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Q&A: NAB’s Gordon Smith

“Just because we’re innovating how we deliver our content doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten who we are”

This story first appeared in Radio World’s sister publication TV Technology.

WASHINGTON—Two-term Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith stepped in to lead the National Association of Broadcasters as president and CEO in late 2009, and has since become known for his deliberate, measured and non-confrontational approach. In addition to his tenures on Capitol Hill, Smith is co-owner of a major frozen foods business as well as a published author. His book, “Remembering Garrett: One Family’s Battle with a Child’s Depression,” relates the story of the Smith family’s personal experience with suicide, and reveals the motivation behind Sen. Smith’s efforts to elevate awareness about mental illness and depression through the power of media.

Gordon Smith

Smith answered questions from RW’s sister publication TV Technology about the NAB Show, his views on technology and policy, and the role of broadcasting in the culture and democracy, touching on both TV and radio issues.

TV Technology:How many NAB Shows does this make for you as president & CEO?
Smith: This was my seventh NAB Show.

Did youattend the Show before taking over the organization?
Smith: I served on the Senate Commerce Committee during my two terms representing the state of Oregon and became very familiar with the many issues impacting broadcasters. I always viewed NAB as one of the pre-eminent trade associations in Washington, but unfortunately I never made it to NAB Show.

TVT: What was the most exciting technological development you have seen at an NAB Show, including this year’s?
Smith: I’m always amazed by the displays showing crystal-clear pictures delivered using 4K, UHD and high dynamic range technology. I firmly believe consumer demand will continue to grow as more viewers experience this amazing picture quality.

TVT: Was there one moment more than any other in your tenure that you felt a profound sense of community at the NAB Show?
Smith: A few years ago, we came to the show after recently fighting back an attempt by the record industry to get Congress to pass a performance royalty bill on local radio. The bill had passed the House Judiciary Committee and had support from the Speaker of the House.
We put together an ad campaign and convinced our television members to join the fight and run the ads along with our radio members. Those combined efforts managed to swing the tide in the fight and we defeated that bill.
That was a testament to the power of broadcasters when all our oars pulling in the same direction. We’ve since has similar success with an ad campaign regarding the retrans fight and the STELAR bill, with our radio members assisting TV broadcasters in reminding members of Congress about the importance of free and local television.

TVT: In terms of technological development, what did you see as the overarching themes of the show this year?
Smith: Next-gen television has been in development for years, but I think it became a reality at this year’s NAB Show. We also saw exciting developments in virtual and augmented reality capabilities that create astonishing immersive experiences for consumers; while sophisticated advertising technology is offering a broader range of targeting opportunities for content owners and distributors. And drones were back, empowering content creators with a variety of applications from filmmaking to newsgathering.

TVT: What are some examples of these themes?
Smith: Just before the show, we announced a petition was filed by NAB, along with consumer electronics, public safety and public television advocates, asking the FCC to approve a next-gen TV standard for those who voluntarily choose to adopt it. (See, “FCC Puts ATSC 3.0 Out for Comment,” April 27.)
At the Futures Park exhibit, we present a wide variety of ATSC 3.0-related demos—most shown for the first time anywhere—including live transmissions using the next-gen TV standard. The ATSC 3.0 Consumer Experience showcased exciting offerings on the consumer side.
NAB Show offered a deep dive into other emerging trends with a variety of new programs, conference sessions and exhibit areas including the new Kaleidoscope VR Showcase, Virtual Reality Production Summit, Advanced Advertising Theater and Aerial Robotics and Drone Pavilion.

TVT: Technology and policy have operated somewhat like church and state at the NAB Show. Do you see this changing?
Smith: We’ve certainly tried to showcase the intersection of technology and policy at the show. We saw some of that this year. Chairman Wheeler gave a shout-out to next-gen TV. Commissioner Pai moderated a panel about the post-incentive auction repack. Commissioner O’Rielly delivered a speech at a session on the set-top box issue.* Being at the show, the commissioners could also get a glimpse of advances in broadcast tech, such as next-gen TV.
It is true that technology tends to develop faster than public policy can keep up with, especially in such a divisive Congress, even though these issues aren’t partisan. That might be why there’s a perception that technology and policy are separated at NAB Show—the technology is more advanced than the current state of the policy. For example, we’re waiting on rules from the FAA on the use of drones and letting news outlets use them for newsgathering operations.

