When Gordon Smith drops the mic at the end of December, Curtis LeGeyt will be there to pick it up.
The chief operating officer of the National Association of Broadcasters will assume the role of president and CEO on Jan. 1, 2022. Smith will transition to an “advisory and advocacy role.”
LeGeyt — pronounced “LEH-jet” — is an experienced lobbyist with a background in Democratic politics; but he has been with the NAB since 2011, including five years as executive VP of government relations, a key lobbying post at the association. (See bio at end of this article.)
Radio World Editor in Chief Paul McLane spoke to LeGeyt in June via video conference.
Radio World: Define the purpose of the NAB, its central mission.
Curtis LeGeyt: More than anything, our mission is to ensure that our members, both radio and television, can continue to serve communities across this country with a vibrant but viable means of communication, with locally focused content, in a time of tremendous media disruption.
For broadcast radio in particular, the competitive threats — between streaming, what’s going on in the dashboard, what’s going on with smart speakers — have never been more pronounced. But radio, it has been demonstrated throughout the pandemic, has never been more important.
NAB is ensuring that that medium is going to be able to continue to thrive amidst all of this disruption in the marketplace and also, frankly, disruption in Washington.
RW: Leaders of NAB have had their public personas — Eddie Fritts, the classic effective lobbyist; David Rehr, who was “elbows and knees” in Washington. Gordon Smith is known as a pragmatist — “working quietly behind the scenes” would be his public persona. What can we expect from you?
LeGeyt: I think the public persona is very much one of continuing that leadership style that has been a hallmark of Gordon’s success.
We going to know the issues that matter to our membership better than anyone else. We are going to continue to stay on the ground, get outside of Washington and ensure that we understand how what’s happening in Washington is impacting our radio members’ businesses — ensuring that we’re not fighting yesterday’s fights tomorrow but we’ve got our pulse on what’s going on in the industry.
My leadership style is one of inclusiveness, wanting to hear opposing viewpoints, wanting to get a sense of what matters — in terms of our advocacy, our focus in our technology initiatives, our programming — just one of accessibility and competence. Laying out a transparent game plan as to what we view as the industry’s challenges and how we’re going to execute on real-world solutions.
RW: Is it a coincidence that the Republican is leaving the job, and a Democrat — You having come up with Patrick Leahy and working on the Obama campaign years ago, how important is it that the new U.S. president is a Democrat and the leader at NAB is a Democrat?
LeGeyt: I don’t think it’s that important. What I mean is, we are a bipartisan organization in our DNA. We work with members on both sides of the aisle.
We rely on those members of Congress who, because of their experience in their home districts, understand the importance of local radio.
On any number of the legislative initiatives where we’ve been successful over the course of the last few years — whether it was COVID-19 enhanced relief for local broadcasters, the performance tax, beating back a change in the business advertising deduction on Capitol Hill — we have been successful because we’ve had bipartisan support from both the Chuck Schumers of the world and the Mitch McConnells of the world.
The hallmark is the ability to work across the aisle. Gordon certainly had that when he was in the Senate, and he carried over that skill set.
And if you can’t stop something, you’re going to want to shape it; and in order to shape it, you’re going to need to work with legislators. That’s a bipartisan approach that we take at NAB.
We’ve got champions on both sides of the aisle, because there are local broadcasters that both Republicans and Democrats want to fight for.
RW: And yet the Hill has never been so bifurcated, at least from a public perception, everybody yelling at everybody else. You’ve worked there as a lawyer and a lobbyist, you’ve seen it up close. So how do you get anything done?
LeGeyt: That is the real challenge for us right now.
We did our annual fly-in — where we get 500 local radio and television station GMs in town — we did it virtually this year because of COVID. That was a big theme as we prepared our members for meetings on Capitol Hill: to not get caught up in the divisiveness. It’s so easy to get swept up in the politics and everything that’s going on up there.
There’s no question it is a very, very divided landscape. But for us, the issues our industry needs help on are too important to get caught up in that partisanship. We’re going to need champions on both sides of the aisle.
