The topic under discussion was the deteriorating quality of a university education, but Jim, a student at UCLA, was calling to complain about something else. It was unfair, he said, that he was unable to get into UC Berkeley with a 3.5 grade-point average when a Latino friend got in with a 3.0.
"I'll tell you what," Jim said. "I would have had a lot better chance if we didn't have these stupid quotas for these minorities who haven't done as well as I have in high school, who haven't put in the time and the guts. . . . It's a fact that they have affirmative-action advantages. It's ridiculous."
The co-hosts at KMPC-AM (710) weren't buying it. "You call it ridiculous," said Tavis Smiley, "but do you understand why institutions are mandated and challenged to enlist students of color at these campuses? Do you understand that at all?"
His colleague, Ruben Navarrette, jumped in: "One of the reasons it's important to do that, Jim, is because we're trying to produce leaders of the future. And if you've studied anything at UCLA about demographic changes, you know that there are now many more people in Los Angeles who are Latino, and if you're producing leadership for the next century, doesn't it make sense to try to produce a leadership class that looks like America?"
A typical talk-radio exchange? Not exactly. It was a serious discussion, it was a topic that pertained to young people, and the hosts were members of minority groups.
Welcome to the radio talk show for Generation X.
The idea alone sounds like the premise for a "Saturday Night Live" sketch, one that might feature callers debating the merits of a Nine Inch Nails concert, analyzing the most recent episode of "Melrose Place" or discussing the optimum places to meet members of the opposite sex.
But Ruben Navarrette, 27, and Tavis Smiley, who turned 30 in September, are catering to no one's stereotypes--not about Generation X, not about minorities, not about talk radio. As the hosts of "Twentysomething Talk," heard on KMPC weeknights from 9 to midnight and Sundays 7-10 p.m., they are men with a mission.
"We're trying to do three things that have never been done before: We're trying to bring in people of color, we're trying to bring in younger people, and we're trying to bring them into a thoughtful kind of medium," Smiley said. "I think we have the most difficult challenges facing us of any talk show in the city."
He's right. Talk radio, in Southern California as throughout the country, is chiefly the province of middle-aged white hosts who cater to an older audience, increasingly by emphasizing entertainment and sensation over serious discussion of the major issues of the day. It's not that younger listeners are disregarded, but rather that they are thought to be more interested in spending their radio time with music stations.
But Capital Cities Communications already had a traditional talk station in venerable KABC-AM (790) when it bought KMPC last May. So the company decided to go after a different crowd. Smiley and Navarrette were a perfect pairing for what it had in mind.
"We thought it would be an interesting, novel thing to have a black and a Hispanic discussing all the issues--not just generational issues, but what's going on in the community," said George Green, general manager of KABC and KMPC.
The three-pronged challenge is one that the young hosts are more than willing to tackle--and for which they are more than qualified. No self-absorbed slackers they.
By 26, Navarrette had written a book chronicling his experiences as a Mexican American at Harvard. Within the next five to 10 years, he plans to run for Congress in the San Joaquin Valley, the area where he grew up.
Smiley, a former aide to Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, was already running for office, on the Los Angeles City Council, when he was 26. He finished third in a field of 15. Since then, he has had several radio commentary jobs and still has a daily syndicated 60-second commentary, "The Smiley Report," on radio stations across the country. He also is considering another run for public office.
"We want to get young people thinking and talking," Smiley says of their goal with the radio show. "I think too often we go through life in our younger stages not thinking that social or political issues are going to impact us.
"If you're 22 or 28, you're not interested necessarily in this health-care debate--until you realize you're going to be the ones paying for it. . . . We need to be concerned about that, and we need to be talking about it, for our own sake. And beyond that, we have older Americans eavesdropping on our conversations every night, maybe even participating. I think it's important that older Americans hear what we have to say."
Some of the topics Smiley and Navarrette discuss are chosen for their obvious appeal to the program's target audience--the morning-after birth control pill, the growing number of U.S. college graduates finding better jobs abroad than at home, or the alleged assault of a Latino youth by a black Compton police officer. Many others, however, are not much different from those of other shows, they just have a twentysomething slant--such as young gays coming out of the closet, or why young people are apathetic about the gubernatorial campaign. The show also features a weekly profile of twentysomethings on the fast track and a Generation X trivia contest.
