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Gordon Smith, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, has had to guide the industry group through turbulent regulatory seas and has done so with a firm, collegial hand on the tiller.
Smith joined the association in fall 2009, a few months after the broadcasting business had been remade via the DTV transition, and as the FCC began contemplating the second remake — the broadcast incentive auction and post-auction repack. Broadcasters needed some calm amidst the business storm.
Smith, a two-term moderate Senate Republican who had good relationships with Democrats, started at the NAB as the Obama Administration put down roots for an eight-year stay. As a member of the Senate Commerce and Finance Committees, he knew all the broadcast issues, including fighting for more money and time for the analog-to-digital transition and its converter box program, and pushing for technology to protect those new digital broadcasts from pirates. He was also tapped into new-media issues as former chair of the Senate’s high-tech task force.
He would need all those skills as broadcasters battled multichannel video programming distributors over retransmission consent and settled into new digital transmissions: Smith was named to the post a scant three months after TV stations pulled the plug on analog.
Smith has had to guide broadcasters through arguably an even greater transition. First came the spectrum auction, and now the repack of most of 1,000 stations to new channels through a Gordian knot-meets-Rubik’s Cube combination of moves and sharing arrangements, technology add-ons and upgrades.
But wait, there’s more. Broadcasters are also revving their engines on a new interactive transmission standard, ATSC 3.0, that promises to give them a bigger share of the digital future, from online shopping and pay-per-view to helping wireless carriers move their signals around, making TV stations part of the broadcast and broadband future.
In a city of divisive rhetoric and political infighting, Smith has successfully remained above that fray to the benefit of his members, who have rewarded him with yet another contract extension, this time through 2023. One D.C. policy watcher described the extension as a “wow” moment for its duration.
Asked what he thought of as his accomplishments, Smith said, “I think NAB enjoys greater unity amongst our members now than when I came onboard. It makes us stronger as an advocacy organization when all our oars are pulling in the same direction.
“I’m also proud that we’ve changed the perception in Washington that NAB is the ‘House of No’ into an organization that is willing to talk and listen.”
Former senior FCC Republican commissioner Robert McDowell agreed with the view. “Gordon is perhaps the easiest-going and most gentlemanly trade association head there is. He’s also highly effective. That combination is rare in this town.”
The NAB has also embraced a technology agenda to help its members prepare for the future, Smith said. "We know that we must be on every platform to compete in the 21st century. That’s why NAB and PILOT [program, an outgrowth of the agency’s innovation arm meant to foster broadcast technology innovation] have been involved in NextRadio; streaming, in-car audio; and Next Gen TV.”
Not that Smith’s NAB isn’t above baring its knuckles to fight hard for broadcasters, whether pushing a decision on ATSC 3.0, trying to make sure broadcasters are fully compensated for their repack moves, or getting the FCC to recognize that broadcasters are being hamstrung by decades-old regulations while their competitors have a relatively free, or at least freer, hand to broaden their reach and impact.
Smith concedes as much, warning not to mistake a willingness to listen for “a willingness to cave on the issues. Talking doesn’t equal agreement. It evidences good faith in trying to find a common ground.”
Smith has used his NAB bully pulpit to turn personal tragedy — the loss of a son to suicide — into positive action in support of mental health, an issue the NAB has made its own along with, more recently, the growing opioid crisis.
Asked who helped him along the way, Smith cites his wife, Sharon, who has stood at his side to represent the industry, “whether it’s at the NAB Show, or working with lawmakers, or at events such as the B&C Hall of Fame.”
He also cites NAB’s “talented team” and the NAB members and board members. “NAB can have the most talented team, but if our grassroots don’t get engaged on the issue, we’re not effective.”
Smith came to the job talking of broadcasting as a “higher calling.” That opinion has only been reinforced by recent events. “Just look at the role local radio and TV stations played as ‘first informers’ during [Hurricanes] Harvey and Irma,” Smith said. “We aren’t selling the latest widget or a faster internet connection. Our business is public service.”
Smith has provided his own service to the broadcast community by fighting to keep those principles alive and on display to those who control the industry’s regulatory future.
Just ask Jordan Wertlieb, chairman of the NAB Television Board and president of Hearst Television.
“Gordon has provided exceptional, statesmanlike leadership of our industry,” he said. “In an environment where consensus is difficult to achieve, under Gordon’s leadership the NAB continues to build bipartisan support for the important work of local broadcasters and their mission of community service.”
Smith said he is humbled to be included among those who have written the history of radio and television, then added: “It makes me proud to be a broadcaster.”
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Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.