Tavis Smiley: The Music Industry Quarterly Interview

Juneteenth 2022 represents so many things within the African American community. For
the Tavis Smiley-owned Talk Radio station KBLA-AM (Smiley Audio Media), it marks the one-year anniversary since signing on in the Los Angeles marketplace.

The station is off to a roaring start with its 24-hour line-up of “Unapologetically Progressive” themes and subject matter important to the Black community and other listeners of color. The station’s line-up consists of air-personalities who conduct discussions on an array of important issues.

A sample of the station’s line-up: Dominique DiPrima kicks of the weekday morning show;
Tavis Smiley himself is on from 9am-noon; the DL Hughley Afternoon show is quite popular, as is Don Amiche Vs. Everybody w/Crista & Kiara; and Zo Williams’ the Voice of Reason. We have to shout out Tosha, Teal & Ural, which spearhead the Lyric Lounge show, which is part of the KBLA weekend line-up. For the entire KBLA line-up, visit https://kbla1580.com/

To mark the one-year anniversary of the station, Tavis granted us time from his busy
schedule to discuss the direction of the station, and how the community along with its
city and state leaders are responding.

With one year on the air now as KBLA, how do you feel the station is doing overall?

The response from the community has been overwhelming. When you do something that
hasn’t been done before there’s always a chance that it may resonate with people, and a chance that it won’t. When I started this a year ago, I thought with a city as multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and as progressive as Los Angeles, something is wrong when talk radio in this market is all day, all night and all white. It’s a conservative citadel.

I reasoned that if we could bring online an unapologetic progressive station, and staff
the station with people who look like the audience we are trying to appeal to, I felt it
might succeed. Again, I have been overwhelmed by the level of guests, listeners, advertisers, and the community, and how they have embraced what we’re doing. I hear this all the time when people come into the building. They say, “It’s about time…we have our own talk station…we have our own platform…that someone created a platform that allows us to amplify our voices.”

Our research data confirms that when people discover the station and they tune in…
they don’t tune out. A lot of our audience is generated word of mouth. As a start-up, we don’t have multi-million-dollar budget to do billboards, buses and tv commercials. We’re not [owned by] iHeart or Cumulus. We don’t have deep pockets to market and promote. So, this first year has essentially been growth by word of mouth.

What topics specifically have your listeners been most receptive to?

They are homelessness and crime, jobs, the environment, and education; issues that
matter to the rest of the nation also matter to us…this city and beyond. The real difference
is that, on our station, people get a chance to hear those issues discussed by people who
understand where they live or understand the world they’re trying to navigate. Our listeners call in to discuss their dreams, hopes, aspirations and fears. My point is people can truly relate when you put people on the air that are a part of the same community.

Is there a big desire to discuss Pop culture topics like social media, such as the Will Smith/Chris Rock situation or the Michael B. Jordan and Lori Harvey breakup?

1580/KBLA is a window into our world. That’s what talk radio does at its best. All the issues that are being discussed in the African American community are being discussed on the air, including Will Smith and Chris Rock, Michael B. Jordan and Lori Harvey, and even D.L. Hughley and Monique’s controversy. D.L. Hughley has a timeslot on our station.

Tavis shares a moment with the Honorable Maxine Waters and air personality Dominique DiPrima

Talk about where KBLA has some music component in its programming.

Black people truly love music. Listen to any other talk radio show around the country, and there’s not one that weaves in as much Black music as KBLA. Going in and out of our
commercial breaks, all we play is Black music. When you tune into our station, you’re
hearing music all the time.

As part of our programming, we have thematic shows that discuss music. There’s the
Tosha, Teal and Ural show, Lyric Lounge, that specifically dissects lyrics. It talks purely music. That’s just one show. On my show during the month of June, I’m on every day from 9am-noon, and during all three hours of my show, I’m featuring a different African American artist to celebrate Black Music Month. We find so many ways to play music and wrap it around the talk.

There are numerous placards around the city with KBLA and getting out the vote campaign. How involved has the station been in the recent June primaries?

