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In His Own Words: Michael Powell's Changing FCC

June 09, 2002

Since becoming chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in January 2001, Michael K. Powell has vowed to overhaul the agency. Powell, the son of Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, faces the daunting task of crafting a series of rule changes about media ownership. Last week he sat for an interview in Washington with Times staff writers Edmund Sanders and Sallie Hofmeister.

Question: Do you see yourself campaigning for public office one day?

Answer: I'm not doing this so that I can run. I can see conditions in which I could be induced to, but I do not have it listed as an ambition of mine. I love government. The tough thing is there gets to be a point where there aren't many of those types of jobs left, and you've got to run for something. [But] there are a lot of unappealing aspects: seeking money all the time; subjecting yourself and your family to the trials and tribulations of it all.

Q: What are the differences between serving as an FCC commissioner and being chairman?

A: It's a much more intense leadership responsibility. I have to develop a federal budget. I have to hire and fire everybody. Keeping morale high here, keeping them trained, so some phone company doesn't pull your best people away is tough.

Q: What are the FCC's top priorities?

A: Broadband is No. 1. That means everything, not just DSL and cable modems. The second is the continuing difficulties of [competition]. People have lost sight of the fact that a few years ago, there was no suggestion of competition in this space at all. We [have] had a monopolized communications system not because somebody took over the world, but because it's been government policy since 1917 to have one.

The third one is spectrum. [This] is becoming extraordinarily important real estate. Technology has finally solved some of the thorny problems with using spectrum, so there are ever more interesting applications and technologies that people want. How do we redo the system in a way that spectrum can move more fluidly into its higher and better uses?

Fourth is this fascinatingly intractable [issue] of [developing] a media ownership regulatory model.

Q: Some media executives and legislators are calling for the FCC to deal with everything from payola in the radio industry to setting a new decency standard. Is this your role?

A: We try to be a little more focused on things that are going to have consumer impact, as opposed to industry-to-industry stuff. We often get people who try very aggressively to bring us in on industry-to-industry disputes. You have to really focus and ask, "Is this really a dispute about public policy?" or "Is this Disney wants this, and these guys want that?"--where it's all about who's got the leverage.

Q: Can you talk about the criticism that the FCC is moving too slowly to create new media ownership rules?

A: The [appeals] court has said don't come back without a better ability to empirically defend the choices you make. How do you do that? You have to go out in the market and get that information. I've been very careful about not letting industry players tell public policymakers what the time frame is. If I was purely ideological about this, I could just start knocking them [the rules] all out of here. Or worse, do nothing and let them run into the court. But that would bother me. If I'm going to get rid of a rule, I'm going to take responsibility for making that judgment.

Q: Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee that oversees the FCC, says you are moving too fast toward deregulation. What's your reaction?

A: Are there places where we don't agree? Yes. It's more remarkable that there aren't more conflicts like this. I come from a family that teaches if you're not getting people upset, you're not moving forward.

Q: What's your response to critics who say you are a conservative ideologue?

A: I pride myself on being judicious, meaning I'm open-minded and I struggle with problems in a hard, rigorous way. If you were an ideological liberal or an ideological conservative, things would fall into boxes a lot cleaner and you wouldn't care about whether these people didn't like it or these people did.

Q: Why have you pushed so hard on high-definition TV when there is no public outcry for it?

A: Long before I got here, the government went down this road on digital TV. My job and responsibility is to try to make it go, and make it go as quickly and efficiently as it can. We can sit around and say nobody cares, but that's not a solution. The broadcasting community has a lot of competitive challenges. If it doesn't harness its digital future, it will find itself in enormous trouble. And that will be a consumer public policy problem. If broadcasting remains important to consumers, it's because 33% of people still need it, or because when there's a tornado, that's where you're going to get news. Its survival cannot be guaranteed by the government.

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