"I think their show is groundbreaking and different in this sense," said Al Brady Law, who, as KMPC operations manager, oversees the station's programming. "Whether or not it's traditional or on the cutting edge, it's the only talk show that I know of which is hosted by two people who are still basically in their 20s and are minorities."
But, he hastens to add, "the mere fact that they're in their 20s and one happens to be African American and one happens to be Latino will not cut it in the long run. It still has to be an interesting and viable talk show."
A fter five months, the results on that count are mixed. The people who are listening like what they're hearing, for the most part--but not many are listening.
"What appeals most to me about them is they attack issues that are pretty heated," said a 23-year-old certified public accountant who called to discuss Proposition 187, the ballot initiative that would make illegal immigrants ineligible for most state services.
"Sometimes I listen because of the minority aspect, but mostly it's just the issues," said a 29-year-old black woman. "These guys deal with real-time, real-life issues. And I also like that they look for female and white perspectives too."
According to the most recent Arbitron ratings, "Twentysome-thing Talk" is attracting only 0.7% of the available audience--an average of 6,567 listeners per quarter hour. KABC, by contrast, is drawing 4% of the 9 p.m.-midnight crowd--33,600 people per quarter hour--with an issues show hosted by Larry Elder, and talk rival KFI-AM (640) is getting 2.6%, or 21,233 people, with Marilyn Kagan's therapy show.
KMPC management says its guys may need to lighten up some.
"I think they're both extraordinarily intelligent people who are, at times, a little bit too serious for my taste," Law said. "But the good news is they are so smart and they do their homework so well, they'll never go on the radio and embarrass me or embarrass themselves."
Smiley and Navarrette say they've been trying to temper their near-missionary zeal for things political by mixing in more lightweight topics, such as adult children who return home to live with their parents, whether schools should outlaw homework and determining the right time to get married.
"Politics--that's where our real passion is," Smiley says. "Ruben and I could play political baseball every night for three hours, but that doesn't work. We're trying to lighten the show, bring in generational topics, relationship issues. We have to convince young people that we're not going to talk over their heads or refuse to consider their concerns or be condescending."
A lthough both "Twenty-something Talk" hosts find themselves generally left-of-center on most issues, Smiley is the more liberal of the two. Recently, they were debating whether ethnic stereotypes in popular culture are dangerous or merely offensive.
A caller brought up Jesse, a young character who sells tacos on "Beverly Hills, 90210," charging that he reinforces negative stereotypes of Latinos.
"This caller said, 'No wonder Latinos are in such a bad way: Look at the role models they have,' " Navarrette said. "Though I've said in the past that I find those images offensive and insulting, I don't think they're dangerous. I truly don't. My point is, 'Yes, we have Jesse, the taco man, but we also have Henry Cisneros.' "
Smiley disagreed. Vehemently.
"It's absolutely dangerous," he said. "Ask me the last time that I had some kid walk up to me on the street and say, 'Keep hope alive,' or, 'We, the people, can win,' or, 'Up with hope and down with dope'--that Jesse Jackson stuff. Everybody wants to say Jesse Jackson is a black role model, but ask me the last time some kid walked up to me and recited a speech that Jesse Jackson had given. It hasn't happened. . . . I told Ruben, 'You're a great model for Latino kids, but let's be honest: How many young people are going to hear you tonight as opposed to young people who will see Jesse the taco man?' "
Navarrette countered: "You're underestimating the sophistication of my people if you think for one minute that we're taking our cues from Jesse the taco man. Think about this: 'Amos 'n' Andy' didn't result in a bunch of kids wanting to be Kingfish when they grew up."
Smiley and Navarrette were first thrown together last April. Navarrette, who had impressed KABC management as a guest on Michael Jackson's show discussing his book, "A Darker Side of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano," was asked to fill in for vacationing Dennis Prager. Smiley, already a regular commentator on the station's early-morning "The Ken and Barkley Company," was in the building to pick up his mail when, on the spur of the moment, station officials sent him in to co-host.
Smiley, who recently compiled many of his commentaries into a book, "Just a Thought: The Smiley Report," is the faster talker of the two and is perceived by his bosses as the more impatient, rabidly eager to get to the top.
"Tavis wants to get ahead very quickly," general manager Green said. "He's ready to be Michael Jackson. He wants it now."
"I hear that a lot," Smiley said. "Yes, I'm impatient, but I don't think I have to be patient. I have to be good. I don't see why you have to wait till you're 50 years old to be a success."
