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Like many small-market broadcasters, Roger Moody is no stranger to the problems his industry faces. His channel, KLKN-TV in Lincoln, Neb., is mostly watched by farmers. And that’s what fuels his biggest concern as vice president and general manager: finding young people to join and ultimately stay at his 10-year-old station, just 50 miles west of Omaha. Though Lincoln is the state capital and home to financial and health care institutions, it is, obviously not the kind of metropolis that attracts the hip-hop crowd. Then there is the concern about taxes on advertising and other services and the federal effort to move the broadcast industry from analog to digital by 2009, which costs about $1.25 million per station, Moody estimates. Citadel Communications, KLKN-TV’s parent company, owns five stations. “That’s been a burden,” says Moody. The challenges for him and other broadcasters are endless. Although he works on the local level to secure some state concessions, the heavy lifting takes place in Washington, D.C., through the powerful National Association of Broadcasters. The trade group advocates on behalf of more than 8,000 radio and television stations around the country. At the helm of the venerable association is David Rehr, who celebrated his first year with the NAB last week. Association members such as Moody have praised Rehr’s style, particularly his service-oriented approach. “He’s gotten in there and stirred things up,” says Moody. “They keep us very well informed. He’s a younger guy and has brought a breath of fresh air and a new attitude.” Adds David Glass, vice president and director of broadcasting for Findlay Publishing Co. in Ohio: “I met him when I was in Dallas and I had sent him an e-mail and heard back from him within three hours. He gave me his personal cell phone. I’m just a small-time radio guy.” But not all the reviews are glowing. At a time when the industry is faced with a continuous flow of copyright issues and the prospect of 73 million television sets going dark in 2009 as a result of the transition to digital, Rehr, 47, is a novice to the broadcasting industry. And despite having been in Washington for 20 years, most recently as president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association, he has been criticized by some for his lobbying style, which has been characterized as overly aggressive and lacking in nuance. He has drawn the ire of critics who refer to him as not only partisan but even a bully. “Rehr has a reputation as being more partisan than his predecessors,” says Andrew Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a nonprofit telecommunications law firm. “He comes out of this Tom DeLay community,” Schwartzman says of Rehr’s connection to the K Street culture during the Texas Republican’s time as House majority leader, “and has developed a hardball reputation at the Beer Wholesalers. He was selected by an NAB that wanted to be more aggressive. He’s carrying out a mandate. Whether that is a good mandate in light of subsequent electoral developments is a question to an answer which we will see.” Rehr’s supporters like his swagger. In fact, his personality was exactly what the association wanted when they nabbed him in December 2005. NAB board member Alan Frank says Rehr was selected to change the association’s culture and make it more proactive. “All change brings upon some criticism,” he says. “There are some things [Rehr is doing] I wouldn’t agree with and some things I would agree with, but the general picture — are we making the right decisions? — I feel strongly that NAB is a revitalized, new organization and that’s to David’s credit.” Rehr declined to comment for this story. Maybe it’s fitting that Rehr is praised for his attention to NAB members, because there have been few legislative triumphs in his short tenure. Instead, there have been a handful of government affairs missteps, lobbyists and Hill insiders say. And with challenges mounting for the broadcasting community, some have even questioned whether Rehr was the best choice. “Look, in your lobbying, you can’t just hit things over the head with a hammer,” says Shaun Sheehan, a vice president of Tribune Co., which owns 24 television stations. “You have to be a bit more sensitive. Instead, [with Rehr] you get the Beer Wholesalers approach: �You are with us or against us.’ “ THE LETTER THAT PUSHED THE ENVELOPE The whispers began last December with one of Rehr’s first orders of business — lending strong public support to the Republicans’ budget reconciliation measure. Historically, no matter which party is in power, the majority’s budget is often the most partisan legislation considered in Congress. In a letter sent to lawmakers, dated Dec. 18, 2005, Rehr stated that the NAB was making support for the bill a “key vote for the NAB” because of a provision tucked into the measure requiring broadcasters to cease their analog television signals by Feb. 18, 2009, thereby expediting the move to digital television. “This will be the only key vote for the NAB in 2005,” Rehr wrote. “Please be sure that your colleagues in the House are aware that this is a key vote for