Eddie Fritts had already been a broadcaster for 20 years when he was hired to be president and CEO of NAB in 1982.
And although he had built an eight-station group serving small towns in Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas, Fritts had spent virtually no time on the air. He wasn't a program director either; he hired others to take care of on-air jobs.
Fritts was, however, a tenacious salesman, and he expected his ad staffs to follow his example. Rather than make general managers waste time coming to his office in Indiana to deliver sales reports, he drove himself from station to station in a camper outfitted as an office.
He would help advertisers orchestrate outrageous promotions, too. Once he flew over a new shopping center and dropped numbered Ping-Pong balls so shoppers could use them in a store promotion.
Another time, he helped a local car dealer pull off an outdoor promotion complete with a National Guard tank.
Later, Fritts parlayed the same knack for promotion to his own benefit when he campaigned for the presidency of NAB and then brought his show to Washington.
On the eve of the Aug. 9, 1982, vote in Chicago to pick the group's next leader, Fritts persuaded the hotel staff to notify him when each of the voting-board members checked in. Moments after entering their rooms, each got a call from Fritts making his case one last time.
Fritts was elected on the first ballot by a 24-20 margin, defeating Donald Thurston, president of Berkshire Broadcasting Co. in North Adams, Mass. Thurston had been recommended for the job the previous week by an NAB search committee—a committee Fritts himself led before resigning only weeks before the vote. (Thurston had also been endorsed by B&C.)
End of an era?
Upon arrival in Washington, Fritts quickly built personal relationships with as many policymakers as possible. Golf games, lunch at favored lobbyist haunt Sam & Harry's, and hunting and fishing trips were all opportunities to make friends in high places and ensure that calls were returned promptly when business needed to be done.
Robert Sachs, who recently stepped down after five years as president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, sees Fritts' departure, coupled with the retirement of legendary Jack Valenti as head of the Motion Picture Association of America, as the end of an era.
“Running trade associations were once career jobs,” Sachs says, “but now, because of the diminished role of seniority in Congress, public-policy decisions are less likely to be based on close relationships with key lawmakers and instead are being made on the merits.”
Preston Padden, lobbyist for Disney/ABC, isn't so sure. He thinks there will always be a role for the Fritts style of personal politics. “When I started in this line of work, Jack Valenti told me never to forget that everybody likes to have their backside kissed. It's as effective today as it ever was.”
Eddie Fritts is from the old school, imbued with that Southern sense of hospitality. One of Fritts' closest ties during the years in Washington has been to fellow University of Mississippi graduate Trent Lott, who eventually rose to become Senate Majority Leader and helped make sure that broadcasters' legislative agenda always had a fighting chance.
“Eddie never missed a trick,” says Russ Withers, president of Withers Broadcasting. In early March, leaders of the state broadcasting associations were in Washington. When Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ted Stevens spoke, Withers took note that Fritts had made sure the delegates from Stevens' home state of Alaska were in the front row. When House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton joined the conference for lunch, he found it filled with fellow Texans.
Fritts also regaled the state- conference attendees with a tale of a Florida Keys fishing trip with Stevens. The new Commerce chairman is also president pro tem of the Senate, a title placing him third in the line of succession should tragedy befall the President. His proximity to the highest office in the land requires him to be accompanied by government security when in public or traveling.
During one of their outings, Fritts recalled, a “cantankerous” guide wasn't much concerned with Stevens' position and resented being shadowed by two chase boats loaded with well-armed men.
After the guide shouted at them to clear away, one guard yelled back, “We can't do that! We have to be close enough to shoot you!”
“That put a whole new light on fishing,” Fritts told the crowd. They were delighted.
Dealing with the FCC
Andrew Barrett, former FCC commissioner, was an Illinois public-utilities commissioner when his name first surfaced as candidate for an open FCC seat.
Before he was formally nominated, Barrett traveled to Las Vegas for a telephone- industry convention—coincidentally, at the same time as NAB's Vegas convention. Fritts had a meeting arranged.
Fritts and Barrett became close friends during his term at the FCC, partly based on bad habits. On more than one occasion, he and Fritts would end up in a bar drinking Tattinger champagne. “I'd buy. He'd buy. I'd buy. He'd buy,” Barrett recalls.
And at the time, the FCC and NAB headquarters were a few blocks apart, so the two would often drop in on each other. Part of their motivation: their cigarette habits.
“We had the last two smoking offices in the District of Columbia,” Barrett says.
He still gets together with Fritts, whom he fondly calls “a charmer who can sell manure at a dollar a pound.”
Fritts can come across in the trade press as a hard-nosed negotiator, but Susquehanna Media President David Kennedy was surprised when he joined the NAB board eight years ago.
“I found him to be incredibly thoughtful and considerate,” says Kennedy. “He was a seeker of resolution rather than an absolute my-way-or-the-highway kind of guy.”
Former NAB radio board member Bill O'Shaughnessy, who has been a Fritts critic, acknowledges, “Deep down, he is a good guy.”
But he is crafty, no doubt about it. In one celebrated incident, Fritts found a way to turn FCC criticism into a promotion for the industry.
After then-FCC Chairman Reed Hundt demanded to know what broadcasters were doing in return for receiving their digital channels free of charge, Fritts commissioned a 1997 “census” to tally the value of telethons, free airtime for political candidates, food drives and other public outreach.
By NAB's calculation, the value of all that public service was $6.9 billion.
“We got Reed Hundt his answer,” Fritts says. “He didn't like it. He pooh-poohed it. But he couldn't challenge it, because it was unassailable.”
No matter that Hundt and others derided the estimate, Fritts decided to total the number yearly and award the most deserving stations at an annual Service to America Summit.
Today, the event is a glitzy celebration held only a few blocks from the White House. Of course, politicians are invited, so they can see firsthand how broadcasters serve their communities.
In 2004, the NAB's number had risen to $9.9 billion.
“I'm grateful to Reed Hundt for asking the question,” Fritts says now. “Had he not asked, we probably never would have done the census.”