A talent show is underway to select Tavis Smiley's replacement on "The Tom Joyner Morning Show."
It was inevitable that this process would come down to a series of on-air, laugh-out-loud challenges rivaling American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance?
Perhaps it's the spirit of equal opportunity or the clarity of competition, but nothing rallies a crowd of black folks to a cause or generates more wholesale attention, than the business of putting on a talent show.
If you doubt me, ask the schoolteacher, preacher or recreation center director in any black community. They will tell you that a talent show works when all else fails because we, black people, just love ourselves some talent shows. Yes, we do.
So for the rest of July and into August, eight relatively unknown African-American social activists and academics are showcasing their oratorical skills in an open-mic battle on the "Tom Joyner Morning Show." The winner earns a direct path to national celebrity. The contestants are:
· Eddie Glaude, professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton University and a senior fellow of the Jamestown Project.
· Jeff Johnson, a published author and BET personality best known as "Cousin Jeff."
· Anthony Samad, associate professor of political science and African-American studies at East Los Angeles College.
· Stephanie Robinson, president and chief executive of The Jamestown Project, a liberal think tank in Jamestown, Va.,and the former chief counsel to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.)
· Faye M. Anderson, a political consultant and blogger.
· Reiland Rabaka, associate professor of Africana studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
· Van Jones, a community organizer in Oakland, Calif.
You may not have heard of them. Not yet. But that could change.
Next month, when all the competitive pontificating is done, one of them will have won a regular and recurring guest chair in front of Joyner's weekly audience of about 10 million (mostly black) listeners on more than 100 urban-formatted radio stations across the nation.
No doubt a heaping dollop of fame will land on the winner's head, along with an opportunity to replicate what Smiley did so well—cash in on being a highly visible—or, in this case, heard—presence in so many black people's daily lives.
See, along with talent shows, black people listen to the radio, especially the highly popular urban-contemporary formats that are targeted to them. Tom Joyner's show is, hands-down, the most popular of them all.
So the opportunity to become the next Tavis Smiley is like winning a nationwide sweepstakes. But as so many lottery winners can attest, this is risky business. Winning a competition in the current media-soaked environment may be a disaster in the making, especially if you fall victim to your own press clippings.
I fear that's what happened to my friend Tavis Smiley. (Full disclosure: I've known Tavis for nearly 15 years, long before he became the megastar he is today and long before that star was tarnished by the his public dust-up with Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama.)
Prior to when he hit it big with Joyner, only a relatively few people, mostly in southern California, had ever heard of Tavis (who since then has grown so large that nowadays he can effectively go by a single moniker like Oprah or Tiger).
When I met him in 1995, I was convinced he was a man on the make in national politics. For sure, I thought, he would one day follow his mentor the late Tom Bradley into the Los Angeles mayor's office or, perhaps, become a California congressman. But I didn't put the White House out of his ambitious reach either.
At that time, he already had an impressive resume as one of Bradley's trusted aides and the host of a popular radio talk show in southern California. Time magazine had tapped him as one of the 40 young Americans worth watching in the early 1990s. And he had written a fine first book. He wasn't yet 30 years old.
All Tavis needed back then was a big stage, stretching from the Pacific to the Atlantic, to allow him to go big time. Tom Joyner gave it to him.
For the next 12 years, Tavis became a popular figure, crisscrossing the country from L.A. to D.C., creating a loyal and enthusiastic cluster of fans. They—especially the women—shouted his name like rock-star groupies at his frequent public speaking engagements.
But the cheers turned to curses earlier this year after Tavis questioned Obama's fidelity to black people in a series of commentaries on TJMS. Those radio essays outraged a nation of listeners. The issue came to an acrimonious head after Tavis lambasted Obama for campaigning in Ohio and Texas, instead of attending the State of the Black Union, an annual forum hosted by Tavis.
It was a miscalculation on Tavis' part because if a talent show can draw together black folks, then outrage at 'hating on the brotha' will turn that crowd into a protesting mob. Bottom line: Tavis' audience loves Obama, a man on the verge of becoming the first black President of the United States, more than it loved Tavis.
And they let Tavis—and Joyner—know it. Apparently, Tavis was stunned by the intensity and mean-spirited blowback.
So, citing fatigue and other obligations, he announced his departure. Joyner said Tavis left in frustration. "The real reason is that he can't take the hate he's been getting regarding the Barack issue—hate from the black people he loves so much," Joyner said, offering a candid view of the sudden turn of events.
Tavis Smiley's rise and fall on Tom Joyner's show is a cautionary tale, one that his replacement might be wise to heed. Whoever wins should just remember this: Even though you'll have a huge audience of loyal and faithful listeners, don't let it go to your head. You won't be the next leader of black people from behind a microphone.
Sam Fulwood III, author of "Waking From the Dream: My Life In the Black Middle-Class" (Anchor Books, 1996), is a writer for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and teaches at Case Western Reserve University.