TVT: You delivered an impassioned keynote about the community service provided by local broadcasters, “not Google, not Apple, not Pandora, not cable or satellite.”
Were you aware of this dynamic when you served in the Senate?
Smith: I knew about broadcasters’ localism when I was in the Senate, but I gained a greater appreciation for the role broadcasters play in local communities after joining NAB. It’s easy for members of Congress and the FCC to take broadcasters for granted, since we’ve been serving our communities for decades. It’s not something you think about often because it happens on a day-to-day basis. That’s why I encourage broadcasters to reach out to lawmakers and make them aware of what they do day in and day out for our audiences.

TVT: How would you assess the rate of awareness among current lawmakers with regard to this dynamic?
Smith: There is a challenge to making sure lawmakers are aware of broadcasters’ importance with the turnover in Congress every election cycle. We’re also competing for attention with new online services—they’re the shiny new toy, while we’re a legacy service that has been around for a century. That’s why grassroots advocacy is so important for broadcasters. It’s how policymakers understand that while everyone wants what we have, they don’t want to do what we do. We are the only free and local service serving their constituents.

TVT: You have a personal interest in the power of the Public Service Announcements carried by broadcasters. Is there evidence PSAs have the impact intended?
Smith: NAB distributes radio and television PSAs on more than 150 topics via NAB Spot Center. Many of these PSAs, including the National Park Foundation’s “Find Your Park” and Disabled American Veterans’ “Promise” and “Victories” campaigns, have become nationally recognizable due to hundreds of thousands of airings across the country.
For the last 30 years, NAB’s Congressional PSA campaign has been a powerful tool for members and their families to reach their constituents with positive messages on issues that include mental health awareness, cancer prevention and support for returning troops. In 2015, 307 members of Congress and their families filmed more than 550 PSAs. The PSAs aired 170,000 times on television from July to December 2015.
NAB also spearheaded the “OK2Talk” mental health awareness PSA campaign, which launched July 23, 2013. The radio and television spots ran more than 231,000 times in 2013, which amounts to a generous donation of $26.4 million in airtime from broadcasters.

TVT: Do you see these types of outreach efforts as effectively propagated across other media platforms?
Smith: NAB launched on Tumblr in order to engage teens and young adults. In the first five months of the campaign, the online community received 713,000 page views and nearly 20,000 followers. Most importantly, the site received more than 64,000 clicks on the “Get Help” button, which takes visitors to and suicide prevention resources.
Many of the nonprofit organizations that are featured on NAB Spot Center effectively use social media channels in their campaigns. For example, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recently launched a new radio and TV PSA campaign with a heavy tie-in to YouTube, as their channel provides a platform to share individual videos on missing children.
Local radio and television stations serve their communities in a variety of ways, using their airwaves and digital platforms to provide lifeline emergency information, public affairs programing, host political debates and raise money for charities.

TVT: In your NAB keynote, you said, “Lately, some at the FCC have been so enamored with mobile broadband and Silicon Valley that the commission’s policy choices have unwittingly put us on an unnecessary collision course toward two Americas—one where the video future is available to those who can afford to pay, and one where they cannot.” What, in your opinion, would be the ultimate impact of the current direction of communications policy on democracy?
Smith: I don’t believe the FCC is intentionally prioritizing broadband policy at the expense of broadcasting. It is easy to get distracted by the advances being made in Silicon Valley and forget about the importance of broadcasting.
[Former NAB CEO] Eddie Fritts once gave a speech at NAB Show in which he said that if broadcasting was invented today, lawmakers and the FCC would be declaring it a miracle technology. I think that continues to be true. We are free, we are local, and we are accessible throughout entire communities. When a storm is approaching, are you going to learn about it from YouTube or Pandora? Can you access Netflix or Sirius XM without a subscription? When an emergency strikes, will your phone network stay on the air or become congested? Broadcasting fulfills all these needs—we should make sure it stays that way.

