Mr. Smith Hits His Stride

Though it’s been 15 months since he became president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, former Sen. Gordon Smith only just got his shackles taken off.

And now that he’s free of the legal restrictions that keep former members of Congress from lobbying their old colleagues for a  time, Capitol Hill just got its first real taste of how formidable the broadcast lobby can be under his leadership.

Last week, Smith—a calm, congenial man with a ready smile—was able to hit the halls of Congress with a show of his influence in tow: 600 of his organization’s local broadcast general managers and executives, in town for the NAB’s annual State Leadership Conference, a two-day affair where broadcasters review political strategy and then lobby their local representatives.

As the picture for traditional radio and TV has grown dimmer, broadcasters have needed a new champion on the Hill. They may have found one in Smith, which is the reason they were willing to hire him in 2009, knowing they’d have to wait a year before he could do any real lobbying. A Republican (he’s quick to qualify that description with “moderate”) who represented Oregon in the Senate for two terms before losing a bid for reelection in 2008, Smith came to the job with some solid connections, both from his time in Congress and because he’s related to the Udalls, a powerful political family, mostly made up of Democrats.

Maybe just as important as those connections, though, is his willingness—and ability—to work with everyone regardless of party, and to seek compromise.

“I want us to be the organization of engagement, to be at the table,” Smith said. “My perception of broadcasters when I was on the other side of the table was that broadcasters were the organization of ‘no.’ I have seen so many interest groups believe that giving an inch of ground was giving away the whole football field.”

It helps that Smith still has friends on the Hill, on both sides of the aisle, and many of them have sway over the issues that matter to broadcasters. Take, for example, two speakers who addressed broadcasters last week: Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., the powerful chairman of the House Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over broadcast matters, and Smith’s cousin, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., a member of the Senate Commerce Committee.

It’s that personal part of what he does that makes Smith tick. Really, sitting with him, it’s hard to imagine that the man has any enemies, even after a fairly lengthy political career.

Smith’s style has already had an effect on the way his organization does business. Last summer, for the first time, the NAB sat down the music industry and began to hammer out a compromise on radio performance royalties. Instead of coming out against the creation of more low power FM stations, which don’t compete with commercial radio, but have traditionally been opposed by the industry anyway, Smith worked on making sure the low-power stations’ signals didn’t cause interference with commercial stations.

These days, not many people are so willing to cross the aisle, or to compromise at all. But it’s in Smith’s blood—literally. As he said, “When you have a father who worked for Eisenhower and a mother whose maiden name was Udall, it’s easy to form a bipartisan coalition.”