Ajit Pai brought a positive review of how broadcasters are responding to the coronavirus pandemic from the Federal Communications Commission to the NAB Show Express on Wednesday. “It’s been incredible,” said Pai, who had been scheduled to appear at the Las Vegas conference but instead spoke in a two-way video session with National Association of Broadcasters President Gordon Smith as part of the two-day online event.
“The legacy of public service that broadcasters have long had is showing up in spades right now,” said Pai. He said one of his favorite industry events has been the NAB Educational Foundation’s annual awards, which showcase how broadcasters are helping their local community during in an emergency. “Now, we’re talking about broadcasters everywhere in the country who are doing that kind of thing every single day. It’s almost as if this award show were living in real-time,” said Pai, who added, “I can’t say enough how much I appreciate the work that broadcasters have done.”
During a question-and-answer session, Pai said he is looking for ways the FCC can help radio and television stations weather the impact of the shutdown of many businesses and he’s drawing on what he has learned from his pre-pandemic visits to radio stations.
“I know broadcasters, radio in particular, may be the canary in the coal mine,” said Pai. “That’s why we’ve been very aggressive in trying to figure out if there are any regulatory dispensations that we can make to make sure broadcasters are literally able to keep the lights on.” He said the FCC is looking at regulatory changes within its power, such as changing fee structures and payments, to urging lawmakers to address the needs of broadcasters. “What we want to see emerge from this is a broadcasting industry that remains vital across the country, not one that has become shriveled and may not have the ability to survive in some of these smaller markets,” said Pai.
Since being appointed a Commissioner in 2012, Pai has had strong support among the radio industry, sealed in his early months with a mission to revitalize the AM dial. And he has followed through on many ideas that he proposed since President Trump appointed him to lead the FCC in 2017. But rumors persist in Washington that Pai, 47, will leave the agency within the next year regardless of whether Trump wins a second term.
But Pai dismissed such chatter, telling Smith on Wednesday that he finds such speculation amusing, adding that he jokes about the topic with his predecessors. “I honestly love this job,” he said. “As for what comes next, I still haven’t thought about that. We’re still in the middle of a sprint, so to speak, and I haven’t thought about what happens after I cross the finish line.”
Like a lot of broadcasters, the coronavirus lockdown has meant that the FCC has altered how it operates. Since March 12, the agency’s 1,400 employees have largely worked from home yet Pai said he believes staff has been “exceptionally productive” despite the changed setting. “I anticipated that when the pandemic hit and we started working from home that the FCC’s work would slow down a bit, but to the contrary it has sped up,” he said.
One thing that has been slowed is the Commission’s planned move to its new office space. Pai said that now appears likely to occur in August. The shift to a smaller space, and the cost savings that comes with it, had been scheduled for June. “There’s no question that the move date has slipped a little bit,” he said. “That’s in part because agency employees have not been able to be in their offices for the most part for the last two months and we anticipate giving them plenty of time to pack and label boxes and do that nitty-gritty work that needs to be done.” Pai said construction crews have also not been able to finish some of remaining projects to get the new office space ready.
The NAB is also expected to move into a new headquarters in Southwest Washington in the coming weeks. The trade group paid $62.76 million for the building, offset by the $31.6 million sale of its current headquarters where it has been for the past five decades.