The National Association of Broadcasters opened a virtual show on Wednesday with a far different scenario than envisioned just a few months ago — the dire situation for some radio and TV stations amid the coronavirus pandemic.
In his address to broadcasters, NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith said, “We know this is likely the most challenging time local stations have ever encountered. This pandemic has crippled our nation’s economy, and our industry has not been spared.”
He said that stations “are confronting plummeting advertising sales and enormous operational challenges. And yet, stations are doing what they do best: delivering the trusted and lifesaving information your communities need.”
He also said that “some have had to take out loans to make payroll. Some have had to let go of trusted and capable staff. And some, I am very sorry to say, have had to close their doors entirely.”
Radio stations have been hit particularly hard, as local advertising from such categories as car dealerships and local events dries up because of widespread shutdowns and stay-at-home orders. Unlike TV stations, which have another revenue stream via retransmission fees, radio outlets do not.
Smith said that there was a bit of irony in that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the first commercial radio broadcast, in the aftermath of the 1918 flu pandemic. He predicted that, despite the current situation, broadcasting would survive because it is “the backbone of our country, the electric thread that weaves its way through every American community.”
The NAB and another trade group, the News Media Alliance, representing newspaper publishers, have been lobbying Congress to enable a wider scope of local media outlets to qualify for forgivable small-business loans through the Paycheck Protection Program.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unveiled legislation on Tuesday that would allow local stations and newspapers to obtain such relief, even if they are part of larger chains that otherwise would not qualify because of their size. But it’s doubtful that the legislation will advance in the Senate, and unclear how quickly the Senate will take up another round of relief legislation.
Local media advocates also have asked the Trump administration to direct billions in federal advertising dollars to stations and newspapers, an effort to give outlets a more immediate boost.
The all-virtual NAB Show Express is being held over two days, in lieu of the trade association’s typical convention, held in Las Vegas in April but postponed because of the pandemic. The show typically draws more than 90,000, and is a key source of revenue for the trade group.
After his remarks, Smith did a conversation with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who said that the agency was looking to see if there were any regulatory “dispensations” they could make to “make sure that broadcasters are able to literally keep the lights on, whether it is changing fee structures or fee payments in the like.”
“What we want to see from this is a broadcasting industry that remains vital across the country, not one that has become shriveled and may not even have the ability to survive in some of these smaller markets,” Pai said.
Smith also asked Pai what his plans are following his FCC tenure. “There have been rumors for years that might move on to something else. I think you should move on to the White House,” said Smith, a former Republican senator from Oregon.
Pai laughed. “As for what comes next, I still haven’t really thought about that. We’re still in the middle of a sprint, so to speak, so I haven’t thought about what happens after you cross the finish line.”
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