The Five Spot: Dennis Wharton EVP, Communications, NAB

Trade group’s longest-running comms chief ready to call it a career
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Dennis Wharton is exiting his post as chief spokesman and communications strategist for the National Association of Broadcasters at the end of June after 24 years, the longest such tenure in the group’s history. Wharton and NAB, under president and CEO Gordon Smith, have not been shy about fighting for the preservation of a must-carry/retransmission consent system that cable operators have been just as vigorous in attacking as anachronistic, but Wharton said those fights stay in the policy ring. In a previous life, Wharton covered Washington as the D.C. bureau chief for Variety. He spoke with Multichannel News senior content producer, Washington, John Eggerton.

Dennis Wharton

Dennis Wharton

You are leaving after 24 years; 25 would seem a more likely number. Why are you leaving now and what will you be doing? This has been planned for over a year. I signed a one-year contract last year — I’d always had three-year contracts before. But I only wanted
a one-year deal because I’m getting worn out by the day-to-day grind, and I need to spend more time with my parents in Ohio. They’re in not-so-great health and living independently.

When this damn virus is over, [wife] Lisa and I also plan to travel — we’ve had 14 foreign exchange students through the years — and we want to see some of the world.

Gordon asked me to stay on as a consultant to make sure there’s a smooth transition to Ann Marie Cumming as the new NAB spokesperson. So I’ll still be part of NAB, but not full-time.

What have you been doing to cope with the new shelter-in-place normal? You mean between NAB Zoom meetings? For fun, a lot of euchre with my kids, who are back home because of the virus. It’s a card game played mostly in the Midwest. Virtual trivia nights are fun, too.

ACA Connects president and CEO Matt Polka said of your departure: ‘NAB is saying farewell to a leader with too many friends to count. Washington is losing one of the good guys.’ Anything you want to say to the loyal opposition? That was really classy of Matt. I sent him an email and said: ‘Hey guy. You blew my cover. We’re not supposed to like each other!’

I’m glad Matt and I can fight like heck on retrans and still be friends. Something really bad has happened in D.C. since I got here in the early ’80s. Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill had knock-down drag-out fights back in the day. But they could share Irish whiskey after hours, and they actually got good stuff done.

Big Buckeyes fan Dennis Wharton with former Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer (l.).

Big Buckeyes fan Dennis Wharton with former Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer (l.).

What have been the most and least rewarding parts of your job? Most rewarding is probably just surviving this long. That’s been really gratifying. I tried to bring my A-game every day. I’m not going to lie, there have been some really tough days. But to survive for almost a quarter of a century — from [NAB presidents] Eddie Fritts to David Rehr to Gordon Smith — it’s been a wild ride.

This will sound sappy, but I also take pride in defending broadcasters as a force for good. …. If we were invented today, I bet policymakers would do handstands down Pennsylvania Avenue.

Least rewarding was missing some of the family stuff through the years. … Also least rewarding was some of the NAB Board politics over the years. Gordon Smith has done a great job managing that.

Anything you would like to say to the broadcasters whose standard you have carried for almost a quarter century? I just want to thank everyone who helped me along the way. Especially Eddie for persuading me to join NAB, when I really had no interest in leaving journalism. And Gordon for being the most decent boss you could imagine. And for all the people I worked with, especially in my communications department.

I’d also like to thank the reporters who covered NAB — people like you, John — who were really fair to me. Journalism is a really hard job, and it really bothers me to see attacks on the press from both the left and the right. It needs to stop. 

BONUS FIVE

What is on your DVR? Lots of Ohio State wins against the Wolverines in football. Those never get old. Also PBS Masterpiece’s World on Fire.

Bucket list destination? Lisa and I were planning a two-week trip to Norway with a former foreign exchange student’s family in July, right after my retirement. That’s on hold.

Books on your nightstand? Rick Atkinson’s The British Are Coming. Just re-read Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Favorite musical group? The Beatles

Most memorable recent meal? Pamplemousse in Las Vegas. I hosted more than 20 reporter dinners there at NAB Show. I recommend the pistachio-crusted rack of lamb.

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