MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
This week and next, we're featuring a series of stories about how there's no longer one dominant cultural conversation in the U.S. The explosion of internet outlets and TV channels means it's harder for any one star to get everyone's attention.
Today, NPR's Neda Ulaby reports on one man who's trying to figure out how to dominate across platforms.
NEDA ULABY: Steve Harvey did everything he could to be as famous as someone like Bill Cosby. He hosted "Showtime at the Apollo." He starred in two sitcoms.
(Soundbite of television program)
Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (As character) Hello, (unintelligible).
Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (As character) My name ain't no...
ULABY: Harvey has written two New York Times bestselling books, and millions of people have seen him host the game show "Family Feud."
(Soundbite of television program, "Family Feud")
Mr. STEVE HARVEY (Host): Let's clear the board...
ULABY: And Harvey remains a formidable presence on the standup circuit, as seen in the documentary "The Original Kings of Comedy."
(Soundbite of film, "The Original Kings of Comedy")
Mr. HARVEY: I want to be free.
ULABY: But the cornerstone of Steve Harvey's fame today is the nationally syndicated radio and TV show that airs in 64 markets.
(Soundbite of television program)
Mr. HARVEY: Good morning, everybody. You're all listening to the voice. Come on, jig me now, one and only Steve Harvey.
ULABY: Every weekday at dawn, at 5:00 in the morning, Harvey makes a grand entrance at his Atlanta production studio.
Unidentified Woman #1: There he is.
ULABY: His production staff goes a little nuts. It's an office ritual. The makeup artists start a cheer.
Unidentified Women: Give me an E. What's that spell? Steve Harvey.
ULABY: Harvey's show reaches seven million people, but Harvey knows millions more have never heard of him. After the show, he takes an elevator seven stories above the studio to an opulent wood-paneled office with floor-to-ceiling windows. He steeples his fingers and says he wants to leave show business.
Mr. HARVEY: I want my fame, that I've paid for, that it costs me so dearly to have, I want it to pay off.
ULABY: Harvey wants to leverage his fame into entrepreneurship. Men's suits, grocery stores, a dating website, energy-efficient light bulbs. He says it's protection for when people tire of him.
Mr. HARVEY: Throw me off to the side, dish me off like I'm a dishrag, through me in the sink. No, man, uh-uh. I'm wringing this puppy out. We're getting all the moisture out of this fame that's so difficult to acquire and costs so much to attain and maintain. You're not throwing me away.
ULABY: As we talk, Harvey's eyes constantly flick from his heavy carved desk and towards a flat-screen TV. It does nothing but flash the comedian's long-term goals, like - listen to the voice, stay prayerful.
Mr. HARVEY: I want to become one of the premier motivational speakers. I'm going to break out of the entertainment world, become one of the leading businessmen. My yearly income goal is to make 250 million a year. I'm nowhere close to that, but that's the goal.
ULABY: Steve Harvey grew up in the projects, in Cleveland. He's a workaholic who started doing stand-up when he was 27. For years, he ground out gigs in clubs across the United States.
Mr. HARVEY: If you name me the city, I can, without anything, tell you how to get there.
ULABY: Okay. Montgomery, Alabama.
Mr. HARVEY: Man, you take 85 on to Montgomery, you catch 65, and you south to the 10. If you ask me how to get to Kansas, I'm going to tell you from here to take 20, go up to 40, take 40 across until it turns into 70, and you will hit Kansas. Or I can get you to Vermillion, South Dakota from here.
ULABY: But Harvey's had more trouble finding a road map to a multiracial fan base. His sitcom, "The Steve Harvey Show," ran for six years. It got decent ratings, NAACP awards, but it never found Cosby-like traction beyond black audiences.
When he got a book deal based on relationship advice he gives during his show, his publishers tried to keep him in that niche.
Mr. HARVEY: They were convinced at Harper Collins that this was for black women. And when I sent the book in, they were putting stuff in it like: Sisters, let me tell y'all, and black women got to stay together. Whoa, whoa, whoa, I didn't say that. No, no, take all that out.
ULABY: Men are men, and women are women, says Harvey, so his books are for everyone.
Ms. TANYA LADIPO: I think he does a fabulous job of getting people talking.
ULABY: Tanya Ladipo(ph) is a psychotherapist. Her clients are mostly African-American. It surprised her how often her appointments start with the question...
Ms. LADIPO: Did you hear Steve Harvey's show this morning?
ULABY: That's their in, a way to start talking about their problems. Ladipo does not always agree with Harvey's advice but, she says, take him as a comedian, not a mental health professional.
At a moment when relationship success is critical to Steve Harvey's brand, an ex-wife has been publically unhappy about their divorce. On Harvey's show, he discussed his mistakes with his on-air sidekicks.