Indeed, he admits he's tackling talk radio in order to have his voice, as a liberal African American--or a "practical progressive," as he likes to describe himself--heard on a massive scale.
"Politics was and still is my first love," he said. "But one thing I've learned as I've gotten older is that there's more than one way to impact the political process than simply being an elected official. I have discovered, through being on the radio and being a commentator and author, that one can arguably be more effective on the outside than you can be as an elected official on the inside."
S miley grew up near Indianapo lis and graduated from Indiana University. He hit on the idea of doing radio commentaries while running for the 6th Los Angeles City Council District in 1990.
"While I was campaigning," he said, "I talked to very few African American reporters, and it occurred to me that, despite the massive nature of the market, there was no person of color doing political commentaries on a daily basis."
So, after the election, he decided to attempt it. "I reasoned that if I started a commentary talking about the issues of the day, No. 1, people would know who I was, and No. 2, there would be somebody in our community talking about the real hard issues," Smiley said. "And we'd all benefit from that."
He decided that if he wanted to reach African Americans, he should do it by broadcasting on black-oriented stations. After starting out at KGFJ-AM, Smiley was approached by Stevie Wonder, who owns KJLH-FM. Then, KKBT--an even more popular station--beckoned. From there, KABC called, and he wound up working for both its radio and television outlets.
"I didn't seek any of it out, which shows that that voice is missing," Smiley said.
In the meantime, he has grown more influential in the black community, counting among his friends Rosa Parks and Maya Angelou, with whom he took a trip recently to Ghana.
In contrast to Smiley's high energy and in-your-face charm, Navarrette has a more wry manner, one that belies his intensity and a burning ambition. As does Smiley, he feels strongly about having his voice heard, and he wants to add to the small number of Latinos in the media.
"I want to be that voice, then go into politics from there," Navarrette declared. "I want to get Latinos energized and voting. Then, in a very sly way, after I've done that, throw myself up as a candidate."
It was shortly after graduating from college in 1990 that he wrote the book about his experiences as a Mexican American at an Ivy League school. The Fresno Bee called it "probably the most important book to come out of the San Joaquin Valley in half a century--since Steinbeck and Saroyan."
Since its publication last year, Navarrette has also written columns for the Fresno Bee and op-ed pieces for the Los Angeles Times.
Through it all, Navarrette's lens has been fixed on members of his generation, whom he describes in his book as "so numerous and so troubled" with urgent matters to be attended to.
Smiley and Navarrette were not hired because of their political aspirations, nor even in spite of them, but KMPC managers say that they don't mind their station being used as a jumping-off point for future political careers.
"I think it's perfectly acceptable for people to have agendas aside from radio careers," operations manager Law said. "For them to use the radio station as a springboard is fine as long as they're helping the radio station while they're using it. And, in my view, they are. It's kind of like, 'If you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.' "
W hen it comes to explaining their ambitious agendas, both men are quick to credit their close-knit families for the drive and the early success that has defined them and given them the sense that anything is possible.
Navarrette is one of three children. Smiley is one of 10--and the oldest of eight sons. He has helped five siblings through college.
Navarrette and Smiley have many of the same practical concerns as their Generation X counterparts. Both bachelors, only recently have they found secure, well-paying jobs.
"When we talk about being young and not able to afford health care, that's not some pie-in-the sky notion," Smiley said. "Ruben and I were both without health insurance coverage prior to signing our contracts with Capital Cities. I was brushing my teeth eight times a day, running five miles a day and trying to eat right because I couldn't afford to go to the doctor's office for a checkup. Neither of us owns a home; we're both renters. So when we talk about health care and financial difficulties and wanting to own a home and get married, we're right in the crux of all the issues we're talking about. It's not like we're the minister and they're the parishioners. We're all in the same boat."
For all their typicalness, however, neither relishes being appointed a spokesman for a generation, and both try hard not to sound that way on "Twentysomething Talk."
"We are expected to be spokespersons, but we try not to be," Smiley said. "We try to be facilitators and moderators, allowing those people who are older to hear what our generation has to say."
"One of the truisms is that young people don't like people presuming to speak for them," Navarrette said. "They don't want you or I trying to be their spokesperson. If we want our generation to talk back, then we have to do more listening, less preaching. Ideally the show doesn't belong to the two of us, the show belongs to twentysomethings. And I want to do everything I can to put it in their hands."*