WASHINGTON Gordon Smith, former U.S. senator from Oregon, is on the job at the National Association of Broadcasters as its president and chief executive officer.
Smith's family owns a frozen food business in Oregon but he is a creature of Washington, having moved here when he was two years old after his father joined Dwight Eisenhower's presidential staff. His cousin Stewart Udall was secretary of the interior under John F. Kennedy.
Smith was elected to the Senate in 1997 and served on the Commerce Committee while the Federal Communications Commission was implementing the Telecom Act, meaning he is probably more familiar than many legislators with how that landmark legislation affected broadcasters as well as wired and wireless carriers.
Photos courtesy NAB Broadcasters chose Smith, a Republican, to lead them at a time when Democrats hold more of the power cards at the White House, in Congress and at the FCC. He must encompass the disparate interests of TV and radio in both large and small markets; he must steady the course of a trade association that represents a mature industry, and lead the NAB and its broadcast members at a time when many members are worried about their business models and their very future.
Radio World News Editor/Washington Bureau Chief Leslie Stimson spoke with Smith in early November. Though still settling into his new gig, it's clear Smith is at ease with the press.
RW: Since we spoke at the NAB Radio Show in Philadelphia, how are things going for you now that you're in the job?
Smith: As I speak to you, this is my one-week anniversary. For the last week, every morning I've been singing in the shower.
RW: So you're settling in, you're enjoying it …
Smith: I'm loving it.
RW: Has anything surprised you so far?
Smith: Yeah, a bunch of things have surprised me that I probably can't speak publicly about.
RW: What issue has station owners told you they most want NAB to work on?
Smith: The whole performance royalty issue is centermost in their minds.
The larger issue, for me, that encapsulates that is creating a regulatory and legislative environment that allows radio to continue its great service to the American people. That is what has sadly slipped away over the years.
RW: An environment in which regulators make things easier for them?
Smith: I think the values that the public airwaves provide the American people through the medium of radio are values that are valuable still. I think that that has been forgotten by too many in Washington.
RW: A letter that came out of the leadership of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees invited you to appear before Congress and take part in talks designed to settle the performance rights issue before the bills hit the floors of both houses. This interview won't reach readers for a few weeks but speaking generally, is NAB committed to not negotiating on performance rights? Or would you sit down with musicFirst?
Smith: We've been asked by prominent members of Congress to show up and it would be an affront to Congress not to show. The words of John F. Kennedy come to mind: "Never fear to negotiate, but never negotiate from fear."
I'm not afraid to talk to anyone about the cause and value of radio and how some of the proposals being put forth are very shortsighted and ultimately counter-productive to the larger interests of the American people.
RW: At the Radio Show you were talking to us about the lobbying restrictions that you're under for another 12 months or so …
Smith: That raises a question. In asking me to appear at this meeting, can they waive the ethics law? I don't have an answer to that. So my answer to these members is, "Sure, I'd love to come, but can I? Can you give me a waiver?" I don't know the answer to that, but they'll have to find that for me.
RW: So you've asked them that?
Smith: That is a letter we are transmitting to them as we speak.
RW: Other than the performance rights issue, have those restrictions affected your ability to do your job at all?
Smith: Not at all. Because it's very important for me to observe the letter of the law and I do. At the same time, those restrictions don't apply as to the FCC, where a whole lot of the action takes place. We have a wonderful government affairs shop here at NAB. I work with them every day to make sure they know the hows and ways and words that are necessary to advance our case.
RW: How are you finding the Julius Genachowski-led FCC? How do you think that's going?
Smith: [At the end of October] I met with each of the commissioners, including Chairman Genachowski. They were, for the most part, just introductory meetings designed to get off on the right foot with each commissioner and as a regulatory body. They were all very favorable and very friendly.
RW: How do you think NAB is being perceived, either at the FCC or on the Hill right now? We talked about this a little at the radio show. Is NAB still considered a strong lobbying force?
Smith: I think the answer is "yes," but we can be stronger still. When you can sign up a majority of the House of Representatives on a resolution, that suggests that members of Congress know that we represent family wage jobs at home and we provide a service to their constituents in terms of news, sports, weather and entertainment that is of great value to the quality of life of their constituents.
RW: How would you describe your lobbying style, personally? I've heard you described as low key, with an ability to reach across the aisle on difficult issues.
Smith: I've never lobbied before so I don't know what my style is. But you describe well my style as a senator, and I think that the most valuable quality in any human relationship is genuineness and truthfulness. And I think my colleagues knew me for both of those qualities, and I expect to manifest those qualities on behalf of NAB.
