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Marking 10 feisty years on PBS

Tavis Smiley, the rare black TV and radio host, hasn't shied from challenge and criticism and key issues.

LOS ANGELES - Tavis Smiley has stood out in 20 years in broadcasting, and he has no intention of changing his style or substance.

He's the rare black host with national TV and radio platforms, one who sees his job as challenging Americans to examine their assumptions on such thorny issues as poverty, education, and racial and gender equality.

In other words, he doesn't squander his opportunities on PBS's daily talk show Tavis Smiley, which marks its 10th year this month, or on public radio's The Tavis Smiley Show and Smiley & West, the latter a forum for commentary he shares with scholar-activist Cornel West.

His quarterly Tavis Smiley Reports specials for PBS, in-depth looks at topics such as the relationship between the juvenile justice system and the teenage dropout rate, fit the same bold pattern.

Smiley, marking two decades in broadcasting this year, considers himself engaged in a calling as much as a career: "This is the kind of work I think needs to be done. I'm trying to entertain and empower people."

PBS president and chief executive officer Paula Kerger was a public TV executive overseeing New York station WNET when she became interested in launching a Smiley talk show as a companion to Charlie Rose. The programs air back-to-back on a number of PBS stations.

"The two of them have very different styles. Tavis has done a great job of bringing a wide range of people on to public broadcasting," Kerger said. "He's constantly looking at the next big idea" to bring to the national dialogue.

Smiley, 48, doesn't shrink from repercussions that occur when his opinions strike a nerve. He has drawn the ire of conservatives and, because of his insistent criticism of President Obama's policies, that of some liberals and African Americans.

Smiley contends that members of the administration, whom he didn't identify, have pressured sponsors to drop their support of his projects, including his anti-poverty initiatives. The White House had no comment, a spokesman said.

While Smiley said he understands the desire of blacks to stand protectively by the first African American president, he's adamant about his right to take Obama to task on rising black unemployment, use of military drones, and other issues.

"This administration does not like to be criticized. And the irony of it is, there's nothing I have tried to hold the president accountable on that my white progressive colleagues have not," Smiley said. "They're labeled courageous critics, but if I say it, I'm an 'Obama critic.' There's race at play in the very question."

He's unlikely to find boosters on the right. National Review senior editor Jay Nordlinger in 2002 dismissed him as "the black leftist radio personality," and then-Fox News Channel commentator Glenn Beck spurred anti-Smiley letter-writing campaigns to PBS, Smiley said.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the PBS show's underwriter since the start, has "consistently stood by our side," a Smiley spokeswoman said. But others have dropped out or donated money to his projects on the condition of privacy because they've heard from a displeased White House, Smiley says.

"I don't have an anti-Barack agenda," he said, "but this is what I do: My job is to raise questions of accountability."

He interviewed Obama more than a half-dozen times before he was elected but not once since, Smiley said, although Vice President Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and others in the administration have appeared on the PBS show.

The public reaction is more generous, Smiley said: While he's questioned on the street by people about his views on Obama, they give him the courtesy of a hearing and pay heed in other ways.

"Since Obama has been president, I've had not one, but two New York Times best-selling books, been on the cover of Time, and made its [2009] 100 list" of the world's most influential people, Smiley said.

He also has a knack for controversy. In 2004, he left his first public radio show, on NPR, in a squabble over matters including its marketing budget.

He was fired from the BET Tonight talk show in 2001 after he offered an exclusive newsworthy interview to ABC instead of BET. There was speculation new BET owner Viacom Inc. forced the decision; BET founder Robert L. Johnson said it was his.

Smiley welcomes celebrities such as Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie, and Kanye West, but they have to be ready to talk about more than their latest projects.

When Harrison Ford was promoting the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, Smiley says his audience got something unique "because I'm the only black guy Harrison Ford is talking to." It's a valid point in a genre dominated solely by white interviewers.