the NAB and especially local television stations. The final roll call vote will be distributed to our entire membership.” (The measure passed by a slim margin, with Vice President Dick Cheney stepping in for the tie-breaking vote in the Senate.) Democrats were incensed by the letter, saying that the scoring of their vote on a contentious piece of legislation they were not going to support in the first place was unfair. Most notable were Michigan’s John Dingell and Edward Markey of Massachusetts, who are now in line to chair two committees of importance to the NAB — the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, respectively. “That’s the first Dingell and Markey had heard from him, a fax,” says one Democratic Hill staffer. “You could chalk that up to a rookie mistake, but this isn’t a rookie mistake. This is why he was put there.” There was some initial congressional anger, admits Anthony Podesta, a Democratic lobbyist at PodestaMattoon who represents the NAB. But he says most Democrats have moved beyond their frustrations as Rehr continues to make Hill rounds. “He’s learned the history,” says Podesta. “It wasn’t immediately apparent, but I think that on Day 1 you never know enough.” That was a year ago. But lobbyists say Rehr did himself no favors with Republicans, either, when he declared good riddance to House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) after the Republicans lost power in the November midterm elections. “I think Mr. Dingell, frankly, is an improvement for us over Mr. Barton,” said Rehr (as reported in Multichannel News), in reference to the incoming Democratic chairman, adding that Barton is “a cable guy.” Shortly after the remark, rumors circulated on the Hill that the NAB was banned from the offices of Barton and Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), the outgoing speaker of the House, though Barton denies this. “I won’t comment on his comments, but we haven’t banned him,” Barton tells Legal Times. In addition, Rehr failed to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee this spring as it was beginning a major rewrite of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The bill included numerous provisions harmful to broadcasters, including a manager’s amendment that allowed cable companies to convert broadcast signals received during the digital transition back down to analog. Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was looking for support for his legislation, but because Rehr failed to testify, the committee felt snubbed and began piling on more harmful provisions to broadcasters. During the bill’s markup session, which drew so many people it was moved to the Hart Senate Office Building to accommodate the crowds and K Street players, Rehr was at a previous engagement at the Greenbrier, a five-star luxury golf resort in West Virginia. Eventually, the bill was shelved, but it collapsed over the net neutrality fight, not due to any NAB lobbying muscle. Several lobbyists say that Rehr was scared to sit in front of Stevens and take contrary positions to the powerful Alaskan. Some have compared him unfavorably with his predecessor, Eddie Fritts. “Point blank, if Eddie Fritts were running NAB, broadcast interest would have been in the Senate version,” says the Tribune Co.’s Sheehan. “He has long-standing relationships with [Sens. Daniel] Inouye [D-Hawaii] and Stevens. Those are relationships built up over years and predicated on trust. They just didn’t feel he [Rehr] was Eddie Fritts.” And as far as relationships with members in the House go, several sources confirm that Rep. Dingell described himself as “underwhelmed” after a recent meeting with Rehr. Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of media relations for the NAB, says that in retrospect, the association did not anticipate the budget reconciliation bill being a partisan flash point, adding that going forward, Rehr will not get caught up in partisan legislation. As far as characterizing Rehr as overly partisan, Wharton dismisses it as “silly.” “Dave has been a trade association president for 20 years in this town, and you have to reach out to friends on both sides of the aisle,” Wharton says. “He gets the fact that today’s ally might be tomorrow’s adversary.” Additionally, Wharton says Rehr prefers not to testify, choosing instead to have his members, more entrenched in the daily grind of the broadcast industry, speak before Congress. FROM BEER TO BROADBAND Rehr was first noticed in 1980 when he was a senior at St. John’s University in Minnesota by Vin Weber, a Republican who was mounting a maiden run for Congress. Weber took the senior to Washington. Rehr finished up his college degree in the capital while mingling with congressmen and senior-level government officials. “Republicans in St. Cloud [Minn.] said, �You have to get this kid,’ ” recalls Weber, who served in Congress for more than a decade and is now a managing partner at Clark & Weinstock’s D.C. office. “ But before I hired him, he said he had a few questions for me. I remember sitting on his bed in his dorm room as he quizzed me on policy to make sure I was a right-thinking politician. Years later he married a friend