With the ouster of David Rehr this week, NAB must now find a new leader. I hope it has learned something from the unsuccessful Rehr tenure and will search carefully to find that someone who, regardless of party, can build relationship with those handful of key players, plot political strategy and rally the industry when needed.
With broadcasting suffering through the worse economic times in its history and Washington threatening even more trouble, its principal lobby is suddenly without a leader.
On Wednesday, David Rehr resigned as NAB president after being told that he no longer enjoyed the confidence of the board. The announcement brought to an abrupt end to Rehr’s tumultuous three-plus years in the $800,000-a-year job.
While the board scrambles to find a replacement, Janet McGregor, NAB’s chief operating officer and CFO, who joined the NAB just last year, will run the place.
McGregor might be an excellent administrator, but she is no lobbyist. She cannot do what the NAB president should be able to do — make things happen on Capitol Hill and at the FCC.
That’s unfortunate because things are getting a little dicey in Washington right now.
Congress is weighing one measure that could seriously undermine the ability of TV stations to negotiate for retrans fees from cable operators and another that could force radio stations to pay hefty music royalties to record labels for the first time. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake.
Meanwhile, there are rumors that Michael Copps wants to make his mark as interim FCC chairman by rushing through new local programming requirements on TV stations before the Senate confirms Julius Genachowski as the new permanent chairman.
What went wrong?
To be president and lobbyist-in-chief of the NAB, you have to have good personal relationships with the handful of lawmakers and regulators that govern TV and radio: the chairmen and senior minority members of the congressional committees that oversee communications policy and the five FCC commissioners.
If possible, you also want some close contacts in the House and Senate leadership and at the White House.
You need such relationships so that you are always assured a place in the room when policy is being developed and when the deal-making begins.
The word on David Rehr around Washington was that even after three years he didn’t have the relationships he needed and that, more than anything else, led to his forced resignation.
“His style was not one that I was comfortable with,” Russ Withers, a former NAB radio board chairman and longtime Rehr critic told TVNewsCheck Correspondent Kim McAvoy. “Washington is not a pen pal town. It is a personal relationship town. I don’t think David ever got that.”
Others, unwilling to go on the record, agree, and it’s perplexing. Rehr is hardworking, smart, open and engaging. But somehow he couldn’t apply those attributes to befriending politicians or repairing damaged relationships.
It does take an extraordinary commitment. The most successful lobbyists live the job. They are on 24/7. Their professional and social lives are one. They look for every possible opportunity to spend quality time with the policymakers — whether that’s in their offices or at fundraisers, receptions, black ties, weekend BBQs, duck hunts, whatever. They show up early and leave late.
Woody Allen once said 80 percent of success is showing up. That’s particularly true in Washington.
Perhaps Rehr felt he could delegate the chief lobbyist’s job. If so, he had to make sure he had strong lieutenants. For much of his tenure, he did not.
Until July 2007, Doug Wiley was Rehr’s point man on the Hill and until December 2008 Marsha MacBride was the designated rep at the FCC.
Neither proved effective. In fact, I’m told that MacBride had somehow antagonized FCC Chairman Kevin Martin when she worked at the FCC and that she could barely get an audience with him. Both Wiley and MacBride were eventually shown the door.
Rehr belongs to the wrong party. He is a Republican in an increasingly Democratic Washington world and not just any Republican. While running the National Beer Wholesalers Association prior to joining NAB, he built his reputation on Capitol Hill as an ally of then House Majority Leader Tom Delay, a virulently partisan Republican who is remembered bitterly by the people now running things.
Rehr could have overcome the Delay ties by endearing himself to the Democrats as they took charge. But, as I said, it just wasn’t in him.
Other Rehr critics say that he was sometimes politically tone deaf, distracted by costly logos and other cosmetics and obsessed with the notion that you could turn around a political contest by changing the language of the debate. Just call it “anti-stripping” rather than “must carry.”
If 80 percent of political success is showing up, the other 20 percent must be money.
Rehr came in promising to spread more money around on Capitol Hill. He did boost PAC spending by 20 percent, but I doubt that it was enough to make a material difference. And, needless to say, writing checks is a dubious strategy for an industry that’s supposed to be a watchdog on that kind of thing.
The other complaint I’ve heard about Rehr is that he wasn’t good at rallying the other broadcast lobbyists and lawyers in Washington around a cause on either a regular or an ad hoc basis. By failing to do so, he often went into battle without all his weapons.
The consequences of all this is that the Rehr NAB was not been the lobbying force it should have been. It suffered some big losses, failing to block the XM-Sirius merger to the detriment of radio and the FCC’s white spaces initiative to the detriment of TV.