So we’re reminding folks of the role that local radio is playing. “Hey, businesses were closing, schools were closing; where were these members’ constituents relying when they needed up-to-the-minute information on how they were going to navigate through this pandemic?”
It was local radio. Vaccine education. “Where am I going? What are the safety concerns?”
There’s all this distrust right now of the social media platforms, of the very politicized cable news outlets. Where can you rely? It’s local radio.
Yeah, you’ve got to frame it a little bit differently depending on whether you’re talking to a Democrat or a Republican, there’s obvious reasons for that; but I think once you get below the surface, that core understanding of the trust communities have in radio is bipartisan.
RW: Looking at NAB’s goals on the Hill, what are you advocating for or working on next?
LeGeyt: Our focus is on ensuring that this industry can reemerge from this pandemic as strong, if not stronger, than going in.
[Also] there’s so much focus right now on Capitol Hill on the role of the tech platforms in undermining public trust, the degree of power that these platforms have as gatekeepers to every type of media. That’s very important for local radio.
When you think about how radio is being accessed — whether it’s through streaming platforms on the dashboard, smart speakers, online — these platforms have major gatekeeping roles. All the content that our members are investing in that sits alongside their traditional streams, our success is at the behest of these platforms.
Members of Congress understand that. There’s a concerted effort to do something, especially as it relates to local journalism and local news. I would pay attention to the conversation that’s taking place in the House Judiciary Committee, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act in particular, where there’s a real focus on ensuring that local media can compete on a level playing field, negotiate on a level playing field for fair terms when our programming is being used. We want to ensure that policymakers understand that radio is a part of this conversation.
The second piece is that we need to ensure radio doesn’t end up saddled with new costs as a result of some action that Congress or the FCC takes. This is not the moment for increased costs of doing the same business.
I do think you’re going to see a reinvigoration around the performance tax discussion.
We’ve already seen that MusicFIRST, the record labels’ advocacy machine, has hired a new spokesperson, a former member of Democratic congressional leadership, Joe Crawley, to spearhead their efforts this Congress. It puts the onus on us to ensure that the support we have in opposing any new royalty on local broadcasters continues to be affirmed through support of the Local Radio Freedom Act in a way that says to the House Judiciary Committee, “Yes, the other side is invigorated in their advocacy; but there’s just a such a disproportionate amount of support for local radio in this fight, that this is not something that you ought to use bandwidth on.”
The third is again to the costs element. [With] everything that is happening in localities around the country with regard to local ad taxes, in Washington there’s going to be, I think, a real focus on how you generate funds to pay for what President Biden and Congress wants to do on infrastructure.
We’ve got to ensure that there are no changes to the advertising deduction or any new ad taxes that are going to disincentive businesses from advertising on local radio.
RW: Broadcasters obviously had a lot of interest in what the Supreme Court did in the Prometheus/FCC case. What are your thoughts about the impact in the marketplace now that the rule change has been upheld?
LeGeyt: I think clarity is important here. For the last 20 years we’ve been living in this seesaw — an FCC that goes in one direction, and the Third Circuit throws its decision back in its face.
Having certainty as to the rules of the road for local radio ownership will probably lead to some additional scale in certain markets in a way that I think is just necessary in this time and place to compete with these tech platforms that have unbridled ability to offer both a nationwide and also a very locally focused advertising product that our members compete with.
I think it will have some impact there. I also think, though, that the certainty will help lead to more investment in localism.
RW: You think we’ll see the FCC lift those ownership subcaps per market?
LeGeyt: I hope so, because for certain of our members, it is needed.
The competitive landscape is so different now than it was two decades ago. The idea that the type of scale that we’re asking for is something that would even give regulators pause relative to what’s happening with our tech competitors, it just seems very antiquated.
At the same time, we need to be cognizant that in a Democratic FCC, even those commissioners who over the years have been very supportive of local broadcasting have had significant pause when it comes to consolidation and what that might mean for our ability to serve our communities.
There’s a different philosophical underpinning, but that’s a conversation we’re going to continue to have at the FCC.
RW: What is your read on how acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel is doing in that role?