of my wife’s.” That friend was Ashley McArthur, a woman Rehr met when she was a congressional aide on Capitol Hill. Today they have four young children. Rehr ended up working for Weber for eight years, beginning as a legislative assistant and ending as chief of staff. With a doctorate in economics from George Mason University in hand, he began his K Street career as a lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business. He eventually moved over to the Beer Wholesalers, where he met Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.). “When I first came to Congress, he was one of the first to extend his hand and friendship to me,” says Scott. “There weren’t many in the lobbying community that were doing that. We are both strong men of faith [Rehr is a practicing Presbyterian] and just hit it off very well businesswise, but spiritually, as well. The fact that he was a Republican and a white guy and I was a Democrat and a black guy, that speaks volumes.” Although Rehr hails from the alcohol industry, where issues tend to cut cleanly along partisan lines, the broadcast world is more nuanced and requires a delicate dance, balancing radio and television interests with congressional members who have differing views yet depend on the same broadcasting community in order to be re-elected. Additionally, Rehr has had to live with the reality that he was not the first choice of congressional members to lead the broadcasters. That candidate was Mitch Rose, a former lobbyist for the Walt Disney Co. and chief of staff to Stevens, who lobbied hard for his old staffer to get the plum job. The transition has been difficult for Rehr, some say, because of the legendary Fritts, whose career spanned 20 years at the NAB and whose approach is widely described as low-key but effective. “He’d call and say, �You’ve got a bill. Here’s the pro and con, and this is where we are and why.’ That’s what good trade groups do. No brow-beating. That’s not a place for partisanship,” says Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), a friend of Fritts. Even as support for Rehr builds, the shadow of Fritts is hard to escape, even for advocates such as Jack Valenti, the former head of the Motion Picture Association of America who works with Rehr on the Coalition for Parental Control of TV Programming. The old Lyndon Johnson Democrat can’t help but first praise Rehr’s predecessor before lauding the new kid on the block. “Well, I’m a great fan of Eddie Fritts,” says Valenti. “I thought he was terrific and very successful. He’s [Rehr] just a different personality.” ON TAP Former Beer Wholesaler colleagues say Rehr made a very distinct impression on the association. Andrew Dodson, a former Beer Wholesalers lobbyist, says Rehr is a big-picture guy who leaves the details to others. He notes that the association did not have a lot of legislative victories. But, he says, the lobby stayed on the defensive, thwarting initiatives such as efforts to lower the legal blood-alcohol limit to under 0.08. “David would say we needed to be vigilant about the �new prohibitionists’ who were trying to compare or link beer to illegal drugs,” says Dodson. “We had a lot of coalition meetings, met with agency folks. A lot of it was going to the Hill and getting them [members] to write letters and intervene. We were instrumental in ripping out funding for some programs that we thought were too adversarial or really trying to narrow the scope of things. If we didn’t kill it [legislation], we tried to mitigate it as much as possible, to make it innocuous. David really tried to turn the message into, �This [beer drinking] is an American pastime. There’s nothing wrong with it.’ “ Shannon Campagna, a former representative at Beer Wholesalers and current vice president of federal government relations for Safeway Inc., recalls that Rehr was aggressive in having his team have at least one face-to-face meeting with congressional lawmakers each year. What remains to be seen is how the heavily Republican NAB will move to adapt to the new Democratic majorities in Congress. Last December, Rehr brought over Laurie Knight, his Democratic colleague from the National Beer Wholesalers Association. The former director of government affairs was also once a legislative director for Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas). In September, the association made a number of Republican and Democratic hires. The Republican hires were high-profile, including Mildred Webber, the deputy chief of staff and head of member relations to House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). Webber, who ran former Rep. DeLay’s race for majority whip back in 1994, was also credited with helping to shepherd talking points between candidates and the K Street tribe. The NAB also hired Kelly Cole, majority counsel to the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Although the NAB tilts Republican, it also brought on a few Democrats, notably former Texas Democratic Rep. Max Sandlin and Jamie Gillespie, a Democratic staff member of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Joe Crea can be contacted at [email protected].

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