William Earl Kennard, the first African American to serve as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, is the nation's newest top cop on the information superhighway. A bright and likable bureaucrat, Kennard's easy-going personality and youth belie both the speed with which he has ascended the career ladder and the challenges he faces in regulating one of the nation's fastest-growing and most powerful industries: telecommunications.
Kennard's father, Robert A. Kennard, a pioneer in his own right, was a distinguished Los Angeles architect who built the largest, continuously operating black-owned architectural practice in the western United States. The elder Kennard, who died in 1995, was drawn to the profession by the success of Paul Williams, an African American who designed homes for Hollywood's rich and famous from the 1920s through the 1950s. The FCC chairman says his father imbued in him a gritty determination to succeed as well as a motivation to cultivate what he calls "the essential goodness in people."
But Kennard, a Los Angeles native who graduated from Stanford University, also knows it helps to have powerful connections. He has close ties to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, fellow Yale Law School alumni. And he counts among his friends civil-rights attorney Vernon Jordan and Bob Johnson, chairman of Black Entertainment Television.
The youngest of three children, Kennard grew up in the Hollywood Hills and graduated from Hollywood High School. He was student body president as well as an aficionado of mini-bike riding as a teenager. Today, Kennard remains an outdoor enthusiast, pursuing his interests in fishing and hiking. He is married to Deborah D. Kennedy, an attorney for Mobile Oil Corp.
Before becoming FCC chairman, Kennard, who turned 41 last week, had questioned the increasing concentration of media holdings, championed greater minority ownership and pondered whether to rein in broadcasters' 1st Amendment rights.
Yet, three months into his new job, Kennard remains something of an enigma. He has said little about his views on the key telecommunications issues. Unlike his predecessor, has, so far, steered clear of industry confrontations. After releasing a report last week decrying skyrocketing cable rates, for example, he urged additional study of the problem rather than immediate FCC action, citing the FCC's limited authority to combat the problem.
Kennard, looking relaxed in shirt sleeves and tie, sat down for an interview last week, after returning from a four-day trip to California. He had traveled to the Golden State to hold several meetings and tour some nonprofit communications projects--and also to stop by his alma mater, Hollywood High, where he was inducted into the school's hall of fame.
Question: Your father Robert Kennard, who died in 1995, was a highly regarded Los Angeles architect and one of the founding members of the National Organization of Minority Architects. Tell us a little about him and how he affected your life.
Answer: He was probably the single greatest influence in my life. He grew up in a very different era. He fought in World War II and then came back to Los Angeles. He finished his education on the GI Bill and then pursued his dream of being an architect.
Everybody told him he wouldn't make it; that he couldn't have a black-owned architectural firm in Los Angeles at that time. And he just persevered. He would come home and tell us [people] wouldn't take him seriously and say terrible things about him. But, ultimately, he built a great business and became the largest African-American owned architectural firm on the West Coast.
He did the L.A. City High School. He renovated the Los Angeles County Library and portions of the L.A. transit system. He built communities with the technology of his time--which was bringing people together around bricks and mortar.
What I'm trying to do is very similar to what my dad did. But it's a different medium. I'm trying to do what I can to foster community through the use of the electronic media.
Q: You say your father grew up in a different time. But today, you are the first African American chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Would you say the challenges you face are different from those faced by your father as a pioneering black architect?
A: Yes, I think the challenges are very different now. One of the biggest responsibilities of being an African American in this job is to understand that I'm here because I'm standing on the shoulders of a lot of people who helped struggle and fought the fight to get me here. And I have a responsibility to those folks to reach down and make sure I'm not the last, and create opportunities for others.
Q: Did the time you spent growing up in California affect the way you now look at issues in Washington?