Eight months ago, C. Miles Smith was up to his elbows in dishwater at his cousin's restaurant in Georgia.
Today, he's in hot water of another sort as the controversial afternoon talk show host on WOLB-AM (1010) radio station.
Since taking to the airwaves here June 10, Smith, who espouses black nationalism with a conservative bent, has become a lightning rod for controversy, accusing prominent black ministers and politicians of selling out the black community. He considers it a coup that he was instrumental in arousing community opposition to the Canaan Food Outlet.
On Dec. 11, the city revoked the business license of the Park Heights grocery, which had come under fire for violating Health Department regulations by selling moldy deli meats, storing unrefrigerated eggs next to a toilet and pouring bleach over meat to thwart lab tests. It was the first store closed for such violations in four years.
While the effort was ostensibly led by a small band of community activists, many people credit Smith's almost constant diatribes against the store as sparking widespread community opposition, forcing the city to revoke the license.
"He certainly was a factor in our victory," said Bill Goodin, who picketed the market for five weeks.
Some community leaders who applaud Smith's help in closing the market are opposed to what they call an unprecedented constant black media attack on Baltimore's black leaders: He has skewered NAACP President Kweisi Mfume for settling with Texaco Inc., saying it was premature; slammed the Rev. Frank M. Reid III for his relationships with Koreans; joked about the Mitchell family; and berated Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke for appointing a Korean community liaison.
Of the NAACP's settlement with Texaco, which had been accused of discriminating against its black employees, Smith, 46, said: "[Mfume] should have immediately announced an economic boycott and thrown up pickets at all Texaco stations. The world would have been proud of black people for standing up." Smith claims that such a move would have driven Texaco's stock down and hurt it, possibly irreparably.
Mfume, who said he had never heard of Smith, dismissed such comments, saying he acted in the best interest of his constituency: "We demanded a number of things in the areas of economic development, procurement, employment and promotions. We're not interested in corporate economic generosity but rather economic reciprocity."
Smith directs his most venomous wrath at Reid, pastor of 10,000-member Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in West Baltimore.
Smith has dubbed Reid "Reverend Neckbone" and accused him of selling out the black community by accepting a $10,000 donation from Koreans and holding a "Bridging the Gap" forum for blacks and Koreans at his church in October during the boycott of the Canaan store, which is owned by a Korean-American.
The relationship between blacks and Korean-Americans, who own many businesses in inner-city neighborhoods, has sometimes been tense.
"The issue isn't about a cultural gap," Smith said. "It's about those bloodsuckers taking our money, and we don't see it again until some of these buck-dancing, moon-walking preachers get it."
Reid says the $10,000 was given to him during his September visit to South Korea by a longtime friend, Methodist Bishop Sundo Kim of South Korea, to be used to provide scholarships for needy African-American college students. He said the money has been invested and the interest will provide scholarships.
The trip, Reid's second to South Korea since 1994, was "to pick up insights that might be helpful to our churches and community -- not to sell out," Reid said.
He said that he was accompanied by other black and Korean pastors and church leaders and that he personally paid for all trip-related expenses for himself and his wife.
As for the forum, it was planned months ago as a follow-up meeting for those who traveled to South Korea, he said.
While deploring any store that sells tainted food, Reid intimated that Smith and his ilk were using Koreans as scapegoats for inner city problems.
"We have to stop scapegoating other communities and use the economic power we have to empower the African-American community; pointing fingers and jumping up and down isn't empowering anybody," he said.
Reid fears that Smith's verbal assaults could lead to physical attacks by mentally unstable people: "We've received threatening calls because of the accusations of us selling out." Smith has cautioned his callers against violence.
Reid's stepbrother, Schmoke, gets a tongue-lashing from Smith for having a Korean community liaison. "Can you think of a white mayor who has a black liaison?" Smith said.
University of Maryland College Park political scientist Ron Walters, an adviser to the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's presidential campaigns, said Smith shows there's a political vacuum in the black community. "People want direct action. In many of our major cities, black mayors are in charge but they don't seem to have made a difference on many of these problems.
