- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2005

Michael K. Powell said yesterday he will resign as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in March, ending a stormy four-year tenure marked by battles over indecency on the airwaves and the rules that keep media conglomerates from growing larger.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Powell, 41, said he was uncomfortable waging the war on indecency, a furor that erupted after singer Janet Jackson’s performance at last year’s Super Bowl and made Mr. Powell a target of radio shock jock Howard Stern.

Regulating the content of television and radio programming clashed with his belief in free speech, he said, although his job required him to uphold the FCC’s rules against airing material the government deems indecent.

“It’s not the most comfortable work. … When you taken an oath of office, you have to uphold all of the laws of the United States,” Mr. Powell said.

The battle over indecency was not necessarily a distraction, he said, but it overshadowed what he considers two of the biggest accomplishments of his tenure: a national “do-not-call” registry that helps consumers avoid calls from telemarketers, and a plan that allows cell phone users to keep their phone number when switching carriers.

Mr. Powell declined to discuss his plans, although he is believed to be interested in the presidency of his alma mater, the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va., a job that will open when the current president, Timothy J. Sullivan, retires June 30.

Mr. Powell, a Fairfax Station resident, is a member of the school’s Board of Visitors. The moderate Republican also has been mentioned as a potential candidate for governor or senator in Virginia or for a federal judgeship.

“I really want to work until my very last day here, so it’s really not appropriate for me to be job searching,” he said.

Mr. Powell is one of three Republicans on the five-member FCC. The other two are Kathleen Q. Abernathy, 48, formerly a cell phone industry lobbyist, and Kevin J. Martin, 38, who worked as a lawyer on Mr. Bush’s 2000 campaign and the Florida vote recount.

Both are considered candidates to succeed Mr. Powell. Other potential candidates include Rebecca Klein, formerly the head of the Texas Public Utility Commission, and Michael Gallagher, assistant commerce secretary for communications and information.

“[Mr. Powell has] been the most deregulatory-minded chairman we’ve seen in recent memory. It’s unlikely whoever will replace him will be anywhere near as deregulatory,” Scott Cleland, chief executive officer of media research group Precursor, told Bloomberg News.

Mr. Powell said his goal was to create policies that would accommodate emerging technologies, but critics said that resulted in regulations that were far too lax.

In November, the FCC barred state regulators from taxing digital phone calls made over the Internet, ruling that relaxed oversight is needed for the technology to flourish.

Mr. Powell also pushed a plan through the FCC that allowed Reston cell phone carrier Nextel Communications Inc. to swap some airwaves to cut interference on police radios, and he fought to relax restrictions on high-speed Internet connections belonging to cable companies such as Comcast Corp. and phone carriers such as Verizon Communications Inc.

“Powell turned the FCC into more of an intellectual chamber of commerce than an agency whose duty is to watch the giants under its mandate,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a media watchdog group.

Mr. Powell — the son of Colin L. Powell, who has announced his resignation as U.S. secretary of state — recovered from a 1987 life-threatening Jeep accident that ended his Army career to become a Washington lawyer specializing in antitrust and telecommunications.

President Clinton appointed him to the FCC in 1997. Mr. Bush elevated him to the agency’s chairmanship four years later, making Mr. Powell the nation’s chief regulator of the broadcasting and telecommunications industries. His term was to expire in 2008.

Mr. Powell came to the post hoping to focus on the role government should play in the regulation of new technologies, such as the Internet and cell phones, but he found himself center stage in the national debates over media ownership and indecency.

In 2003, Mr. Powell and the other two Republicans on the five-member FCC voted to permit Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. to buy more local TV stations and newspapers. The plan drew a record 520,000 written comments from the public. It was opposed by Congress and blocked by a federal court.

“Michael Powell will not be missed by those of us concerned about creating a more democratic media system. His tenure was marked by some of the lowest moments in the history of the FCC,” said Robert W. McChesney, founder and president of Free Press, a nonpartisan group that promotes media reform.

After the brouhaha over Miss Jackson’s Super Bowl performance, when her right breast was briefly exposed, complaints to the FCC soared and the agency cracked down on radio shock jocks such as Howard Stern and reality television programs such as “Married by America.”

The FCC last year fined CBS $550,000 for airing the Super Bowl halftime-show exposure. At the time, Mr. Powell called the incident a “classless, crass and deplorable stunt.”

Fines for indecent programming exceeded $7.7 million last year, a huge increase from the $48,000 imposed the year before Mr. Powell became chairman.

“Thank God he’s gone. This is a great day in broadcasting,” Mr. Stern said on his program yesterday morning, hours after the Wall Street Journal reported Mr. Powell’s plan to announce his resignation.

Mr. Stern targeted Mr. Powell after the FCC began fining stations that air his syndicated program. In October, Mr. Stern announced plans to move his program to satellite radio, which is not regulated by the FCC because it does not use public airwaves.

A few weeks later, Mr. Stern ambushed Mr. Powell on a San Francisco radio talk show, accusing him of racketeering and benefiting from nepotism.

“Do you deny that your father got you this job?” Mr. Stern asked him during the exchange, which lasted about 10 minutes.

“I deny it exceedingly. I think it’s a little unfair that just because I have a famous father and other public officials don’t that you make an assumption that that’s the only basis in which I serve in my position,” Mr. Powell responded.

Mr. Powell said yesterday he “actually kind of enjoyed” his debate with Mr. Stern. He said as “a human being” he was sometimes bothered by criticism of his administration, but that he understood it came with the territory.

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