TVT: Can and/or will technology erase socioeconomic barriers to access of information and related opportunities?
Smith: Possibly, but I think what we’re seeing right now is a growing gap between the Haves and the Have-Nots because of technology. There are often times nowadays when costs are too high for consumers, particularly low-income families who are most vulnerable. Wireless carriers are billing by the bit. Monthly cable and satellite bills are nickel-and-diming subscribers. Some companies have been accused of redlining and refusing to build out their services in poorer neighborhoods. Anytime there is a charge for access, there will always be barriers to information. This is why it is important that we preserve broadcasting and maintain a place for free and local audio and video services.

TVT: The NAB has petitioned the FCC to allow voluntary deployment of ATSC 3.0, which is now out for comment. What is the next step going forward?
Smith: We’re going to be working to get the FCC to endorse next-gen TV. I have to give tremendous credit to Chairman Wheeler and the FCC, which quickly put out our petition for comment by the end of April.
Currently, there is only one part of one layer of the next-gen TV standard that has been approved. The members of ATSC are busy developing the rest of those to fill out the details of the standard.

TVT: Will the NAB formally endorse ATSC 3.0?
Smith: Filing the petition with the FCC was our endorsement of next-gen TV. We were glad to also have the support of TV manufacturers through CTA [Consumer Technology Association] public broadcasters and public safety advocates. We continue to support a voluntary approach to the standard and believe it should be up to individual stations and groups about whether they want to implement it.

TVT: What impact, in your opinion, can the advanced emergency alert functions enabled by ATSC 3.0 have in a community in times of crisis?
Smith: I think viewers are going to benefit tremendously from the advanced alerting functions of next-gen TV. With the developments made through AWARN, I expect broadcasters’ role as “first informers” will be greatly enhanced.**
With the ability to “wake-up” devices that are off, the new standard can help get alerts to people who are unaware of approaching danger. For instance, if a tornado is approaching in the middle of the night, the standard could give people time to seek shelter.
The standard also permits broadcasting multimedia features during emergencies, such as maps, videos, evacuation routes and webpages when other communications may be down or congested. Multiple alerts in different languages can also be sent at the same time, so no one is left uninformed. The new standard also allows for geo-targeting, so warnings can be relegated to the areas in danger.

TVT: Is the definition of “broadcaster” changing? Could the NAB accept as members entities such as podcasters, Vimeo or even YouTube?
Smith: This is not your parents’ broadcast business. We’re moving onto different platforms, not just the TV and radio. But just because we’re innovating how we deliver our content doesn’t mean we’ve forgotten who we are.
NAB represents licensed radio and television stations that serve the public interest. We have responsibilities, legal and moral, to serve our local communities, and we continue to broadcast our signal for free. No one else does that.
However, we do have opportunities to work with different businesses under the NAB name. We have associate members who aren’t in the broadcast business. We have also partnered with different industries through PILOT. [Formerly NAB Labs.]

TVT: The in-car dashboard media environment has already changed greatly thanks to smartphones and proliferating digital choices; now radio broadcasters are wondering what might come next, and even if self-driving vehicles will hurt their business model long-term. What do you think? And what might that mean for video providers?
Smith: We want to be the dominant player on the dashboard and we’re still the most-desired audio function for consumers on the dashboard. At the same time, we recognize the car is undergoing tremendous change that provides challenges and opportunities. I think one way we address this is by being on as many platforms as possible. By making our service ubiquitous, we maintain our primacy.
We’re working hard to get the wireless industry to activate radio chips in all cellphones. We’ve made progress with AT&T and T-Mobile announcing they’re joining Sprint in this but Verizon and Apple have been resistant. NAB recently secured more affordable streaming rates for stations that want to put their signal online. The AM revitalization proceeding is continuing to be explored at the FCC, and we are engaged with stakeholders so that this important service does not disappear forever.

Why is the NAB Show a week later in April yet again next year? Is this related to the cycle of demands in Washington, D.C.?
Smith: NAB Show dates are set based on space availability in Las Vegas and the timing of spring holidays.

* Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, FCC Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly.

** AWARN, Advanced Warning and Response Network. See “NAB 2016: Sinclair, LG Test ATSC 3.0 AWARN,” April 18, 2016.

“Remembering Garrett: One Family’s Battle with a Child’s Depression,” is available on Amazon.