David Rehr, who resigned as the head of the National Association of Broadcasters last week, appears to have been the victim of bad timing, a dearth of lobbying victories and an inability to build key relationships both on Capitol Hill and at the FCC, according to industry insiders.
The former beer industry lobbyist told B&C in an interview last month that he was trying to focus more on those relationships, but that apparently came too late, as did an inspirational speech at the NAB Show that got good reviews. “I have kind of reevaluated my time to spend more time on Capitol Hill and at the FCC,” Rehr told B&C.
NAB Joint Board Chairman Jack Sander praises Rehr as being forceful and aggressive in the digital area, including on the DTV transition and mobile video, but also said the board had asked Rehr to focus more on building relationships in Washington. “I know we always kind of dwell on the negatives because that is what media does,” Sander says. “But if you took a step back on a broader report card, it would be a lot better.” (For more from Sander, go to www.broadcastingcable.com.)
Also important are lobbying laurels, and NAB hasn't been wearing too many of those lately. It looks like broadcasters will have to pay some kind of per-performance fee for radio song airplay, something Rehr and NAB have been battling hard against. Broadcasters also had to deal with “enhanced disclosure” requirements that NAB opposed. Then there was the loss on the issue of allowing unlicensed devices to use the DTV spectrum band, and the failure to block the Sirius-XM merger (though that was a long shot from the outset).
Numerous sources say Rehr made a mistake by not taking the lead on a national call-center operation when it was proposed by the Obama administration in a DTV transition meeting late last year. The cable industry did so instead, and drew adulation from both the administration and Capitol Hill.
The difference in perception of the broadcast and cable industries in Washington was highlighted last month when NAB and NCTA members were in town to meet and greet their legislators. House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.), fresh from delivering the bad news to an NAB audience that they needed to start negotiating on a per-performance license fee, heaped praise on an NCTA convention group a couple of days later for the extraordinary job it had done promoting the DTV transition. He said it was “first out of the box” with a multi-million-dollar education campaign, and had done so “ahead of the broadcast industry.”
Rehr spent the early part of his tenure—he replaced former President Eddie Fritts in 2005—meeting with local broadcasters around the country. A number of industry players suggest he should have been working on building the Washington relationships that are the currency of trade association success.
“He traveled the country when he should have been spending his time solidifying his relationships in Congress,” says one veteran lobbyist.
A search committee has been formed to find a successor. Among the names that have been floated are Martin Franks, a Democrat and top CBS lobbyist; former top NAB staffer Jim May; and even Rehr's predecessor, Fritts.
“If they were smart, they would get Eddie back,” says one industry fan of the former NAB president. But Fritts tells B&C he is happy where he is as the leader of The Fritts Group, a consultancy with clients that include News Corp. CBS, Verizon and DirecTV.
Whoever replaces Rehr will need to have good relationships with Democrats, or at least the potential for building them. That person doesn't necessarily have to be a Democrat, says one veteran broadcast group head. Sander says he wants to find someone “who either understands our business or has the ability to understand our businesses very, very fast.”
When Rehr was hired in 2005, Republicans were in control of the White House and Congress had made it clear around town that associations needed to hire more Republican rainmakers if they wanted access. He was the choice of an NAB board that, sources say, was ready for a more board-driven organization than the staff-driven operation under Fritts.
But Rehr had not been in the job long before the Democrats began their ascendancy. He did not have strong ties to Democrats, for obvious reasons, but he also had problems with Republicans, including former Senate Commerce Committee chairman Ted Stevens, who wanted someone else in the job and made that fact known early on.
Rehr clearly recognized his outsider status. “I felt like I was the guy who had to prove myself because I wasn't from the business, and the business is really hard on people who aren't from the business,” he told B&C in advance of the NAB convention.
McSlarrow is also a Republican, but he was roundly praised during the NCTA convention for his good working relationships with legislators and regulators, including getting public shout-outs by both Boucher and Senate Communications Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.), as well as Republican and Democratic members of the FCC. “Kyle is a Republican, but it never has hurt him on the Hill,” the broadcaster says.
The timing of Rehr's exit—he is said to be sticking around until mid-June to help with the transition—adds one more element of uncertainty to the list of leading players in the DTV transition, whose second wave of analog plug-pulling is coming June 12. At present, there is effectively an acting NAB head, Janet McGregor; an acting FCC Chairman, Michael Copps; and an acting head of the NTIA, Anna Gomez.