Skip to main content

Kevin Martin Gets the Corner Suite

The man who didn't always fall into line behind FCC chief Michael Powell will take the reins of the commission. President Bush this week tapped Kevin Martin to succeed Powell as chairman of the FCC. As a currently sitting commissioner, Martin gets the keys to the corner suite without first running the gauntlet of a Senate confirmation.

The 38-year-old barrister from Waxhaw, N.C., inherits an agency in the height of celebrity. Public response to revised media ownership rules and a pitched debate over indecency catapulted the FCC into the public limelight during Powell's four-year tenure. Martin, who projected a pragmatic counterpoint to Powell's patrician illustriousness, is expected to be more measured on ownership and tougher on indecency than his predecessor.

Media ownership vexed the former chairman from the start of his tenure, when Fox lawyers convinced the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. to make the FCC prove its rules were valid. The resulting rewrite, issued last summer, caused much gnashing of teeth on Capitol Hill. Pieces of the rewrite survived, but yet another court ordered the FCC to prove the validity of rest of it.

Instead of initiating another entire rewrite, Martin is expected to deal with ownership rules piece by piece, beginning with lifting the newspaper-broadcast prohibition.

"He has been the champion of the newspaper guys and you could see a targeted effort focused on the broadcast-newspaper cross-ownership rule and the growing number of waivers being sought by Media General, Tribune etc.," said one long-time media executive.

On the issue of broadcast indecency, Martin parted company with Powell, who was disinclined to regulate content. Martin is inclined otherwise. He favored fining a Kansas station "per utterance" last December over a show featuring nude Twister and other adult content, and he balked when the FCC first decided against fining NBC for Bono's interjective expletive at a 2003 awards show. As a stopgap to a fully fine-ridden landscape, Martin supports allowing affiliates to reject network content deemed inappropriate for local audiences.

Martin also takes the helm in the middle of digital transition legislation that may require him to oversee the end of analog transmissions. He'll also have copy protection, the shriveling universal service fund and two major mergers on this plate--SBC's purchase of AT&T and Verizon's acquisition of MCI.

Reaction to Martin's appointment was predictably positive. Outgoing NAB President Eddie Fritts called Martin the "right person at the right time to lead the FCC. Kevin has a passion for public service and a deep understanding and appreciation for the value of local broadcasting."

Kyle McSlarrow, the new cable lobby leader, gently implored the new chairman to leave his mitts off cable. Martin was the only commissioner who did not vote against multicast must-carry.

"We look forward to continuing to work closely with Chairman Martin to maintain a deregulatory environment for competitive telecommunications services," McSlarrow said.

Martin emerged as a maverick at the FCC in 2003 when he voted with the Democrats to continue making phone companies lease lines to competitors. He beat out Rebecca Klein, former head of the Texas public utility commission; Michael Gallagher, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration; and Janice Obuchowski, former head of the NTIA, who were also on the short list for the job.

Klein may still be asked to take Martin's seat on the commission, but Earl Comstock, a former aide to Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and a partner in Sher & Blackwell is said to have a lock on the spot. A second Republican seat will open if Kathleen Abernathy exits, which she is expected to do.

Before joining the FCC, Martin served as a deputy general counsel for the Bush campaign and an advisor to former FCC commissioner, Harold Furchtgott-Roth. Martin holds a law degree from Harvard, a Masters in public policy from Duke University and a B.A. from the UNC at Chapel Hill, N.C.