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Thumbs Up for Gordon Smith

At least so far, his personality and style seem well suited to the task

On the great seal of the United States, the bald eagle holds arrows in one talon, an olive branch in the other, indicating a strong desire for peace but a constant readiness for battle if necessary.

Perhaps the National Association of Broadcasters should adopt similar symbols. They would be fitting for the tenure of President/CEO Gordon Smith to date.

He has demonstrated the wisdom of a strategy that combines conciliatory public postures toward policy opponents while continuing to fight quietly but fiercely on NAB’s issues and legislation.

I had an opportunity to spend a little time with him in a small group recently and came away confirmed in my impressions that he is intelligent and nuanced. I also suspect he is a very fast learner. Yet he has no need to strive to understand how levers of influence in Washington work; that knowledge is bred into him by both family and professional history.

Public accommodation

Blessedly, one thing missing from Smith’s leadership persona is end-of-the-world rhetoric. No promises to cut his throat before he’d consider negotiating with performers. No muttering that LPFMs will destroy the FM band or encourage former pirates to run amuck on the air.

He pressures quietly, accommodates loudly and argues reasonably.

A tidbit: When LPFM legislation was approved by the House in December and the compromise bill clearly was on its way to Senate passage, the association issued a press release that concluded with this: “NAB also announced that after the new year, the group will be extending an invitation to supporters of low-power FM to an event at NAB headquarters heralding passage of the legislation.”

I could not have imagined that sentence coming out of NAB two years ago. That’s a small example but an instructive one. I believe his apparent instinct to build allies rather than publicly entrenching into an opposing camp is going to be a hallmark of Smith’s presidency. (I predict we’ll now see a public push for LPFMs to join the association, which, as I’ve said, would benefit both.)

Is his attitude “for show”? Do willingness to negotiate and a habit of reaching out constitute public posturing?

Of course they do. Public posture is part of effective strategy in leading large groups. Promising to cut his own throat, in David Rehr’s memorable phrase, was public posturing too, and far less effective.

The person who wears the public face of NAB must address two key audiences. He must serve the needs of the association’s members, foremost. But he also must consider how his actions and statements are perceived among the legislators who are in a position to influence the businesses of those members. Words have consequences.

Loud, confrontational leadership is a choice. It might feel good and generate enthusiastic applause among some broadcasters. But I’m more impressed when I hear quiet statements of firm goals, pursued with smart behind-the-scenes dealings on the Hill and a willingness to interact with policy opponents.

Beyond posture, Smith’s actions suggest a practical, realistic executive personality. His pragmatism and capability to comprehend intricacies of issues will help even more now that he’s allowed to lobby his former Hill colleagues directly.

Fighting its fight

I’m not trying to position the man as some kind of savior for the interests of commercial radio owners. Our industry faces plenty of institutional challenges unrelated to who sits in the NAB president’s chair. One is that broadcasting is unlikely ever to enjoy the kind of lobbying heft it did at one time, due to the changed nature of the media landscape itself. So our expectations must be moderate.

Broadcasters do however need to see results. They’ll be watching closely in 2011. Much of Smith’s reputation as a lobbyist and negotiator, at least for radio, will depend on the outcome of the performance royalty issue, one of his stated top priorities.

Lack of final congressional action on the Performance Rights Act is in itself a victory. After the 2008 elections, the political odds that performers could get a favorable vote were high, and the likelihood of some kind of royalty being approved in a flurry of congressional activity at the end of 2010 was real.

From what I hear, NAB board members knew this and put the question to Smith bluntly before they hired him: Can you stop or slow the performance royalty despite the political winds?

NAB has done so to date. But some kind of royalty system is inevitable, through legislation or negotiated settlement. The fight, and the negotiations, are likely to be renewed in 2011; their outcome will be watched as an indication of NAB’s strength.

I suspect Smith can wield the arrows as well as the olive branch. Talking to him, I sense a steely determination. He knew last spring how to make legislators’ phones ring, how to assure that they would hear from radio listeners at town hall meetings asking “Why do you want to take away my radio?” as a pushback against a picture that had been painted of big, bad corporate radio trying to take advantage of helpless artists.

Smith’s subsequent actions on the difficult PRA issue, blessed by the NAB board, have given radio some maneuvering room and challenged the simplistic portrait of radio that opponents had been able to paint. (They’ve also led to what appears to be a freshly antagonistic relationship with Gary Shapiro and the Consumer Electronics Association; it’ll be fascinating to see how that will play out.)

I wrote a year and a half ago that NAB members seemed “hungry for a leader who, while tough, can walk up and down the halls of Congress without getting his elbows stuck too deeply between the ribs of committee chairs … At its most elemental level, this is a lobbying job.” I predicted that NAB would hire a former Eddie Fritts lieutenant, Jim May, as president.

I was wrong on that but right about this: “Charisma and a determined public persona may be important characteristics for the leader of the industry’s lobbying organization,” I wrote, “but those alone are not substitutes for a firm understanding of the broadcast business or of the highly personal nature of politics. …

“It’s also my hope that the next leader will be more discreet in his or her toughness. This job also requires subtlety.”

Based on the early returns, Gordon Smith’s personality and style seem well suited to the task.