Broadcast Is ‘Gold’ Standard, Smith Says

NAB chief, feted this week in New York by the Broadcasters Foundation of America, says the medium remains the “King Kong of content”

Gordon Smith, NAB president and CEO since 2009, has been honored with the Golden Mike award by the Broadcasters Foundation of America, which provides aid to broadcasters in need. “Gordon’s influence has raised awareness of the Foundation’s charitable mission, and his commitment to helping those in our business who need it most has been admirable,” says Philip Lombardo, chairman of the Broadcasters Foundation.

Days before getting his award at New York’s Plaza Hotel on March 16, Smith, a former U.S. senator, spoke to B&C deputy editor Michael Malone about his work on behalf of the foundation, and his ongoing challenges in Washington. An edited transcript follows.

What is your role with the Broadcasters Foundation?

I’m on the board of directors; it’s traditional for the NAB president to be on the board. It’s a wonderful cause—it’s really an extension of the public service ethic that exists among broadcasters. Every day we’re in the local communities giving public service. And this is our effort to reach out and assist broadcasters who may have some economic disruption or loss of health and need a helping hand. Broadcasters contribute to this fund and it is then disbursed to those broadcasters most in need.

The need tends to be someone’s house burns down, or there’s a health emergency and they don’t have sufficient coverage, or an economic downturn that creates stresses and strains. The foundation is able to intervene with cash, which helps more than anything in those kinds of emergencies.

The NAB is keeping you plenty busy. How do you defi ne a successful spectrum auction ?

I define it as broadcasters who want to participate get maximum value for their spectrum, and those who choose to remain in the business continue serving the demographics they are currently serving. Those are my marching orders and I am enthusiastic about them. Clearly, with $45 billion in the AWS-3 [Advanced Wireless Services] auction, it’s gotten a lot of interest among broadcasters. I think there will be a lot of broadcaster participation at least in the early stages. But we want to make sure the will of Congress is reflected in the ultimate outcome, and broadcasters remain unharmed in their continued service to broadcasting.

Are you concerned that the Local Choice issue might resurface in Congress this year?

I suspect that it will. I am reminded of the wisdom of my departed mother, who used to say to me, ‘Gordie, remember that when you’re pointing the finger at someone, three are pointing back at you.’ As our friends in the pay-TV industry point to broadcasters as needing to be a la carte, I hope they remember there are three [fingers] pointing back at them.

Your mother sounds like a wise person.

She was very wise. When I was thinking of running for a second [Senate] term, I asked her advice. She was always concerned about the impact of public life on [Smith’s wife] Sharon and the kids. She said, ‘Well Gordie, two terms won’t look any better on your tombstone.’ [laughs] I won a second term and lost a third; she would’ve been pleased.

There’s so much frustration among the public with Congress. Is that merited?

Congress has always been an easy target. I would observe that the last six years have been unusually unproductive. I have not missed anything in terms of accomplishments by not being in the Senate the last six years. I’m hoping that there will be a little bit more institutional commitment to follow regular order and grind through hard issues and cast tough votes. That’s why people elect senators and representatives, to see where they stand and ultimately have a product at the end that solves public problems.

You’re signed on with the NAB through 2018. What happens after that?

I think they‘ll run me out of here on a rail, tarred and feathered! [laughs] Notwithstanding the earthquake of the auction on the telecommunications landscape, it is my earnest hope and my everyday determination that what remains may be smaller but a more important industry in the United States. Because no one else who clamors for our airwaves provides the localism and the public service and economic connections that broadcasters do. We still are where the eyeballs are. Whether people get it over-the-air or through some subscription service, we remain King Kong of content. I’m very proud to be numbered among broadcasters because no one else in the subscription [TV] world or the telephone world delivers value to local communities like we do.

The NAB plans to move its headquarters closer to Capitol Hill. Why is that significant?

When I came to the NAB, I made the comment to the board that I had come to the NAB once in all my years on the Senate Commerce Committee and swore I’d never go again because it was so far from Capitol Hill—that made it really, really impractical. Business needs to be in proximity to the businesses it’s in. We are in the business of advocacy. The FCC has moved away from this neighborhood. Capitol Hill has become a pretty congested place to get to from this far away. If you want to engage with members of Congress you need to be within 15 minutes of them making a vote. We hope to be in a location that makes for more regular engagement with members.

How big a topic is deregulation of local ownership for you these days?

It’s a mystery to me that we don’t get any attention to some of these antiquated ownership rules as relates to duopolies, particularly pertaining to newspaper cross-ownership with broadcasting. When newspapers are going out of business, it seems to be an easy call; there’s an economy of scale there to help preserve good journalism in America by allowing what remains of newspapers and television and radio broadcasting to enjoy ownership that has some sufficient economic stability to it. I think that’s in the interest of the fourth estate.

There's been so much consolidation among station groups these past few years. With some perspective on it now, has it been good or bad for the industry?

I think overwhelmingly, in the main, it's been good. It's been necessary for reasons of economic scale-it's about survival and efficiency. Clearly that has gotten the attention of the FCC and I hope they have a very liberal waiver policy on JSAs [joint sales agreements] and SSAs [shared services agreements] and the like. We're what remains of free and local. Even when these joint operations are pulled together by economic need and, hopefully, economic growth, it still ends up preserving free and local broadcasting, and that is a net good for the American people.

What are you watching on TV?

I watch mostly sports. I'm a news addict so I always watch the nightly news. I have to admit I've been hooked on Downton Abbey too. My wife and I have become addicts. A tip of the cap to public television!

The Golden Mike dinner usually has some name performers. Who's playing on your night?

One of my favorite people—a virtuoso violinist named Jenny Oaks Baker. I think she is bringing along some Broadway performers as well. I don't know more than that—they are trying to keep me in the dark. There are a few surprises, I'm told.