LeGeyt: I think she’s doing very well in that role. One thing you’re seeing from her is finding those areas where she can get unanimity and support from the Republican commissioners, and acting on them. That is a wise approach that is buoyed by her years of experience at the FCC and understanding how to get things done.
And the fact that in a 2–2 commission, she has been able to advance as many measures as she has — at a time and place where the American people really need the FCC to work for them — speaks very well to her political instincts.
RW: You mentioned localism. Now that there’s no main studio rule, and now that companies have the ability to do so much in the cloud, we see regionalization and centralization among bigger broadcast groups, leading to less of a physical footprint in markets. Doesn’t that go against localism?
LeGeyt: I think it’s all dependent on the content. I would not measure a particular station’s commitment to a particular community based on any sort of physical question.
The fact that I’m sitting in my home right now rather than being at the NAB office where I was yesterday, am I any more or less committed to the NAB? No, I’m not.
Technology has enabled me to do my job very well and to lead our organization very well remotely. I’m cognizant of the fact that those same concepts apply to local radio. Our members will be judged by how well they serve their audiences with locally focused programming, particularly at moments when communities rely on radio the most.
We will see who stands out in that environment, but I’ll be very surprised if physical presence has a lot to do with it.
RW: I imagine that your Radio Board meetings were interesting over the last year. Is it, “Oh my God, this has been the worst year in recent memory for our businesses, just do anything you can to help us.” Is it that kind of a vibe?
LeGeyt: What I’ve been so impressed by with our radio members is a recognition that yes, the industry has been disrupted by the pandemic, but there are other industries that have been disrupted a heck of a lot more. Their focus is, “How can we serve our communities and help our communities build out on the other side of this?”
I’ve been awed that, at a time where our industry has been under the most financial stress, we’ve actually done our best work.
The trust that communities are [putting] in local radio stations, especially in rural areas, is tremendous. The resources that our stations are putting into boots on the ground, local coverage, ensuring that their personalities are out in the community, is unparalleled. And they’re doing that at a time when it’s more difficult to afford those things.
Our members’ focus is on the community service and let the finances build from there — [there’s] confidence that if they can maintain that trust as a lifeline through the pandemic, it is going to pay off in terms of the service to their audience, the audience commitment.
RW: There’s been a proposal to allow FM broadcasters to use boosters to do super-localized geo-targeted content. The NAB came out pretty strongly against that. What would it take for the NAB to have a different opinion?
LeGeyt: Well, without getting into that specific issue, what we are cognizant of is ensuring that those members who are investing in the FM band have the ability to reach their audiences unencumbered.
We’re open to any proposal that is going to allow for better service options and allow our members the ability to be more creative, more innovative. But if the consequence of that is going to be more congestion, more interference on the band in a way that is picking winners and losers, it is going to give us pause.
I’m not weighing in on that specific issue. We’re taking a lot of guidance from our members on that; but I think top of mind as we look at a lot of these issues around boosters and translators is: How do we ensure that we’re innovating for our members, and supporting proposals that will allow them to do more hyper-localized things, without the unintended consequence of more interference for current programming?
RW: The association took a real financial hit when you weren’t able to have in-person events, and you had a special assessment for members. There’s a physical show coming back in the fall, but have you recovered from the revenue stream being stopped there for a while?
LeGeyt: We feel really positive about where the association is right now, but that is in large part to the trust and the importance that our members and our board placed in us, in supporting an assessment.
What we attempted to demonstrate to our members was the value of what we provide as a trade association — as it relates to advocacy, to technological innovations for the industry, to our programming — and to ask the question, “At what level would you like us to continue to do this as we manage through this pandemic and a road back to physical trade shows?”
The decision was that they wanted our association operating at the highest level. And an assessment helped to ensure we could stay there.
The NAB managed through that. We had to make tough decisions internally on our own to meet our membership halfway.
We certainly understood how difficult a time it was to go to our members and ask for financial help, humbled by the fact that many of them wanted to provide that but also cognizant that we needed to do everything within our own power to manage through and be responsible financially as well.
