that the many ears of color that Smiley brought to NPR will not find enough to keep their attention after his departure.
Therein lies a fundamental problem with NPR's approach to diversity: One show cannot carry the burden of overcoming a long-standing culture that failed to reach people of color.
NPR research shows The Tavis Smiley Show to have a listenership that is 29 percent black and 40 percent under the age of 44. Each measure is the highest of any NPR program, making the show's audience among the most diverse in public radio.
During Smiley's time at NPR, the network and its stations reportedly questioned his openness with his liberal political views, his irreverent style and his willingness to ask challenging questions, as well as to allow a few arguments to break out on his show.
Stations were concerned about Smiley's boisterous and casual speaking style, widely recognized in black America but different from the conversational tone and ethnically neutral inflections of many NPR hosts.
NPR wanted to bring about racial diversity in public radio but to somehow do it in a way that didn't disturb its status quo.
Unfortunately, the ironic result is that the network now faces the embarrassing loss of a key player in its dream of a more-multicultural NPR. This may cost it some goodwill, especially among the listeners of color whom it wanted so much to attract.
Leah Samuel is a journalist in Pittsburgh.
© 2004 Miami Herald