He's NAB's Mr. Fix-It

Phil Lombardo's got a tough job ahead of him

Over the past 20 years, Phil Lombardo has built a small, but thriving TV station group by acquiring underperforming stations, imposing "proper management systems" and strengthening the news departments. "My specialty has always been the turnaround," he says.

Sounds like the National Association of Broadcasters has found the right guy to be its new joint board chairman. Two weeks ago, the NAB executive committee tapped the 68-year-old owner of Citadel Communications for the job after Jim Yager resigned to take care of his ailing wife.

It's not too much of a stretch to say that NAB is in need of a turnaround or at least stabilization. The association has been badly shaken by the long battle over the audience reach cap on TV-station ownership. That battle drove a wedge into NAB's TV board and damaged the lobby's standing in Washington.

The networks want the FCC to raise the cap so that they can buy more stations, the principal source of their broadcasting profits. Fearing the might of the networks, the affiliates want to keep the cap as low as possible.

Because the affiliates control the NAB TV board, they won the votes and directed the NAB staff to do whatever it takes to preserve the 35% cap. That was too much for the networks to bear so they quit. The NAB now lobbies for broadcasting without the nation's four largest broadcasting companies.

The battle has even put NAB President Eddie Fritts in a tough spot. Some TV board members have lost faith in him, feeling that his campaign to preserve the 35% cap has been half-hearted and that he has been more interested in preserving relations with the networks.

In the meantime, the TV board and the radio board continue to bicker over NAB resources and vie for the attention of the NAB staff. (The joint board chairmanship alternates between radio and TV.)

And the NAB staff is in transition. Top Hill lobbyist Jim May took flight earlier this year and FCC maven Jeff Bauman announced his retirement just last week. Both were key players in NAB's many successes. Their successors have big shoes to fill.

Not the best of times. But Lombardo says he is up for the challenge. "I'm an involved guy," he said during an interview at the NAB Radio Show last week. "I'm not a figurehead. I'm going to make a difference."

Lombardo is a 35% hardliner. He believes the cap should stay where it is as a check on the networks. (If he didn't, it's a safe bet to say he wouldn't be the joint board chairman.)

The networks are already too powerful, Lombardo says. They have been heavy handed in their dealings with the affiliates, he says. If the cap is lifted, network power will simply grow.

Some affiliates like the TV board just as it is, without the networks. It puts them in full control and it allows them to use the association as a counterweight to the networks.

But Lombardo says the networks are welcome to return at any time "The door is open," he says. "It swings both ways."

The networks and the affiliates have to resolved their differences and present a unified front in Congress and at the FCC, he says. "They would like us to speak with one voice."

Lombardo says he respects Fritts and dismisses the idea that he is out of tune with the TV board. "My agenda is to work very closely with him," he says. "If there has been a communications breakdown of any sort, I am committed to making sure it doesn't happen again."

Lombardo does not concede that the NAB has significantly damaged itself by chasing away the networks and allying with groups traditionally hostile to broadcasting in the effort to save the 35% cap.

But even if true, he says, the TV board would still have done what it did. "If you take a position on principle, how can you regret it? You are doing what you think it right."

NAB is not Lombardo's only extracurricular activity. As the new chairman of the Broadcasters' Foundation, a group dedicated to helping indigent ex-broadcasters, he has pledged to raise up to $500,000.

And then there is Citadel Communications. Lombardo has no plans to sell. In fact, he would buy more stations if they fit into his regional cluster in the Midwest. With WOI-TV Des Moines, Iowa, at the hub, the cluster now also includes stations three other stations that Des Moines-based COO Ray Cole can easily reach by car.

Lombardo is working hard to get up to speed on many issues NAB deals, particularly in radio. But he already understands how to turn around the fortunes of NAB. "We need to get past the issues that are dividing us," he says.

Jessell may be reached at