"People at the local level understand when they don't have aggressive leadership, so here we have the specter of a talk show host coming in and organizing people."
It's not unusual for talk-radio hosts to parlay their popularity into political careers. Mfume was a talk show host on Morgan State University's WEAA-FM for eight years before becoming a City Council member and eventually a congressman. He left Congress a year ago to run the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Goal: to entertain
Smith says he has no desire to run for office. "My main goal is to entertain," he said.
His concern about job security was heightened after he was fired from his talk-radio job of five years at WGST-AM in Atlanta in September 1994, where he went from being a caller (known as Ralph from Ben Hill) to being host of his own show.
That's when he ended up washing dishes at his cousin's restaurant while looking for another radio job. Eventually, WOLB-AM owner Cathy Hughes hired him to bring his no-holds-barred approach to the airwaves here. His show is heard from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on WOLB-AM in Baltimore and its sister station, WOL-AM in Washington, both relatively small stations that wield a considerable amount of influence in cities with predominantly black populations and leadership.
Smith says his show "is rolling" after six months on the air with an Arbitron rating of 3 this month, meaning it has 11,000 listeners in an average quarter-hour. In comparison, WBAL-AM averages nearly 30,000 listeners in an average 15-minute period.
A chunky man with close-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair and beard, Smith's on-air personality doesn't appear to stop at the control room door.
In an hourlong interview last week, he lambasted a string of "perpurtrators" who are working counter to the interest of the black community in the down-home drawl that helps endear him to many listeners.
Happy in his role
He seems to revel in the fact that he has riled Baltimore's black middle class by publicly criticizing such leaders as the Mitchell family, known for their contributions to civil rights causes -- and a couple of political and personal scandals.
"My only sacred cow is the truth," Smith said.
Smith, however, sometimes can't support what he says. For example, he repeatedly excoriates Reid on the air for "pocketing $10,000 from the Koreans." When asked how he knows Reid accepted the money for his personal benefit, Smith said, "Well, he didn't deny it."
Former state Sen. Clarence Mitchell III's daughter Lisa Mitchell, also a WOLB talk show host, devoted her four-hour show to a discussion of Smith Dec. 11, saying she disagreed with many of his antics, such as hanging up on callers and criticizing her show. Pro-Smith callers bombarded the station with calls.
Smith isn't afraid of pointing out his own personal foibles, openly discussing his failed marriage on the air, his struggle to pay child support for his three school-age children and his soft midsection.
His search for a mate is frequently a topic of discussion: "I'm looking for a brown bomber, size 9."
Politically, Smith says he is a conservative in the mold of Booker ++ T. Washington, a proponent of self-help and separation of the races at a time when such black leaders as W. E. B. DuBois were espousing integration.
He's a Muslim but doesn't say so on the air because he doesn't want to become pigeon-holed "as the Muslim talk-show host," he said.
Considering his expressive mannerisms, it's not surprising to learn that Smith was a drama major at Atlanta's Morehouse College in the 1970s along with such people as Spike Lee, Bill Nunn and Samuel Jackson -- all Hollywood figures today. He claims director Lee's movie "School Daze" was inspired by Smith's own experience pledging a fraternity, Omega Psi Phi.
These days, Smith is giddy over the closing of Canaan market. His points about a variety of issues are often punctuated with some remark about the grocery matter.
The Canaan issue was raised by a cabdriver who called Smith's show in October to report that he had bought some sausage there marked with a July expiration date, Goodin said.
From there, the push to close the store escalated daily with on-air calls from the site by pickets and pleas by Smith for listeners to offer assistance to the pickets. In the days leading up to the hearing Dec. 6, he implored listeners to attend. "Let's pack that room with strong black men," Smith said on Dec. 5.
The next day dozens of people, including local and national leaders, overflowed the small hearing room for the emotional, combative and racially charged meeting.
"I came up here and kicked the door down," Smith said of his impact on Baltimore. "Everybody up here is in somebody's pocket. I'm unbought and unbossed."
Smith says he doesn't plan to back down.
"If the preachers are mad now, just wait until we call off church one Sunday," he said, grinning.
Pub Date: 12/27/96