NAB Frets Over Fritts Fracas

Apr 26, 2004  •  Post A Comment

On the eve of last week’s National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas, broadcasting’s elite convened for an invitation-only dinner at the Bellagio Hotel to honor top industry political contributors.
It should have been a moment of triumph for NAB President and CEO Eddie Fritts, who has turned the convention into a gold mine for the industry, generating millions of dollars for the association’s political war chest every year.
But in the back of the huge hall, in plain view of the hundreds of influential dinner guests, Mr. Fritts was locked in an unusually animated-some might say vituperative-conversation with Phil Lombardo, NAB’s joint board chairman.
Neither Mr. Fritts nor Mr. Lombardo were commenting on the details of their almost surreally public-private chat. But Mr. Lombardo vehemently denied a story circulating furiously among NAB radio board members last week: that he had told the 63-year-old NAB chief that he could count on two years of severance pay if he stepped down in June. Mr. Fritts has made clear he wants to stay with the association at least until he’s 65.
“Absolutely false,” Mr. Lombardo said.
Nonetheless, Mr. Lombardo confirmed that he had begun discussing “succession planning” with Mr. Fritts for all senior executive positions at NAB, including Mr. Fritts.’
“You need to do this evaluation on a continuing basis,” Mr. Lombardo said.
Whatever the exact nature of the conversation, it was clearly an emotional one. At one point, Mr. Fritts seemed to almost choke back tears, and when the session was over, the two association leaders hugged.
In a bizarre turn of events, however, two days later it appeared that it was Mr. Lombardo’s job that was on the line.
Indeed, during an impromptu meeting after the Tuesday evening’s formal BMI dinner at the Four Seasons, angry radio board representatives said Mr. Lombardo was read the riot act and informed that a challenge to his re-election was being launched.
“I and many members of the NAB board have lost confidence in Phil Lombardo as head of the joint board,” said Jerry Lee, a longtime NAB radio board member and president of WBEB-FM in Philadelphia, who publicly announced a campaign to oust Mr. Lombardo.
“Eddie Fritts is the best thing that has ever happened to the NAB, period, and we need a joint board chairman who can work in tandem with him.”
Added Jerry Hanszen, a NAB radio board member and owner of KGAS-AM/FM, in Carthage, Texas, and KMHT-AM/FM, in Marshall, Texas, “The concern is whether Mr. Lombardo will be re-elected.”
But Mr. Lombardo, who is CEO of Citadel Communications, insisted that his critics were operating on bad information.
“I believe Jerry [Lee] is very upset by a series of misunderstandings,” Mr. Lombardo said. “I believe when those misunderstandings are clarified, he will cool down.”
Still, NAB board sources said they were trying to recruit candidates to challenge Mr. Lombardo, including Jim Yager, CEO of Barrington Broadcasting, and Russ Withers, owner of Withers Broadcasting.
In an interview last week, Mr. Yager, who stepped down as the association’s chairman last year to tend to a family emergency-clearing the way for Mr. Lombardo to take over NAB’s top board slot-said he wasn’t interested in the position.
“This is not a time to have division,” Mr. Yager said.
But Mr. Withers-who owns radio and TV stations but currently holds a seat on NAB’s radio board-confirmed that he has been asked to run for the chairmanship, and he is considering it.
“One thing Lombardo has done is unite the radio board,” Mr. Withers said. “We have a well-run, respected organization, and it is incumbent upon us to make sure it stays that way.”
Said Mr. Lombardo, “I don’t feel threatened. I intend to run for re-election.”
Despite Mr. Lombardo’s claims to the contrary, NAB board sources said Mr. Lombardo and Mr. Fritts have been at odds for months, with Mr. Lombardo’s heavy-handed management style one of the bones of contention.
Micromanagement may be fine for running a small company, according to several board sources, but not for achieving consensus on an association board.
“Basically, Phil has caused his own problems,” said Bill Stakelin, an NAB radio board member and president and chief operating officer of Regency Communications.
Said Mr. Lombardo, “I do believe part of this is my style. I’m an all-business-style guy.”
“Eddie doesn’t lack the votes to keep him there,” Mr. Withers said. “All I want to do is make sure Eddie gets a fair shake. He should be able to leave at his time and his choosing with honor.”
Last week was not the first time that Mr. Lombardo has riled board critics. He also antagonized some after championing an initiative to eliminate frills from NAB’s board meeting in January-and for reporting to one of the private sessions with a baseball bat. He apparently intended the prop as a joking reference to his reputation as a tough guy (TelevisionWeek, Jan. 26).
Said Mr. Lombardo, “There is some residual discontent from the January board meeting, and it just hasn’t dissipated yet.”