Now we’re on the upside. We’re really optimistic as to what this NAB Show is going to look like in October. It could not be better timed in terms of the demand that we’re feeling from our exhibitors to be back in person and to go and do some face-to-face commerce from attendees.
We are pacing very strongly several months out from the show. And then we’ll build right on top of that to a second show in April of next year. So we’re optimistic about where we go from here.
RW: And life at NAB headquarters? You’ve got a new building that most people haven’t seen, are people going in? Are you going in?
LeGeyt: I have been going in regularly, a couple of times a week at a minimum, and over the last month with even more frequency. That’s what we’re seeing from our staff as well.
We recognize that people have childcare obligations, that there are still health care concerns, so we have a flexible arrangement that those who want to avail themselves to the benefits of the new building are able to do it. But we’ve also been very successful in working remotely, so we want to continue to give our employees the opportunity to do that.
Then we will continue to scale up and by the fall have the opportunity to showcase this new building externally.
RW: Our readers are interested in technology initiatives of NAB PILOT, which has been paying a lot of attention to radio in the context of the evolving car dashboard. Thoughts about where radio is going in terms of maintaining a foothold there?
LeGeyt: I don’t know that there’s a more existential question for radio than the one that you just posed. That’s something that guides our work, both on the technology front, in terms of how we can be a leader to ensure that the industry is best positioned to appeal to consumers through the dashboard, and to ensure that the automakers understand our value proposition.
We are spending a lot of time ensuring that we’ve got a centralized voice in articulating the unique benefits of terrestrial radio in the dash. Advocacy, the same guideposts.
As you think about the importance of the performance tax issue, the importance of ensuring that we’ve got streaming royalties that are affordable for local stations that allow for innovations that will allow for them to compete in the dash in a different way. As we’re thinking about members of Congress, affirming the importance of local radio relative to other platforms. That’s guiding everything we’re doing on the business front.
A huge piece of our advocacy is ensuring that we’re putting our best foot forward in terms of radio’s place in the dash.
RW: Is there anything else you would like radio people to know about your views on radio or where the industry is going?
LeGeyt: The most important thing I’d like your readers to know is that I started at the NAB 10 years ago as a copyright lawyer and an antitrust lawyer who had advocacy experience in Capitol Hill and was very compelled by the substance of the issues. I’ve grown into someone who is compelled by the importance of the industry and the business.
Those business owners who are familiar with me know the degree to which I have dug into getting to know local station owners and understand and push an agenda that is going to allow for their ability to innovate, while preserving their ability to maintain a terrestrial signal that’s unique in this media landscape because it’s local and it’s free.
I am in it because of the belief I have in the value of this industry. It has just been demonstrated doubly over the course of the events of the last year. I’m someone who’s not new to any of this, and look forward and am very proud to lead the industry.
Curtis LeGeyt received his J.D. from Cornell University Law School and his B.A. in quantitative economics from Providence College. He began his career as a management consultant for Putnam Associates and worked on the staff of the 2008 Obama For America presidential campaign.
He is a former associate at Howrey LLP, a law firm in Washington, where he worked on antitrust litigation and merger reviews.
Before NAB, LeGeyt was senior counsel to then-Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont, advising Leahy and the committee on intellectual property, antitrust and First Amendment issues.
As chief operating officer of NAB, LeGeyt is involved in all aspects of the association’s work. He was executive vice president of government relations before being named to his current position in 2020. He is also general counsel for the NAB Leadership Foundation.
NAB said that during his tenure he has led successful efforts including permanent reauthorization of the Satellite Television Extension and Localism Act Reauthorization, inclusion of $1 billion in RAY BAUM’s Act to reimburse stations affected by the spectrum auction repack, and successful passage of the Music Modernization Act.
LeGeyt is on the boards of Tracy’s Kids, a nonprofit helping children with cancer, and Musicians On Call, an organization that uses music to help at children’s hospitals and elsewhere. He is an alum of Leadership Music, a Nashville-based program that fosters community and collaboration among music industry leaders.
He lives in Alexandria, Va., with his wife Kacey and their three children.