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Tavis Smiley marks 10 tenacious years on PBS

FIRST HE LOST his studio and station home. Then some public-radio stations dumped him after he criticized President Obama.

FIRST HE LOST his studio and station home. Then some public-radio stations dumped him after he criticized President Obama. Earlier this year, Arsenio Hall poached his executive producer and other key staffers for Hall's new TV show. Oh, and the tendons in his ankles needed surgery.

Life ain't always easy for Tavis Smiley.

But no need for a pity party: The 49-year-old veteran broadcaster last month signed a new, two-year deal with PBS for his self-titled late-night talk show, where VIPs including general-turned-statesman Colin Powell, dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and author Amy Tan have turned up for in-depth discussions. He also co-hosts, with the scholar Cornel West, the public radio show "Smiley & West."

As one of the most recognizable black media personalities in America, he's so well-known that next year he's due for his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

But as Smiley recounted from his south Los Angeles offices one morning recently, the PBS deal was hardly a foregone conclusion, given the hurdles he's faced in his 10th year on the network.

"It's getting harder and harder to make this stuff work," he said. "Every week, I'm beating my head against a wall, trying to raise money."

Such is the life of a public-television personality. Unlike most TV hosts, who simply do their jobs and collect a paycheck from a network, Smiley has to raise most of the money for his program, which costs between $7 million and $8 million a year to produce. PBS generally contributes about $1 million. The rest comes from corporate sponsors Smiley finds.

The sluggish economy and reduced corporate spending have threatened the show's viability. But luckily for Smiley, longtime sponsor Walmart stepped up again, this time with a three-year commitment. But Walmart covers only about a quarter of the costs.

"What you're hearing from him is someone who's tired of being out looking for money all the time," said Paula Kerger, the president and chief executive of PBS, who added that the network renewed "Tavis Smiley" because it values the host's views. "He adds another perspective."

But penny-pinching companies aren't his only worry. The world is changing in ways that don't always favor the reflective, tweedy atmosphere of public television.

"As the handlers get younger and younger and as the artists crave more and more to be in the social-media zeitgeist, it becomes harder and harder for my producers to get through to clients the value of being on PBS," he said.

Smiley grew up in Indiana, where he and his mother, along with his stepfather and 10 other family members, were packed into a mobile home.

While still in college, he worked as an aide to then-Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. After an unsuccessful bid for the Los Angeles City Council, he began filing commentaries for local radio in the early 1990s, starting his career as a media personality.