RW: Switching gears to some technical questions: David Rehr joined with Jeff Haley and Jeff Smulyan in trying to persuade wireless carriers to include FM radio in cell phones. Are you involved in that, and if so, how is that going?
Smith: It's going very well; and I think that was work that was well begun and we're seeing the fruits of that effort already springing up with the Apple announcement that they were going to include this in their new iPod. It is in the new iPod the Nano and there is the further thought, we have heard from industry sources, that our iPhones, of which I'm a possessor, have a radio chip in them that simply must be activated with further software upgrades.
I think that it would be a competitive advantage for Apple, and when Apple does it, I think it's only a matter of time until the marketplace moves other device manufacturers to follow suit.
RW: Have you had a chance to tell Apple that?
Smith: Just through the media. That's why we're talking to you!
I flagged this in my first public announcements and I have reason to believe they read the papers, too.
RW: iSuppli, a company that does device teardowns, had an item about radio being in Apple devices that we wrote about this summer. Now it's gaining steam.
Smith: This is a huge breakthrough for radio because literally, I would predict in the near future, your telephone will soon be more than a telephone — in addition to what it already is, which is a texting device, an e-mail device and a miniature computer. It will also be a radio and a mobile TV.
RW: Which is all good …
Smith: It's all good and it opens to broadcasting a very bright future, again.
RW: I was looking at the public comments filed at the FCC on the Minority Media Telecommunications Council "Radio Rescue Petition." The MMTC has 17 proposals, mostly technical items, to help radio. NAB supported a lot of their ideas, but one idea NAB didn't support is the idea of re-purposing analog TV Channel 5 and 6 for radio. I'm wondering, is that set in stone or could NAB change its mind when TV gets through its digital transition?
Smith: TV stations are currently occupying that spectrum and would have to vacate in order to free it up for radio stations. My understanding is that the NAB board studied this issue and does not support that idea. [Your question] is not a bad way to characterize it, though the way I would put it is: Some of my friends are for it and some of my friends are against it; and I'm with my friends.
Gordon Smith in his Senate days. RW: The friends who pay the higher dues?
Smith: I think the best way to put it is this is an issue that is evolving, and, in the fullness of time, it will be resolved. But it's the kind of thing best done quietly and with technology.
RW: This is based on an earlier petition filed a year ago by a group of mostly engineers. They want to extend the FM band, put LPFMs down there, make more space for AMs to migrate there, it's a big, complicated plan, but parts of it may work.
Smith: I just think there's more to learn, there's more technology to bring to bear; and time will resolve this better than the NAB playing referee.
RW: In discussions of radio getting on different devices, we're talking about FM. Engineers have said to me it's harder to do AM, period, and to get an AM antenna into a small, portable device — an AM antenna that would work well; and that putting AM into these devices would be more expensive and a hassle for device-makers. Given these obstacles, what is NAB doing to help AM stations?
Smith: Obviously we want AM, too. By getting a toehold with FM, it provides a way to step up in time to be helpful to AM as well. So it's not AM or FM, it's both.
But it's broadcasting, and sometimes you have to start at the first rung of the ladder before you get to the second. In this case it's FM that leads to the second step of AM.
RW: So FM may be a toehold for AM at some point?
RW: Do you plan to go to the CES show?
RW: What will you look at there? Obviously HD Radio receivers are of interest, but what radio devices are you interested in looking at there?
Smith: Whatever they've got available for me to learn about and to help broadcast get into the stream of commerce. But I want to go to their show so that I can emphasize the importance of the NAB Show.
RW: Former NAB President/CEO David Rehr said to me last year, and I'm paraphrasing: "Attendees look at CES, but they buy at NAB."
Smith: There may be some truth in that. We see these different shows as having different niches, but they all sort of work into one, larger good.
RW: So you're going to talk to people about radio. Is that another opportunity to talk to cell phone carriers …
Smith: Without a doubt.
RW: Say you're in an elevator with a complete stranger. If you had to describe radio in 30 seconds what would you say?
Smith: I would just say it's free, its content quality. It's ubiquitous, it's part of living in the information age as informed citizens.
RW: So still relevant, radio has a bright future…
When you drive to work, what do you do? In my case, I turn on the radio. So think about taking that away from people's lives. Whether you like talk or whether you like music or whether you like news channels, sports.
You know, what happened to the Terps last night? You get that from radio, if you really want to be up with the latest and the greatest.