Urban One and Reach Media CEO David Kantor says Rickey Smiley is in an elite group of broadcasters. And that’s undeniable. Not only does Smiley have an NAB Marconi Award on his trophy shelf for Syndicated Personality of the Year (2017), he’s also hosted the Marconis twice. And both times, he was an excellent host, dropping timely — and clean — jokes on many of the broadcasters in the room. He was hilarious.
The Rickey Smiley Morning Show has been in syndication for a little more than 10 years now, with over 65 radio stations around the country now carrying the program. The first two stations to air the show, back in 2007, were WFXA-AM (Foxie 103 Jamz)/Augusta, Georgia and WHHL (Hot 104.1)/ St. Louis. Both stations continue to carry the show today, along with markets like Chicago, Miami, Baltimore, Charlotte, and Raleigh.
Clean and fun are what Smiley wants his morning show to be about. Oh, and hip, too. Smiley wants mom and the kids all listening to his show comfortably. He’s a rarity when it comes to comedians these days — his act is without the vulgarities so many comics lean on to make an audience laugh. And he carries that into the rest of the media empire he’s been building over the past decade.
Radio is only one piece of the Rickey Smiley brand. His television show, Rickey Smiley for Real, syndicated by Urban One, has been renewed for a third season. He still does 50 stand-up comedy dates every year. He created the Rickey Smiley Foundation with a goal to help children, teens, and seniors. And he just wrote a new book, Stand by Your Truth and Then Run for Your Life (published by Simon & Schuster), which he launched in 2017 with an 18-city tour.
Through it all, Smiley remains very humble. He’s thankful for the people he works with, the partnerships he has, the radio stations that put his show on the air, and the community he is working his tail off to help.
Radio Ink: Why did you get into radio?
Smiley: I was doing radio in Birmingham, Alabama, on WBHJ (95.7 Jam); I was a comedian on The Buck Wild Morning Show. It was a no-brainer for me because I’m an early bird anyway. After that ended, I moved to The Doug Banks Morning Show. Then I got my own show in Dallas on KBFB. Then we were syndicated in 13 markets, which turned into 65 markets.
Radio Ink: When you were on the air as a comedian in Birmingham, did you always know you wanted your own show?
Smiley: I started on radio on The Buck Wild Morning Show, 1996-97. I learned what I could bring to the table. I had my own style and some things that I wanted to address on the original show — things like civil rights and supporting the NAACP, getting in the community, holding rallies. I wanted to use my show to make changes, going beyond hip hop and prank phone calls.
Radio Ink: What is it like being behind your own steering wheel?
Smiley: Initially, there’s a lot involved, trying to answer the variety of demands of different programming processes, though I worked to have my voice — to be me on the air. That’s what worked for The Rickey Smiley Morning Show, and I have Alfred Liggins and Cathy Hughes believing in and supporting me.
Radio Ink: Do you think PDs should just keep their noses out of things?
Smiley: Yes. If a program director wants to make a correction if the talent makes a mistake, that’s fine. You have some program directors that allow eagles to fly and some that are total control freaks. I had to tell a program director one time that I don’t answer to anybody about comedy. If you don’t go onstage and do jokes, there’s nothing you can tell me about being funny. I was hired because I was funny. You stick to the music, I’ll stick to the funny, and we’ll be good.
Radio Ink: How were you able to make the transition from stand-up comedy to radio, where you are limited by what the clock says, with commercials and other content?
Smiley: Real easy. You just have to have a good producer and good guidance, someone that teaches you the right way to do radio. Loren Henderson worked on The Steve Harvey Show, John Sally worked on morning shows and has the experience and capability to train the talent. He did a good job, and he’s still with us.
Smiley: We have a voice early in the morning. We have the opportunity to change lives and help people. We have the opportunity to make people laugh, and to develop a brand. It’s a big platform, and it’s a lot of fun when you work with people that are fun.
Radio Ink: How are you helping and changing people?
Smiley: The Rickey Smiley Foundation has helped people who didn’t have transportation get cars. We’ve donated thousands and thousands of dollars to the Salvation Army. We get out the vote as well.
Radio Ink: And you wrote a book about parenting.
Smiley: Now I am also an author and philanthropist. On the book tour, we sold thousands of copies. I think that’s a good look for a brand. I promote fatherhood. There are some strong, awesome black fathers out there. We have been using the show to help fathers gain access to their children. There are fathers who want to be in their kids’ lives but don’t know how. We put out information and do what we can to bring families together.
Radio Ink: Tell us how your show is different from other morning shows.
Smiley: What makes our show stand out is that it’s funny. We do get into politics and serious issues, but my show is totally hilarious every morning. You have to involve the listeners. You want the audience to feel they are part of the show. The “Rickey Quickie,” the prank phone call, Black Tony, church announcements, and some of the funny features like “Dead or Alive,” where you have to guess if a celebrity is dead or alive, then we call heaven and talk to the deceased celebrity. We have someone who does all the voices, and it’s funny.
Radio Ink: You have a big cast — something a lot of stations can’t afford. How do you make it work with all those people? Do you think that is an advantage for you?
Smiley: It comes with training, not talking over each other, and everybody staying in their lane. Good coaching from our morning show producer. I do have a big morning show, but nobody complains that we’re talking over each other because we are aware everybody is not on every single break. We have a show map we go over every morning, and we follow it.
