Chicago native Mario Smith is a familiar fixture in the Hyde Park section of the city. The poet, educator, activist and radio show host was raised in the neighborhoods of Jeffery Manor and Morgan Park but has made his home in Hyde Park for more than two decades. As a well respected artist, Smith has made a name for himself performing not only across the greater Chicagoland area, but throughout the entire United States. He is the creator and host of the highly acclaimed show, News From the Service Entrance, formerly aired on WHPK, and his poetry appears in the book, The Break Beat Poets published by Haymarket Press. Smith is currently a contributor to The Download with Justin Kaufmann on Chicago’s WGN 720 AM.
What are some of your fondest memories growing up in Chicago?
My earliest/coolest memories are my days living in Jeffrey Manor in the 70’s. Fun Town was in full effect! WVON was the HOT radio station back then, my family was intact but that wouldn’t last long. I went to Luella Elementary and it was an amazing time looking back on it now. I’m still in the working stages of creating my ‘fondest memories’ however.
When did you decide to pursue your chosen path as far as education and activism?
It was around the time I got serious about speaking out loud via poetry. I felt like my voice was necessary but I couldn’t quite put it all together. As my ability to write decent poems became noticeable to other Teaching Artists like Michael Warr and Quraysh Ali Lansana they suggested that I consider teaching young people how to write poems. I can say proudly that the work I did with Young Chicago Authors, teaching with the Poetry Center of Chicago, being a part of the inaugural group with Gallery 37, going back to my alma mater CVS and teaching there, Oak Park River Forest High School, the Nancy B. Jefferson School, it’s been fun and now those kids are grown and they’ve got kids. It’s crazy! My aunt Evelina is the reason I am active. Calling oneself an activist isn’t enough, banging on a keypad though effective in some ways isn’t enough either. You have to have the ability to speak directly to the issues that affect people in this case my people, Black people. When I’m on the radio or in a classroom that is when I’m an activist. When I’m writing a poem that’s when I’m an activist. The key however is staying active and pursuing peace and equanimity is what this is all about.
For those unfamiliar, tell us about your long running radio show, News From The Service Entrance?
News From the Service Entrance is designed to sound like the radio used to sound when it was really, really good. That isn’t to take away from people who do great work on the radio now, but the way the radio is programmed now leaves a lot to be desired. I wanted to create a show that played music regular radio didn’t play, talk to stars and local legends, be topical and try to be funny when necessary.
Your tenure at WHPK recently came to an abrupt halt, can you shed any light on why?
WHPK will always be an important place to me for a number of reasons going back to me being a teenager and hearing Public Enemy for the first time on JP Chill’s Rap Show. I was afforded a great opportunity and I’m forever grateful. My ending appears abrupt but I had been considering year 15 as being the last at WHPK. Two things accelerated my departure, when we were required to fill out background checks and when the station was taken off the air. Radio and TV stations are usually the first things removed in military coups. If you control the voice you control the people. Cutting off WHPK to pursue bedbugs and blaming the DJ’s for these bedbugs was the final straw. The station should have NEVER been taken off the air. I’m still angry about that but it is what it is.
What can you tell us about your work on Chicago’s WGN 720 AM’s show The Download with Justin Kaufmann?
I’m a contributor to the show. Justin and I have worked together since I was a contributor on WBEZ. The Download is an amazing radio program that serves as a news magazine and I’m the unofficial ‘official’ voice of the hood. I get to talk about a variety of subjects and expound on my thoughts about Chicago and again my people.
What’s your take on the violence plaguing areas of the city and the distrust between our community and the police?
Clearly there is a disconnect. I’ve lived here my entire life and I can’t remember the malaise being like this. The ability to get a gun and the inability to know how to properly use it is eliminating our people and making our position here in Chicago shaky. One of my old classmates (Yvonne Rudy Nelson) was killed this year walking out of Starbucks three blocks away from the police station as the cops were holding a press conference boasting about the progress they were making. The distrust is going to be there when the cops in your neighborhood don’t look like you. The distrust will be there when the police play God. The distrust will be there when the Mayor circumvents the rules and hires a superintendent the community didn’t have a say in hiring. This city and the people living in it need to truly start valuing LIFE. We don’t and it’s showing.
In your opinion, what is it about Hyde Park that people seem to love so much?
Hyde Park has always been the spot. If you are an artist or a creative of any type Hyde Park speaks to you. The architecture, the Point, the diversity the “safety”. It’s a lot of different things I suppose. Let the record show that I’m from Woodlawn and I was raised in Jeffery Manor, Morgan Park and most definitely South Shore but Hyde Park has always been home.
What do you make of all the recent changes to the neighborhood?
Some of it is cool, some of it is off putting. I work at The Promontory and out of all of the changes that have happened The Promontory has been the one worth monitoring. I must admit I like the idea of seeing great artists and having a decent drink and a great meal right by the crib! I am certain if I didn’t work there I would be a patron. I like that there are more businesses and places to eat in Hyde Park now. The Silver Room is in HP! Thanks Wicker Park! I still hit the Falcon and The Cove though. I’m not allowed at Jimmy’s but that’s another story. There are more changes coming so I hope people don’t freak out!
Thoughts on our Presidential election season?
It’s horrible. Donald Trump is not ready for that job and I’m not sure if the country is as ready as we say we are for Hillary. The real election though is within the House and the Senate. THAT is the chance we have to make real legislative change which is what cities like Chicago, Miami, Houston, New Orleans, Los Angeles require. The people in the hood are getting ran and the only way some of the bleeding can stop on a federal level is by reassigning the House and the Senate. REGISTER, RESEARCH, STUDY AND VOTE! Particularly Black men! This isn’t a TV show. This is serious stuff!
What’s something about yourself that people would be surprised to know?
That I listen to Old Time Radio. Not too many people know that. I also hope the Cubs win the World Series so my friends who are fans can experience rooting for a winner. Go Sox.
Favorite quote or affirmation?
Tis the Mind that makes the body rich. – Ben Franklin
What’s next for Mario Smith?More poetry, working on a music project, I’d like to teach more. The radio world is one I really want to get better at. I have a manuscript I need to turn into a book. My dreams I keep to myself. When my dreams manifest people usually know in that I like to turn my dreams into things that people can enjoy. I have a lot of projects that I want to do. I have an idea for this holiday season that I really want to curate. I still haven’t had that ‘fondest memory’ yet but I’m working on it!
For more information on Smith, feel free to connect with him on social media: Instagram/Twitter: