Cover Story: Can Gordon Smith Save Broadcasting?New NAB president covers spectrum, legislation, ownership and politics in exclusive interview 11/07/2009 02:00:00 AM Eastern
New National Association of Broadcasters
President Gordon Smith sits in his elegant outer office at NAB headquarters in Washington, looking like
a man comfortable in his own skin. He speaks softly but carries a big
responsibility-making the case for broadcasters facing a sea change in
technology, formidable economic hurdles, and a government that is hungry for
spectrum and eyeing broadcasters' beachfront real estate.
In addition, Smith must keep his members on
the same page, a challenge he likens to herding cats, though he expects his
relationship with the NAB board to be one of both leading and following.
The former Oregon senator says he will live and die a
Republican. That said, his tenure at NAB will rise or fall on his ability to
operate in a town where Democrats currently set the legislative and regulatory
While one of the criteria for the man
replacing the legislative-contact-challenged David Rehr was to be able to get
calls answered on Capitol Hill, Smith can't even make those calls for more than
a year thanks to new lobbying restrictions. But Smith says that won't stop him
from answering the calls he still gets from friends in high Hill places, or
testifying when he is asked. And he has already begun making the rounds at the
FCC. He is also a former basketball player in a town where the
Hoopster-in-Chief has raised the profile of pickup games.
Smith talks about balancing localism with
the need to attract investment capital, and protecting the First Amendment
while making the point that most broadcasters "are not in the business of being
indecent." He speaks philosophically about politics but takes a businesslike
approach to the job ahead. Whether it's selling peas (he owns a frozen-food
company) or promoting free over-the-air TV, Smith says the business principles
are "quite similar." He also says that respecting your opponent is a key to
finding common ground in the sausage factory of politics.
Smith, just three days and change into his
tenure atop the association, talked with B&C Washington Bureau Chief John
Eggerton about those topics and many others, including hate-crimes legislation,
the Fairness Doctrine and reshaping Nielsen markets, in this exclusive
What are broadcasters' biggest challenges in
I think the biggest challenge we have is
continually reminding policymakers of the enduring values of the public
airwaves. How free radio and television provided by broadcasters is an
important piece of the quality of life of the American people, and those values
are valuable still-the values of localism, emergency preparedness,
entertainment, news and sports, all provided for free.
But you can't be selling your father's
Oldsmobile. You have to be selling it on the future as well as on the legacy.
How do you do that?
The challenge, in a business sense, that
broadcasters have is that instead of responding defensively to new technologies,
embrace them and help develop them so that the future is one that we shape
instead of one to which we are simply responding.
The FCC wants spectrum. Are broadcasters
going to be willing and able to give up more?
We've already given up a lot, and we've
already spent a lot on the digital transition. Many of the American people have
invested in reliance on the government that this is a direction they are going
The spectrum doesn't have to be wireless.
There is a lot of dark wire out there. There is certainly a national interest
in getting America
wired up to the Internet. There is certainly a public value in that. But that
needn't come at the expense of broadcasting's opportunity to develop that
spectrum as well with mobile TV, high-definition signals and all of the
potential business opportunity that is there for broadcasters.
A number of broadcasters are owned by
private equity firms. If they are offered a better return on their spectrum by
the FCC now that they see in the future...
I don't know that that is the FCC
proposal. I know what you are saying and what I read in the press. But that is
not what I find at the FCC. It is a work in progress, so it is hard to respond
to news accounts of what might be when I don't find that necessarily at the
What would be your argument if the FCC did
come to you and say, "We need it back"?
We want to use that space. Every company
will have its interests to pursue. But there is a patchwork out there of
spectrum, and the technology of how to accomplish what [the FCC wants]-while
still preserving free broadcast TV and high-definition signals and business
opportunities and mobile TV-is not clear to me.
How important is mobile to TV's future?
My sense is, very important. Chrysler just
announced that it is putting mobile TV in its new cars. So that kind of market
pressure is going to mean that automobile manufacturers on a very regular basis
are going to be putting mobile TVs in automobiles.
You talked at the NAB radio convention in Philadelphia about getting
NAB members on the same page. There have been some historic divisions in the
association. What is your plan to do that?
I have to keep all the cats herded in the
same direction. I understand the different business interests there. But there
is an enduring community of interest between affiliates and networks. They need
each other, and my job is to keep harmony in the family.
What is the balance between you and the NAB
board? Who calls the shots?
My job is to advise the board and to lead
the board, to offer my perspective of 16 years as a lawmaker on what is
possible and what is not; to help them prioritize their various issues between
the possible and the probable and the impractical; and to be their advocate in
all legislative and regulatory matters. And so, there is a balance, a tension,
if you will, between being a statesman and being a delegate. I don't want to
get ahead of my board, but if I am going to earn my keep, I have to lead my
You had your first meeting with FCC Chairman
Julius Genachowski two weeks ago. What did you talk about?
It was mostly introductory, a personal
outreach to him to let him know that the NAB was very interested in being
constructively engaged with [the FCC], that if there are problems we want to
help solve them, but we have a keen interest in preserving a business model
that allows our members to stay in business.
What specifically would help you do that?
What, for instance, would you be looking for out of the FCC's media ownership
We did specifically talk about duopoly. I
hear all of this talk in the press about how we preserve journalism and the
ownership rules. I would argue that with the proper guidelines-whatever [the
FCC] wants to develop-we ought to permit economies of scale between radio, TV
and newspapers, so you have one reporter pool that can benefit all three
outlets. That is one example; some relaxation there so we can preserve the
How receptive do you see this commission
being to that argument?
The White House and the administration
must acknowledge that journalism as we have known it, which is a very important
part of the First Amendment and an informed citizenry, is in jeopardy right
now. And I think, given their interest in that, there is going to be some new
thinking as to how we can preserve journalism, whether it is print or over the
airwaves, [in a manner] that has integrity and sufficient resources to be
investigative and [informative to] the American people. I think that is seen as
a pretty important ingredient of a free society.
How concerned are you about the localism
proposals, including shortening licensing periods and establishing community
One of the very important features of
broadcast is localism. We need to preserve that. It is certainly one of the
things we [use to] sell broadcasting to the American people, having an interest
in localism. But one of the problems you have in an industry is, periodically,
attracting capital for future investment. So I think the value of localism
[versus] the need for capital for investment in the future is a balance you
have to continually [monitor].
Is that a byproduct of the economic decline,
that everything has to be balanced against jobs and people's futures?
I think jobs are a very important issue all
the time, but the issue gains greater currency in an economic downturn. Every
member of Congress is interested in jobs, and broadcasting provides a lot of
fine jobs in every community.
What is your view on indecency and whether
the FCC should be in the business of regulating broadcast content?
Again, you are talking about a balance.
Broadcasters are not trying to promote indecency. They also value keenly their
First Amendment rights. The broadcasters I have spoken with generally
understand that with public airwaves comes public responsibility. And when it
is over the airwaves, there is technology to empower parents and empower
viewers or listeners. They will turn it off and block it out. And the more
information we can give to consumers, the better off we are going to be.
There are more than a million indecency
complaints backed up at the FCC. Is it better for broadcasters if the FCC works
through them and gives the industry a better sense of what it can or can't do,
or should the FCC not be in the business of telling broadcasters what to air
any more than the government should be telling newspapers what to print?
I think, clearly, the FCC is having
trouble dealing with more than a million complaints. But I think, equally
clearly, that the vast numbers of broadcasters are not in the business of being
indecent. If they were, after 10 p.m. you would see a lot of indecency. You
don't. Whether it is Leno or Letterman or whatever, they are trying to
entertain. They are not trying to be indecent.
Having been in the Senate, I'm sure you had
a legislative philosophy. Do you have an association philosophy?
Absolutely. If there is a problem and the
solution offered is worse than the problem, offer a better solution. My
experience on the Commerce Committee was that the issues did not register
partisan, they registered practical. These issues tend to be where competitors
come to get a competitive advantage. Those don't line up based on Republican or
Do you have any concerns about the Fairness
Doctrine returning, either through the front or back door?
I have concerns about the Fairness
Doctrine. I am heartened by the fact that the Obama administration opposes it.
I don't believe there are the votes for it in Congress, and I don't believe the
Supreme Court would uphold it if it were ever reinstituted.
Some Fairness Doctrine foes continue to
suggest that localism proposals could represent a form of government-enforced
You have to watch the front door and the
back door. My own view is that the marketplace of ideas will sort these things
out. If you look at the whole array of media, seems to me most views are pretty
well covered and that the American people have the freedom to choose what they
What concerns do you have about the
satellite reauthorization bill?
I think that it is coming out in a way
that is generally acceptable to broadcasting. There are some concerns about
local-into-local broadcasts; we want to make sure [the bill] doesn't compromise
a station's ability to sell ads. On the other hand, I can tell you in my former
role as a U.S.
senator that I understand how keenly rural people feel about getting the news,
the weather and the sports from their state. And so this is something we have
to work on with the ratings institutions and try to get a shape that allows
business to flourish and people to get the information they need for their
hometown and their state.
So, should the Nielsen DMAs be
My own sense is that it would be a good
thing, but it can't be done in a sudden way because, certainly, advertising
dollars follow the current markets. It has to be done, I think, gradually.
That would appear to be staking out some new
ground for NAB. Is this a case of leading your board?
I understand that I represent the
interests of broadcasters now, and I appreciate the damage that could be done
to localism if the law were to be changed too quickly. Perhaps there will be a
technology solution that emerges somewhere down the road. In the meantime, I
would urge caution on the part of lawmakers.
Knowing as you do the speed at which things
happen on the Hill, and given the deadline for reauthorization by year-end,
will the Senate be able to reauthorize this bill, or are there entangling
amendments that will force it to have to do a one-year extension?
My experience is that on a must-pass piece
of legislation, if there is an amendment that is important to one member but
has the net effect of killing the bill, it will ultimately not make it through
the process. They'll keep working it. It doesn't go away, but it doesn't mean
it is going to hold back the advancement of must-pass legislation....We'll have a
study, we'll get a commission, we'll do a survey. That is how things are resolved
One of your charters from the board is to be
more proactive, rather than reactive, on technology. How do you interpret that?
A lot of things are happening that portend
a brighter future for radio and television, whether it is mobile TV or chips in
your cellphone. It gives us new platforms on which to continue to deliver great
content to the American people for free.
And does that mean doing more talking to the
Googles and computer companies of the world?
Yes. Perhaps there was a resistance to new
technology. My approach to technology is somewhat like my approach to
legislation: What's the problem? What's your solution? Well, here's mine: I
think it is a better solution. So as we look at technology development, what
endures are the values of free broadcast radio and TV. How do we fit those into
those new platforms? The future says to me that, the Internet notwithstanding,
there is still a place for what we do.
You can't lobby Congress for a while, right?
I can't for another 13 months. But as I
have said, I can lobby the FCC directly, which I have already started doing.
How much does it cramp your style not to be
able to do the Hill side of it?
I still have very regular contacts with my
colleagues who are my friends, but I observe the letter and the spirit of the
law that I voted for. They can ask me to come up and testify and I can answer
their hearings. The limitation is on me, not on them. [For example, Smith last
week had to ask for an ethics waiver to comply with a request to meet with
legislators on the issue of music royalties on radio.]
Religious broadcasters were opposed to
recently passed hate-crimes legislation, saying it could target their preaching
on abortion or homosexuality.
It was my bill, and I am a very religious
person. Hate-crimes laws have existed in this country for 30 years and have
been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, William Rehnquist being the drafter of
the majority opinion. Religious freedom is still alive and well. I respect
their concern and it is something that has to be watched, that the right of the
free exercise of religion is not compromised by hate-crimes laws. But in 30
years of litigation specifically on issues related to gays and lesbians, it
never has been.
At the radio convention, you talked about your
radio station. What TV station did you watch most when you lived in Washington?
I think I watched channel 9 [WUSA,
formerly WDVM and before that WTOP] most because I loved Warner Wolf. I was an
All-Met honorable-mention basketball player, and Warner Wolf occasionally would
mention my name. That was in the 1960s, and that was the big channel in my
When you were first announced as the new NAB
president (to replace former beer-industry lobbyist David Rehr), one wag
suggested that frozen foods was only "one aisle over" from beer, the point
being that he didn't see much difference. The same person last week said he had
heard you did a fabulous job at the recent NAB board meeting in Dallas and thought you
were the right person for the job.
I know business and I know balance sheets.
I know my responsibility is to help broadcasters have a place in the future in
American commerce. I fell in love with broadcasters as a member of the Senate
Commerce Committee. They are fascinating, they are challenging, they are
intriguing, they are endlessly interesting.
I also found in 16 years as a lawmaker that if you can
remember the humanity of everybody there and respect their motives-that their
motives aren't choices between good and evil-it gives you the ability to work
with a Ted Kennedy or a Jesse Helms on a range of issues. The contest of
politics is a contest over ideas that lead to social justice.
I have a father who worked for Eisenhower and a mother whose
last name is Udall. I am the eighth of 10 children. In that mix, I learned that
the contest in public policy isn't a choice between good people and bad people,
it's a choice of how you are going to approach solving public problems. And
when you do it from that perspective, respecting the motives and the integrity
of your opponent, you can find solutions because it will lead you across the