Natural curiosity serves show's host well

Sunday, July 14, 2002

Harry Smith has one of the greatest jobs in the world.

He gets to be host to "Biography" profiles and to produce shows like the "Biography Close-up" on gambling he did a couple of years ago in Biloxi, Miss.

Curiosity is important in his line of work, he agrees, but he reaches back to childhood for an anecdote that might better explain his career choices.

"I'm the youngest of eight children, and I demanded to be heard," he says. "As a child of the '50s, I would stand on the chair at the dinner table and demand attention."

That said, his degree in communications and stints early in his career as a disc jockey and a radio talk-show host come as no surprise. He went to work covering the news for CBS in Denver in the early '80s, moved on to Dallas and finally to CBS Evening News where he did "Travels With Harry," an on-the-road gig and certainly another enviable job.

Smith has covered every kind of news story, from the Gulf War to the Olympics. He's won Emmys � three of them � and interviewed high-profile newsmakers including a passel of former presidents, prime ministers and luminaries of literature, science, film, television; you get the picture.

"If I have a gift or a skill," he says, "I think I'm a good audience. It is something you must be conscious of, but the more you do it, the more conscious you become. Without meaning to sound completely self-serving," he says, "the person I interview is always more important than I am."

He is reluctant to discuss other newsgatherers except to say, "The really good ones (newsmen) are trying to get information from people who don't want to give it to them. Those aren't the people I'm interviewing most of the time."

Johnny Carson and Jack Nicholson are a couple of subjects he'd like to corner.

As for what the future holds for Smith and "Biography," he says, "As the cable universe expands, it gets harder and harder to get people to pay attention to you. In just four years, I've gone from 30 or 40 channels to a couple of hundred on digital TV.

"The upside is � the free flow of information. If you're a storyteller � I don't know. I hope that what I do, going out with a camera and getting a little off the beaten path, that it has some quality to it."