Smith, 57, a Republican, served two terms in Congress and sat on the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees all broadcast-related legislation. He lost his bid for a third term to Democrat Jeff Merkley in 2008.
Smith had signed on at Covington & Burling as a senior advisor in March, but will now leave the firm Nov. 1 for his new job.
Covington partner Stuart Eizenstat said the firm is sorry to lose him.
“There aren’t a lot of former senators around,” he said. “I think he’s irreplaceable as a really substantive senator that’s had a real commitment to private practice.”
Eizenstat said he understands Smith leaving for what he called “a once in a lifetime opportunity.” He said he couldn’t say whether the firm might wind up working with the NAB.
“We’ve always had good luck in getting clients out of employees that leave,” he said. “But I have no way of knowing.”
Still, Eizenstat said he hopes to work with Smith while he’s still at the firm, especially when the president of Liechtenstein visits later this month. The firm lobbies on behalf of the principality on banking secrecy issues.
The National Association of Broadcasters’ choice of Smith to head the group marks a departure from its last two chiefs, who were an experienced lobbyist and a former radio station owner, respectively.
But Dennis Wharton, the group’s executive vice president, said Smith’s experience in Congress, especially his chairmanship of a Senate high-tech task force, qualify him for the post.
“He knows our business,” Wharton said. “He’s also interested in high technology and new media.”
Smith replaces David Rehr, who had been with the organization since 2005 but stepped down in May.
The association said Smith was not available for comment.
Smith is slated to make brief remarks at the NAB Radio Show in Philadelphia next week, and will be introduced to the group’s board of directors at a meeting in Dallas in mid-October.
He will face immediate pressure from the Recording Industry Association of America, which is looking to charge AM/FM stations for playing individual songs, Wharton said.
The broadcast group is also trying to push the Satellite Home Viewer Update and Reauthorization Act of 2009 through Congress. Approved Wednesday by the House Judiciary Committee, the act would extend cable and satellite providers’ license to broadcast copyrighted TV programs for another five years.