UC native Eddie Fritts earns nation’s top broadcasting award
Posted: Tuesday, April 12, 2011 9:04 pm
By: Glenda Caudle, Special Features Editor
By GLENDA CAUDLE
Special Features Editor
Eddie Fritts grew up in Union City, lifeguarding at the city pool and doing disc jockey duties at the city’s radio station — which his father owned — after school and during the summer.
He graduated from Union City High School in 1959; enrolled at the University of Mississippi; married his Union City High School sweetheart, the former Martha Dale Richie; and ended up buying and expanding WNLA radio station in Indianola, Miss., in 1963. Ownership and expansion of additional radio stations in Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana followed.
On Monday, Edward O. “Eddie” Fritts received the National Association of Broadcasters Distinguished Service Award at the 2011 NAB Show in Las Vegas. The journey from small-town disc jockey to the most prestigious award in broadcasting has been an eventful one, filled with many other awards and forms of recognition.
Fritts took his hands-on experience in radio to Washington in 1983 as president/CEO of NAB and served in that capacity for 23 years. It is for his efforts in that job that he was lauded in Las Vegas.
Gordon Smith, who currently holds the NAB presidency, praised Fritts as someone who, “for more than two decades … carried the banner for free and local broadcasting on Capitol Hill with integrity and distinction. Eddie helped put NAB on the map as an advocacy force in Washington, and his accomplishments on behalf of radio and television stations — and the listeners and viewers that we serve — will be felt for decades to come. I’m honored to follow in his footsteps as head of NAB, and we are thrilled to present him with the prestigious Distinguished Service Award.”
Fritts’ initial appointment to NAB almost 30 years ago was greeted with skepticism by some who saw his rural background as an impediment. Fritts, however, accepted their assessment as a challenge and provided leadership that allowed the NAB to become one of the most respected and effective lobbying organizations in the United States, according to a recent story in the Delta Business Journal.
A catalyst for the 1996 Telecommunications Act to open competition in the communications business, the Union City native is also largely credited with the passage of the 1992 Cable Act.
“He has done as much for radio in the last decade as Marconi did in the first decade,” said Billy Pitts, former vice president of ABC, when Fritts was appointed to the NAB job.
Jack Valenti, lobbyist for the Motion Picture Association of America, added, “If you look at the top 20 associations in Washington, including my own, I would count Eddie Fritts as the wisest and ablest leader of them all.”
NAB Joint Board chairman Steve Newberry called Fritts “a remarkable leader and a relentless champion for over-the-air broadcasting. His bipartisan bridge-building on Capitol Hill and a string of legislative victories stand as testament to Eddie’s understated Southern charm and advocacy skills.”
Following his retirement from the job at the close of 2005, the executive formed the Fritts Group, which he described as a “boutique political consulting firm” that has created national presence since its founding in March of 2006 with an impressive lineup of clients — including Fox, Motorola, Direct TV, Motion Picture Association of America, CBS, Verizon and others.
In 2010, Fritts was honored by the Library of American Broadcasting as one of the Giants of Broadcasting and in 2006, he was named Broadcaster of the Year by both the New York State Broadcasters Association and the Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters. He has also been inducted into the Broadcasting and Cable Hall of Fame.
International recognition has come his way, as well. The French Medal of Arts and Letters, the Golden Ambrosiana of Milano and the Lion of Venice are all his.
Fritts and his family lived in Washington, D.C., for some time but he and his wife have moved to Virginia in the past few years. They also maintain a home in Oxford, Miss., and are involved with numerous boards and committees at Ole Miss, according to the Journal story. Mrs. Fritts is the daughter of Faye Richie of Union City and the late Pierce Richie.
“I’m real proud of my son-in-law — I’m proud of both of them,” Mrs. Richie said of her family, which also includes the Fritts’ three adult children and their five grandchildren.
Union City resident Phillip White was a high school friend of Fritts and recalls sitting upstairs in the former Clymer’s Furniture Store in downtown Union City — the home of station WENK at the time — and discussing sports legend Harry Caray’s way with words when it came to broadcasting the St. Louis Cardinals’ games. The experience young Fritts got from filling in at his father’s station and working part-time at the drive-in movie theater the elder Fritts also owned near Fulton and the former Waldron Theater in Union City may have been precisely the training the NAB winner needed to impress upon him the importance of communicating over the airwaves.
“Union City is the greatest small town in America to grow up in,” Fritts said in an interview from Las Vegas today. “There was a nurturuing, positive spirit there and city leaders always acted in such a way that the community looked up to them.”
White said he ran into the Fritts just last week in Martin. Mrs. Fritts was a founding member of the Chi Omega chapter on the University of Tennessee at Martin campus and they were in town to celebrate the anniversary of that establishment.
“This is such a tremendous honor for Eddie. I can’t even imagine how many people the NAB represents, so this is huge,” White said.
Paul Tinkle of Martin, president of Thunderbolt Broadcasting, was present for Monday’s important occasion: “I just attended the award ceremony here in Vegas,” he reported in an e-mail to The Messenger Monday night. “It was magnificent recognition for Union City and Obion County. Eddie Fritts’ radio roots in Union City helped him to go to Washington and lobby telecommunication issues for the American public. Eddie successfully championed free ‘over the air TV,’ making sure national cable companies carried local TV channels like channels Six and Seven. Eddie has always been a great listener; a visionary. He has had the ear of every president from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, meeting with them in the White House on technology from cell phones, satellites, internet, digital TV to local radio and helping them understand in a way we can understand back home in Obion County,” Tinkle said. “Like former Congressman John Tanner, a close friend of the honoree at today’s ceremony, Eddie Fritts of Union City remains one of the most influential voices in Washington while still calling Union City his home.”
“The award from the NAB was one that was neither expected nor anticipated. It was very much an award that is the most meaningful to me,” Fritts said today. “Previous winners have been people like President Ronald Reagan, Oprah, Mary Tyler Moore, Michael J. Fox, Bob Hope and through the years such a list of luminaries — I feel very honored to have my name inscribed along with theirs.”
Mrs. Caudle may be contacted at glendacaudle @ucmessenger.com.
Published in The Messenger 4.12.11