No talk station in the city interviewed more candidates than KBLA during this election
cycle. We’re very proud of this. Mayoral candidates, city attorneys, state assembly,
congressional, judges, the sheriff, you name it: we wanted to ensure we put our imprint
on this election cycle. All of those conversations were broadcasted live on the air.

We blistered L.A., Long Beach, Inglewood, Carson, Compton, Hawthorne, everywhere;
we had a guerilla street campaign, putting placards everywhere. We wanted you
to vote for us, KBLA, and tune in to hear our political coverage. We had an aggressive social media campaign on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter promoting our election coverage. Finally, on election day itself, we set up a booth in front of the station, with a
cool promo for those who voted. “Once you punched your ballot, drive by our station
for free snacks and punch on us.” There were hundreds of people who dropped by our station on Crenshaw showing us their “I Voted” sticker and got their free snacks and
punch. We were literally out in from of the station for 12 hours, giving out snack packs
to voters.

There were tons of politicians who bought airtime on the station. We’ve only been on the air a year. The fact that these politicians know that we’re here, shows our audience is
significant and that our audience matters. Both Karen Bass and Rick Caruso bought ads on the station. These are indicators that we’re moving in the right direction.

How does a KBLA compete in the age of ubiquitous podcasts?

This is a very competitive market. There are nearly 200 radio stations in L.A., and until we came along the only Black-owned radio station is Stevie Wonder’s KJLH-FM. That’s an abysmal number of Black radio ownership in such a large market.

I knew going into this; podcasts are ubiquitous. So, what we do is broadcast our content live throughout the day, and those shows are immediately turned into podcasts by midnight of the same day. If you missed any of our shows when they aired live, you can go to our website or app, and check out the podcast. While the world is full of podcasts, the one thing live radio offers podcasts don’t is audience interaction. Podcasting is only one way. There’s talking, and you, the audience, is listening. On terrestrial radio, we’re talking, and you can talk back to us. That’s the main reason talk radio isn’t going to go away.

Tavis pictured with Rapper, Entrepreneur Percy “Master P” Miller

What would you like to accomplish over the next year?

We want to solidify the station as the premier talk station in the city for people of color and progressives. We are going to continue to build out our programming. Our weekday and weekend line ups are pretty solid. But we’re adding more content like a sports show, and our version of an Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. Hopefully with the pandemic subsiding, we would like to get into the streets and do even more community events.

In addition to being a place for people of color and for progressives, the data is showing that we are the most trusted, the most credible and reliable station for African Americans, and that’s going to be backed up by some significant research data. We’ve hired a
firm to see what the community response is like to our station. This the first station that
we’ve brought online. KBLA is our flagship station. I’m in the midst of a capital raise,
with investors coming in to use this station to buy other stations and ultimately to build
a Black Talk Radio Network that is syndicated and heard around the country.

Define what you mean by the ‘term’ progressive?

Black people have always been more conservative on fiscal issues, and more liberal on social issues. The station is in alignment with that in our content. We brand our station as “Unapologetically Progressive, KBLA Talk 1580.” That is our mantra. By progressive we mean, that we all want the same things when it comes to our children.

We want to live in a world where everyone has equal access to high quality education,
universal health care, where everybody has an opportunity to live in an environmentally safe neighborhood, to live places where crime is not rampant. We want to ensure that
as Black people we are not treated as second class citizens. We want the children of our
community to be treated as highly regarded as children of any other community. There’s
a huge divide in the promise of America and the possibility in America for its citizens. We
want to shrink the gap between the promise and possibility, and that’s what we mean by
progressive.

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On a personal note, admittedly I am having a full circle moment while putting together this
interview. While at Urban Network Magazine, back in 1993, my first months as a journalist, my mentor and boss at the time, Jerry Boulding (may he rest in peace), suggested
I do a piece on African Americans in Talk Radio. He put me in touch with both Cathy
Hughes and Tavis Smiley. Both entrepreneurs and personalities have had remarkable
careers over these 30 years. Thank you Tavis for your time, and continued success with
KBLA.  (Interview Conducted by David A. Mitchell)