Radio Ink: How big a role has social media played in your show and how you interact with your listeners?
Smiley: Social media is huge. Every morning we are on Facebook Live, Instagram, Snapchat. It’s important that we do it. The interviews and pictures — social media is a big part what we do now. We have a ton of followers on all of them — and a shout-out to all my followers!
Radio Ink: What role has the political climate played in the content of your show?
Smiley: We’ve had President Obama on the show at least three times since I’ve been doing radio. We had the First Lady on twice. We’ve had Hillary Clinton on. We’ve invited Republican candidates, but we never get a call back. We have a lot of political figures come on the show. It depends on what’s in the news.
Radio Ink: How does your audience react to the political discussion? Do they just want to hear funny?
Smiley: They love it, especially when I go on a rant. One thing about me is I’m always going to stand up for what is right. I go really hard for civil rights.
Radio Ink: Give us an example of one of your rants.
Smiley: There was a time when they had this young lady sitting in jail in Dallas, Texas, by the name of Shaquanda Cotton. The listeners and I went down there, and we surrounded that courthouse. It made the news, and she was released. She was in jail for allegedly shoving a schoolteacher, and the punishment did not fit the alleged crime. So we made a commotion about it, and they let her out.
That made a big statement for us, having the guts to go down there in a conservative, racist town like Paris, Texas, and make a move like that. Craig Watkins, a 38-year-old African-American attorney, was running for district attorney, and we rallied behind him. He got elected as the first black district attorney in the state of Texas. He exonerated a lot of people, got them out of prison, who were wrongfully convicted.
Smiley: Oh, yeah, every weekend. I will never stop performing.
Radio Ink: Which do you like better, radio or stand-up comedy?
Smiley: Stand-up. Absolutely. Because you get instant reaction, and walking on that stage you get the opportunity to look people in the eyes and shake their hand. You have to always perform — that’s how you get TV shows and movies. You have to be out there. When you get lazy and only do one thing, like radio, you become an employee instead of a partner with stations. I have a brand that I built before radio that is how I got into radio. I have been selling out for 20 years.
Radio Ink: Do you write all your own material?
Rickey: I have someone help me write, but most I write myself.
Radio Ink: How big do you want your brand to be?
Smiley: I would like the radio show to continue to grow, but I’m OK with where I am. I have a good balance. I’m able to spend time with my kids and relax a little. You can’t go out after every dollar; you do have to slow down and enjoy it. Some days I get off at 10 o’clock and I watch TV all day. I have a nice, long, awesome, relaxing day.
Radio Ink: What do you think of the radio industry in general?
Smiley: It’s fun when you have people who support you. I have people who do support me. David Kantor has been a lot of fun to work with. I feel like he’s very supportive, non-confrontational. If there was ever a problem, he would pick up the phone and call. He’s always direct and honest.
The same thing goes for when I was dealing directly with Alfred Liggins. I still get a call from him once in a while. They treat me like a business partner. You have some general managers and program directors who really want you to succeed. You have some who don’t believe in syndication and like to be on the air themselves, so they don’t support you, and everybody has had to deal with that.
Radio Ink: If you could pick one thing you would like to see the radio industry be better at, what would that be?
Smiley: I would like to have more positive music. If I was in charge I would take off everything degrading to black women. You don’t hear that on pop stations. Pop stations are talking about love. Only on hip hop radio are the black women and black men being degraded and all the drug stuff is being idolized.
Music has an influence on our kids. I would not allow certain records to be played on radio. All money is not good money. Kids put themselves in situations where they die. We have responsibilities with our music and content. We don’t go too far on my radio show when it comes to content. We realize families are listening. My goal is to keep parents and kids fighting over the radio. Funny enough for the moms, but hip enough for the kids. That was a concept I stole from my home station. We are not throwing drinks or cursing. The day we do that is the day we are wrapping it up and figuring out what’s next.
Radio Ink: Do you ever speak in front of kids and give them advice on music?
Smiley: No, I talk to them about life. When I speak at juvenile facilities, I talk about how I grew up going through some of the same things. I let them know today is the first day of the rest of their lives and how they can pick themselves up and erase their mistakes. If they trust God, he did it for me and he will do it for them. A lot of those positive videos went viral on my Facebook page; one has 11 million views and the other about 4 million. I do a lot of positive videos.
Radio Ink: When you were growing up, who had a positive influence on you?
Smiley: I had wonderful grandparents. Both sets were a positive influence. My mom, of course. And I had two wonderful uncles who were a positive influence to keep me on the straight and narrow.
Today I am thankful to Alfred Liggins and Cathy Hughes for the opportunity they have extended to us at Urban One. Nobody has to give you a chance and allow you on their radio or TV station. I am humble, and grateful. I appreciate everything they did. We are grateful to David Kantor for his leadership and kindness and being so great to work with. When people are pleasant, it will make you go above and beyond the call of duty. That’s big for me. Everything I do is a representation of the radio station that allows me to be on their signal.
Radio Ink: Now social media is doing all the influencing?
Smiley: Right. A lot of kids are stuck at home with their phones because parents have to make ends meet. It is a different time now.
Radio Ink: What advice do you have for young broadcasters hoping to make it big on the air?
Smiley: Do good radio. Do good community service and social media. Build your brand and help out people by caring for the community.
Radio Ink: What do you want our readers to know about your show they may not already know?
Smiley: It’s clean, funny, and fun. It is something for kids and parents.