She has hosted presidents, kings, comedians, educators and death row inmates, her show has won more than 300 awards and she's repeatedly listed as one of the 50 "top talkers" in the country.
But Bev Smith, the only nationally syndicated black female talk show host on radio, will no longer be on the air as of Oct. 28 -- and not just gone from Pittsburgh's WGBN-AM, but absent from 30 other AM radio markets across the country, including New York, Philadelphia and Chicago.
Contrary to rumors of ill health, Ms. Smith says she isn't leaving of her own accord. Rather, she was told several weeks ago that "The Bev Smith Show" would no longer be offered to radio stations by American Urban Radio Networks, a Pittsburgh-based media company that produces news, entertainment, sports and information programming for urban radio audiences.
Officials at AURN say simple economics are behind the decision to pull the plug, but Ms. Smith says it's not that simple.
"I see it as about being a certain age and gender," she said in an interview Friday. "If you've ever listened to me, you'll know I'm not afraid to tackle the truth. Is this something about black women's voices? Because there are no other black women nationally doing what I'm doing."
That may be true, but Jerry Lopes, president of program operations and affiliations at AURN, said that the decision to stop distribution of "The Bev Smith Show" was one of "several expense reductions made in response to declining ad revenues and a sputtering economy."
Besides discontinuing the production of Ms. Smith's show, which she started in 1998 in Maryland before moving back in 2001 to her hometown of Pittsburgh, AURN also terminated the company's longtime director of news, Pene Croom, he said, noting that he'd hired both Ms. Smith and Mr. Croom, "so this decision has been especially painful for me."
According to numbers supplied by Mr. Lopes, 88 percent of Ms. Smith's audience on New York's WWRL-AM is over 55, and 53 percent is over 65. At WVON-AM in Chicago, 86 percent of her audience is over 65 and at WAOK-AM in Atlanta, 62 percent are over 65.
About a year ago, he added, he approached Ms. Smith, noting that her audience numbers were beyond the show's target audience of listeners between age 25 and 54.
"Her audience numbers were, frankly, skewing a lot older than that, which made the show less attractive to advertisers. We were forced to make some changes, and her show, unfortunately, was one of the casualties."
Urban radio stations are under particular pressure in the highly competitive radio market, he said, noting that of 14,000 radio stations now operating in the U.S., 700 describe themselves as "urban" -- i.e., African-American or other minorities -- and only about a dozen of those list themselves as talk radio, a substantial decline from years past.
AURN produces programming to complement what local radio stations are doing, he said -- but those stations can take only a certain amount of national programming before they start to lose their audiences.
Right now, besides Ms. Smith, only two other black talk radio hosts do a similar style issues-focused national syndicated talk show Monday through Friday -- Al Sharpton and Warren Ballentine. Their shows are produced by Radio One Group, which also happens to be the largest owner of urban stations in the country.
"So they end up putting their own people on their own radio stations, which puts them at a significant advantage," Mr. Lopes said, noting that AURN mostly produces content. After selling WAMO AM and FM stations and WPGR a few years ago, AURN now owns only three AM radio stations.
"If you're a radio station in Detroit, and you're already running Sharpton and Ballentine, you're probably going to be reluctant to add a third national show to that lineup."
Robin Beckham, an African-American businesswoman who founded the website PittsburghUrbanMedia.com after WAMO was sold, said she didn't buy Mr. Lopes' explanation.
"She is the queen of late night talk," said Ms. Beckham, noting that thousands of Ms. Smith's friends on her Facebook page are talking about fundraising and protests on her behalf. "Here's an African-American woman whose voice is wiser than most on the air now. She's committed to something other than fluffing out her hair. If she goes, whose voice is left to be heard? Look around the airwaves, and what do you have? Rush Limbaugh. You can package it anyway you want, but this is age and gender discrimination."
Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, a leading radio trade magazine, called the decision "sad, because Bev Smith is an institution in broadcasting. She's very highly regarded by the entire broadcasting community."
But, he added, "I don't think they're throwing her overboard because she's a woman. It's a very challenging economic environment right now, and all broadcasting, not just urban talk radio, is facing the same challenge" to keep listeners and advertisers.
As for Ms. Smith, she says she's in talks with other broadcasters about resuming her show on another network. She's also writing a book she hopes to publish early next year, titled "Talking While Black."
Asked to describe her place in radio, she said, "I'm the town crier. I'm the voice of people who never get a chance to express their voice. I believe in this show."
A native of Homewood, she started her career in 1971 and was Pittsburgh's first African-American consumer affairs reporter for Channel 11. In 1975, she was named news and public affairs director at Sheridan Broadcasting and hosted a talk show on WAMO. Her talk radio show also was broadcast on KDKA and WTAE before it went national.
President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama have been guests on "The Bev Smith Show." So have Vice President Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, and "13 ambassadors from Africa who came to the studio and answered questions from listeners. No one else has ever done that," she laughed.
"I appreciate the opportunity American Urban Radio Networks gave me, but I do not believe that women in this business are treated like men." she said. "I just wish they supported me more."
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