NAB 2005: Opening Doors to Power

Apr 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Edward “Eddie” Fritts had just been elected president of the National Association of Broadcasters by a narrow vote in 1982 when he got a phone call at his home in Mississippi. He was being summoned to Washington, where he was about to relocate, for a meeting with key leaders of the broadcasters’ lobbying organization.

Mr. Fritts recalled that he flew his own small plane to Memphis and then caught a commercial flight to the nation’s capital. He went to NAB headquarters for the meeting at the scheduled time, only to find the door locked. “I couldn’t get in,” he said. “There was no one there. So here was the new president-elect with my nose mashed up against the glass, looking for someone to let me in.”

He found out later that the gathering was at a hotel down the street. He joined his colleagues there; they were already having cocktails and dinner.

In the nearly quarter-century since, it has been rare that doors have been locked to Mr. Fritts in Washington. The soft-spoken, mild-mannered Southerner has become a consummate insider. Until the past few years he could also claim a nearly unbroken string of successes in his efforts to build his organization and achieve its goals in the halls of Congress, in the courts and even in the White House.

His many accomplishments include the bringing together of radio and TV in the organization, the deregulation of broadcasting, the rules change allowing for much larger companies, the development of digital and other advanced forms of TV, the implementation of guidelines on children’s programming and the growth of the annual convention.

In recent years, as the media landscape has shifted radically, the victories have continued, but there have also been defeats and even internal dissension. TV operators battled radio. The big broadcast networks dropped out of the NAB, leaving the organization as the representative of the smaller group owners and station operators.

Through it all, Mr. Fritts remained a constant, steadying force. One of his favorite sayings, often repeated, is, “In Washington, there are no permanent victories and no permanent defeats.”

Mr. Fritts has always preferred to keep the spotlight on his members, on the issues or on policy, but not on himself. Unlike some association leaders, he has let his accomplishments and the sheer magnitude of his power to get things done shape his profile.

But what were the forces that shaped Mr. Fritts? In an interview rare for its subject matter, he agreed to talk about his upbringing and what led him to Capitol Hill.

He grew up in a middle class family in Union City, in western Tennessee. His father in the early days owned an indoor movie theater and a couple of drive-ins. From the time Eddie Fritts was, as he put it, “a young tyke,” he worked in the family business, cleaning up, selling tickets, making popcorn or running the projectors. Later he would drive to shopping centers and local festivals and distribute handbills listing that week’s movie lineups. It instilled a strong work ethic that he has relied on all his life.

One of Mr. Fritts’ most vivid memories, which he considers his introduction to show business, was when 1940s B-movie cowboy star Lash LaRue, known as “King of the Bullwhip,” came to his town. “I was impressed when he took out his whip and popped the top off a Coke bottle from 15 feet,” recalled Mr. Fritts. “And he snapped a cigarette out of a person’s mouth-an unlit cigarette, without hitting them in the side of the head or breaking their nose off.”

While Eddie Fritts was in high school, his father sold the theaters and became manager of a local radio station, WNEK-AM. Mr. Fritts worked summers as a lifeguard during the day and at the station at night as “a pretty lousy disc jockey.”

The station often pre-empted local programming in the evening to carry St. Louis Cardinals baseball, Mr. Fritts said, “so I was able to hang on.”

After high school, he enrolled in the University of Mississippi in Oxford, better known as Ole Miss. He chose it because it was a shorter driving distance than the University of Tennessee.

One of those attending Ole Miss at the time was Trent Lott, who went on to have a long career in the U.S. Senate. Mr. Lott formed a professional kinship with Mr. Fritts. “We were not close friends at that time,” said Mr. Fritts, dispelling a widespread rumor to the contrary. “We were in competitive fraternities. He was a Sigma and I was [a Sigma Alpha Epsilon]. We were always competing on the intramural field. He was also a varsity cheerleader back before you had to do all those back flips and things.”

Mr. Fritts was a business major and by his own admission an “average student.” In 1961, halfway through his third year at Ole Miss, Mr. Fritts got married and soon dropped out of school to support his family. The first of his three children was born in 1963, the second in 1969 and the third in 1974.

Mr. Fritts soon bought a small radio station in Indianola, Miss. “On our first day we took in $23,” he recalled. “We didn’t actually take it in. We billed it. I knew at that point, with a pregnant wife and one car in the family, it was going to be a long, hard climb to be successful.”

He worked long hours and became involved in the community. Seeing that the main local news provider was a weekly newspaper, Mr. Fritts created a news department. “You become the heartbeat of the community,” he said.

At a time when FM stations were just coming onto the scene, he soon owned one of those. He added other stations in Louisiana, Arkansas and other parts of Mississippi. “I guess you can say I was a graduate of the school of hard knocks,” he said. “You learn a lot about human nature. You learn a lot about the importance of communication in a small town.

“I remember the Chevrolet dealer said that he and I were in the most important businesses in the world. I said, ‘What’s that?’ And he said, ‘Communications and transportation. That’s what makes the world go around.”

He soon was active in a Mississippi broadcasters’ group. He came to Washington for the first time to participate in an NAB leadership conference and found that he liked meeting elected officials. When he returned home, he made it a point to get to know the congressmen, senators and others who represented each of the markets in which he operated.

Around 1976 he was elected to the national board of NAB in a radio seat. He attended his first big NAB convention in Washington in 1977 and became chairman of the board soon after that. When the president of NAB retired, he was asked to seek the job.

Mr. Fritts discussed the opportunity with his wife. “She said, ‘There is no way we’re going to move to Washington,'” Mr. Fritts recalled. “So some board members said, ‘Take her to Washington. Look around for a week and make your decision.’ He did, and his wife changed her mind, promising her support.

The other candidate for the NAB leadership was a TV station owner from a small town in Massachusetts. The board met in Chicago and elected Mr. Fritts president by a margin of 24 to 20. To develop a perception of neutrality, especially among the TV broadcasters, he immediately sold his radio stations.

Mr. Fritts made it his mantra that local broadcasters had to get involved for the NAB to succeed. “In retrospect,” he said, “they made a bad hire. They should have hired a Washington insider, and it would have given them a much better start. Those early years were difficult.”

He soon found his way and charted a path to success. He never changed his mind about what it took. “As this universe has diversified and become fragmented with all the new media and competition,” he said, “the one thing that has allowed broadcasters to compete effectively has been our localism. Our ties to our community are what have provided us with a leg up in the process.”