'It's my show and I'll leave if I want to'

Ever since last fall when Viacom bought Black Entertainment Television for $3 billion, people in the black community have been concerned that the new white owners would make changes.

Those concerns reached a boiling point last week when popular talk-show host Tavis Smiley was fired. On Monday, in a rare television event, BET's chairman went on the air for an hour to answer questions and defend the decision.

"There is no conspiracy on the part of Viacom to silence Tavis's voice," Robert Johnson told viewers of a special edition of "BET Tonight," the public-affairs show that until last Friday was hosted by Mr. Smiley.

To quiet the outcry -which included thousands of e-mails, faxes, and phone calls to Viacom and BET -Mr. Johnson, the former owner of BET, pointed out that networks and talent often part ways. He was adamant that Viacom does not interfere with the programming of any of its networks, including MTV and CBS. "I made the decision," he said repeatedly.

The broadcast made black television history, says Ken Smikle, head of Target Market News, a Chicago firm that tracks black media and marketing. "This is a modern-day version of how black celebrities went on black radio at the height of the civil rights riots. Bob Johnson is trying to cool the tempers of angry viewers through a personal appeal," he says, adding, "It's pretty unusual for a boss and an employee to do battle over a firing in public this way."

Last week, African-American radio host Tom Joyner encouraged his almost 7 million listeners to contact Viacom, after BET's announcement on Wednesday that it was not going to renew Smiley's contract, set to expire in September. Smiley, an author and activist, is a contributor to the radio show and also named both companies when referring to the decision. BET and Viacom were deluged with complaints, and by Friday, BET decided to end his contract immediately.

"I didn't see any way we could continue to have a mutually beneficial business relationship under these conditions," Johnson told viewers. He said he let Smiley go, in part, because Smiley didn't offer BET his exclusive interview with Sara Jane Olson - allegedly a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the group that kidnapped Patty Hearst -which aired on ABC March 1.

Smiley responded in a statement on Joyner's show on Tuesday that the telecast was the first he heard of why he was being let go. He said his contract allowed him to freelance, and that he did offer the interviewto Viacom's CBS, but "for whatever reason, CBS passed and a deal was struck with ABC." He says he negotiated the interview with the understanding that it would have a broad audience, and his production company paid six figures to produce it.

Both sides say they are moving on, and Smiley is reportedly in conversations with other networks.

Christopher Lydon returns

Maverick public radio host Christopher Lydon has been spotted in the halls of the Monitor recently. He and his production crew rented a recording studio from B&MPS in The Christian Science Publishing Society in Boston for two shows that have gone out on the Web (christopherlydon.org) and to a few radio stations. (Other outside groups also rent the studios, including the National Hockey League and ESPN.)

Last week, Lydon was enthusiastic after his first broadcast since his messy departure from National Public Radio affiliate WBUR in Boston a month ago. "It felt wonderful. We're alive. We're together. The little guerrilla band is thriving in the hills. We'll be back."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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