Mr. HARVEY: I done got it wrong a lot of times. Hey man, I got a divorce. Hey man, I stepped out on my girl.
ULABY: But then Harvey started talking about his upcoming national tour with Kirk Franklin, one of gospel's biggest stars. It's called the "Ain't Nobody Perfect" tour. Harvey promised his co-hosts, and his audience, the tour would make them laugh, not chuckle.
(Soundbite of applause)
Unidentified Woman #2: What's a chuckle, Steve?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Woman #2: What's a laugh?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HARVEY: Laugh is when you hit the people you roll with.
ULABY: Hitting the people you roll with. In a fragmented media culture, that's pretty much the definition of success.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
Steve Harvey is a sitcom star, an accomplished comedian and a best-selling author. But that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of people who have never heard of him.
Call it "disintermediation" or "cultural fragmentation," but American culture is sliced up in so many ways that what's popular with one group can go virtually unnoticed by another. NPR's Fractured Culture series explores life in "a culture of many cultures."
The explosion of Internet outlets and TV channels means it's harder for any one star to break through to everyone. But Steve Harvey is doing his damnedest.
Harvey's audience numbers 7 million for his nationally syndicated radio/TV show, which airs in 64 markets around the country. His first relationship how-to book, Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man, sold 2.5 million copies. His second, Straight Talk No Chaser, has been a Top 10 New York Times bestseller since its release six weeks ago.
Harvey hosts the game show Family Feud. (He's credited with boosting its ratings almost 40 percent since joining the show last fall.) And — oh yeah — he's a formidable stand-up comedian, featured in the 2000 Spike Lee documentary The Original Kings of Comedy, who's also starred in two sitcoms, including one that ran for six years.
So how come millions of people have never heard of him?
In part because our culture has become profoundly fractionalized since the advent of hundreds of cable channels, inward-gazing Internet communities and rigidly specific niche marketing. Harvey says he believes it's practically impossible to imagine any comedian these days accomplishing the reach Bill Cosby had with The Cosby Show, for example, or a musician selling as many albums as Michael Jackson. There is just so much out there that it's impossible to be familiar with all of it. He's had to fight that reality in his current career — even in his own cultural consumption.
Take movies. When I went to see him a couple of weeks ago, he plugged a movie I wasn't very familiar with: Burning Palms, starring Zoe Saldana, of Avatar. Then I asked him during our interview about The King's Speech, because Harvey struggled with a debilitating stutter as a child. But Harvey hadn't heard of The King's Speech. This relatively major star was fascinated to learn about this relatively major movie.
But then 25 years ago, there were barely 200 movies released every year, and everyone in media and entertainment would have heard of the short-listed likely Best Picture nominees. (In fact The King's Speech took 12 nominations when they were announced Jan. 25.) Last year, there were more than 500 movies in theaters.
Plus, Harvey had a good excuse. He works so hard, he said, he hadn't managed to see a film in theaters in years, with one huge exception: The week before, he'd taken his wife to see True Grit at a theater in Atlanta, where he lives.
Harvey started doing stand up when he was 27. Now, he's 54. For years, he ground out gigs in clubs across the United States.
"If you name me the city I can tell you how to get there," he offered — and did, in spectacular fashion. But Harvey's had more trouble finding a road map to a multiracial fan base. His WB sitcom, The Steve Harvey Show, got decent ratings and earned NAACP awards, but it never found Cosby-like traction beyond black audiences. When he got a book deal based on the relationship advice he gives during his show, his publishers tried to keep him in that niche.
"They were convinced at HarperCollins that [Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man] was for black women, and when I sent the book in, they were putting stuff in it like, 'Sisters, let me tell y'all, black women got to stay together!' Whoa. I didn't say that. Take all that out."
Men are men and women are women, says Harvey, so his books are for everyone.
"I think he does a fabulous job of getting people talking," says Tonya Ladipo, a psychotherapist with a mostly black and African-American clientele. She's been surprised by how often her appointments start with the question: "Did you hear Steve Harvey's show this morning?"
That's their in, a way to start talking about their problems.
Ladipo doesn't always agree with Harvey's advice — take him as a comedian, not a mental health professional, she says. And at a moment when relationship success is critical to Steve Harvey's brand, his second ex-wife has been publicly furious about their divorce, lambasting him on social media.
"Hey man, I got a divorce," he said recently on his show. "Hey man, I stepped out on my girl."
But then Harvey started talking about his upcoming national tour with Kirk Franklin, one of gospel's biggest stars. He calls it the Ain't Nobody Perfect Tour. Harvey promised his on-air sidekicks that the tour would make them laugh — not chuckle.
"A laugh is when you hit the people you roll with," he said.
In a fragmented media culture, that's pretty much the definition of success.