It also watched as the Martin FCC turned on broadcasting, mandating DTV awareness PSAs, imposing a rigorous quarterly programming disclosure regime and launching a rulemaking that may result in local programming quotas and stiff ascertainment requirements.
The best you can say is that it might have been worse without the NAB’s engagement.
And the Rehr NAB was all defense, no offense. TV broadcasters wanted multicast must-carry and some relief on local ownership restrictions. Such benefits were beyond the NAB’s means to deliver.
For the record, Rehr’s years were not a total bust. He was a good spokesman for the industry. Last month, I saw him give a convincing speech before financial types in New York in which he argued that broadcasting was not only in fine shape, but on the verge of a renaissance.
Significantly, Rehr championed efforts to bring about that renaissance, pushing for FM receivers in cell phones and funding development of the mobile DTV standard.
And he will also be remembered for the NAB’s DTV awareness campaign. Nobody can say that the broadcasters didn’t do their part in easing millions of America from analog to digital.
Who’s to blame?
Rehr himself, of course. He’s a big boy who was pulling a big salary.
But you can also point to the Television Operators Caucus, the clique of major TV station group executives that places its members in key positions on the NAB board and exercises undue control over the association.
It was the TOC that chased away Eddie Fritts in 2005, despite his 22 years of experience as NAB president and the kinds of political connections that still makes him an effective hired-gun lobbyist today. That he is a Republican hardly makes a difference.
The TOC thought the broadcast networks were the enemy and that Fritts was too close to the networks. In truth, the broadcasters’ enemies then and now are cable and overzealous regulators.
And the TOC that was instrumental in hiring Rehr in October 2005, even though his patron, Tom Delay, had already been indicted on ethics charges and clearly was on his way out of Washington.
The TOC can’t be faulted completely for its role in hiring Rehr. He had a solid resume and clippings and made a great first impression. Other than the Delay connection, he had no obvious liabilities.
And remember, at the time of the hire, Rehr’s political background was an asset. Republican power in Washington was still near its zenith.
Ironically, it was also the TOC that started to movement to oust him. According to our reporting this week, TOC put him on double-secret probation last fall after concluding that he didn’t have the personal clout he needed and that it was only going to get worse with Obama on his way in and more liberal Democrats taking over Congress.
As we reported earlier this week, TOC members reportedly met informally with at least two Washington insiders over the last few months to gauge their interest in the job. One of them, we believe, was Antoinette Cook Bush, a well-respected Democratic lawyer/lobbyist with a Hill background. She apparently wasn’t interested. (Bush could not be reached for comment.)
Rehr must have been aware of the TOC’s displeasure and of its efforts to find a replacement, which couldn’t have helped his confidence or motivation. And to the extent that others were, they made him a lame duck and undermined his ability to function in Washington.
The NAB board has appointed past joint board chairman Bruce Reese to head a search committee, but that’s rather discouraging news when you think about it. It confirms that the board has no one in the wings and that the NAB will have to muddle through for several months while the committee finds, vets and hires a new boss.
The search committee will have no lack of applicants. Despite its diminishing clout, the NAB is still a prestige job that comes with a lot of money. The job will culminate a career for somebody.
The NAB could turn to Marty Franks, the longtime CBS executive. He’s a Democrat, he’s politically savvy and connected in ways that Rehr could only dream about. He wanted the job in 2005, but, having been rejected then, he may no longer be interested. I’d give him a call.
Another possibility is Steve Newberry, a radio broadcaster in Kentucky who is in line to be the next joint board chairman of the NAB later this year. He’s a Democrat who likes politics. Last year, he ran unsuccessfully for the state senate and his brother, Jim, is mayor of Lexington, Ky.
In fact, as incoming joint board chairman, Newberry could play a large role in running the NAB until a new president is named.
During the interregnum, NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton says not to worry.
Rehr is leaving behind solid professionals to rep the NAB on Capitol Hill and at the FCC, Laurie Knight and Jane Mago, the successors to Wiley and MacBride.
Plus, he points out, much of NAB’s clout has always come from the “grassroots” — individual broadcasters working in their congressional districts and active state broadcast association. “We’re confident that NAB will be successful.”
So, the NAB gets a do-over.
Having learned from the Rehr experience, the search committee can look over the field and find that someone who, regardless of party, can build relationship with those handful of key players, plot political strategy and rally the industry when needed.
Here’s hoping that it comes up with a strong individual with enough confidence and know how to lead the board rather than be led by it as Rehr was.
It can be done, but there are skeptics.
Says Tribune lobbyist Shaun Sheehan: “If the search committee is the same crowd that ran off Eddie … and replaced him with a second-tier operative as they did the last time, a difficult job becomes almost impossible.”
Harry A. Jessell is Editor of TVNewsCheck. You may contact him at [email protected].