The Cable Guy

With the election of Barack Obama, Waxhaw native Kevin Martin, the powerful head of the FCC who's been called the "nation's indecency czar," moves on, leaving with a mixed legacy and uncertain future

Written by Mike Madden
Photo: AP Photo/LM Otero


Walk into Kevin Martin's Washington office and before you even get through the door you're reminded of exactly how he got there.

A native of Waxhaw, in Union County, Martin is one of the youngest people ever to head the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that sets the nation's communications policy. When George W. Bush named him FCC chairman three years ago, he wasn't even forty yet. By Washington standards — by any standards, really — it was a quick rise to the top of his field. Not that long before, he'd been a staffer at the FCC, working for one of the panel's Republican members during the last few years of the Clinton administration; he came to the job from a stint working for Ken Starr on the investigation that introduced the nation to Monica Lewinsky. But Martin had longstanding ties to Bush — he was the deputy general counsel for his 2000 campaign against Al Gore, and when it was apparent the race was going to come down to the recount in Florida, he hopped a flight to Miami without stopping to pack.

When Bush prevailed, he rewarded Martin's loyalty with a seat on the FCC in 2001. Four years later, he named him chairman. Which may explain why the hallway leading to Martin's spacious office on the top floor of the agency's building is decorated not with family photos or memorabilia from the job, but with full-size reproductions of newspaper front pages from a cold day back in December 2000 announcing that the Supreme Court had ruled in Bush's favor in the protracted legal battle against Al Gore over which one of them would wind up in the White House.

By the time Martin steps down as chairman on January 20, he will have served nearly eight years in the Bush administration — longer than many political appointees stick around. With far-reaching influence over the entire telecommunications industry — from Super Bowl halftime shows to broadband Internet access, being chair of the FCC is one of the most powerful gigs inside the Beltway, and Martin was one of the most powerful chairs in recent memory. What he plans to do next isn't clear; he can stay on the commission until 2011, though Barack Obama will name a new chairman, and traditionally anyone leaving the top job steps down altogether. The rumor mill, in D.C. and in North Carolina, has Martin preparing to run for office back home in the near future. Martin won't say what his next move is.
His time at the FCC doesn't look like an ideal springboard into retail politics. Crafting a compelling campaign narrative out of eight years at a federal regulatory agency would be tough under any circumstances; telecom policy isn't exactly the stuff of water-cooler conversations outside of Washington. And Martin, who was seen as a consensus builder when he came in, hasn't found it easy to keep that reputation since he took charge. He's been more involved in the agency's day-to-day operations than most previous chairmen, but like the president who gave him the job, Martin won't leave office anywhere near as popular as he was when he came in. ("The Champagne corks are going to pop on January 20 in the Portals," says one senior FCC official who didn't want to be quoted by name, referring to the agency's headquarters in southwest D.C.)

Martin has presided over communications policy at a time when the technology involved threatens to leave behind anyone trying to keep up with it — regulators, users, even the inventors—and he's pushed his own vision on industries ranging from TV to cellphones to cable, easing many of his agency's regulations while letting the big players in each sector challenge each other's dominance on their own turf, so now you can get cable service from your phone company and vice versa. But he's also drawn criticism for a hands-on management style that a recent congressional report found brought a "climate of fear" to the agency. And the main reason anyone outside the telecom industry has even heard of Martin is because he's taken the FCC's battles against so-called "indecent" programming on radio and television to new heights, seeking record fines against broadcasters who air sexually explicit scenes or language—The Philadelphia Inquirer dubbed Martin "the nation's indecency czar." He'll leave behind a mixed legacy, no matter where he goes when he finishes at the commission.

After the newspaper exhibits, the first thing you notice, upon walking into Martin's office, is how young he looks. It's become a cliché in profiles of the FCC chairman to point out his boyish looks and his glasses apparently borrowed from Harry Potter. At forty-two, Martin still comes across as the eager former Chapel Hill student body president that he is; soft spoken and polite in person, he's free of the portentous self-importance that some Washington officials of his rank can easily wind up taking on. "He likes to sit back and chew the fat, put his feet up, have a few beers," says Justin Lilley, a telecom lobbyist and lawyer who's been friends with Martin for about a dozen years, long before Martin reached the top ranks of the government. "He likes talking about politics — he's a pretty good student of the game." Not only is he the nation's top telecom regulator, but he's also an avid customer — Martin carries, on any given day, a BlackBerry for e-mail, a cellphone, and an iPhone, and he's got a jumbo cable package, along with high-speed Internet, and a land-line phone connection at his home in Washington's Georgetown neighborhood, where he lives with his wife, Cathie, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, and their two children. (A third is due in February.)

When we spoke in early December, Martin was already something of a lame duck, though neither of us knew it at the time. The agency was scheduled to have a final business meeting a couple of weeks later, where Martin had hoped to have a vote on a plan to require operators to help expand access to high-speed Internet. But a few days before the meeting, the new chairmen of the House and Senate committees that oversee the FCC wrote to Martin and told him they didn't want the agency working on anything except a February deadline for TV broadcasts to go all digital. So Martin canceled the meeting, and his term came to a quiet end.

Still, by then, he felt he'd already accomplished quite a bit. He's particularly proud of how he and the FCC prodded cellphone companies to open their networks to different devices and programs; the idea is that, sometime in the near future, you'll be able to buy whatever phone you want, load it up with whatever software you want, and use it on whichever network you like best. "Within about eighteen months, the entire wireless industry has gone from saying it was technologically impossible and saying they didn't want to, to all of them now moving to embrace openness in one way or another," Martin says.

Verizon will soon allow consumers to use whatever phones they want on its network, and T-Mobile recently launched a new phone that uses Google software, which is expected to be the first in a new batch of devices using software the phone companies don't control. The commission raised almost $20 billion auctioning off rights to the unused airwaves between TV channels, and Martin expects to see new wireless Internet networks and other possible innovations filling the new airspace.

Martin's time in office has also coincided with the explosion of high-speed Internet service: when he was first appointed, in 2001, ordering a high-speed line at home was an esoteric luxury, with only about 9 million broadband connections nationwide, and now it's starting to seem more like a must-have utility, with more than 100 million lines connected around the country. "Things are changing so quickly because of changes in technology, and how we push that technology out is critically important to the country," Martin says. As chairman, he pushed hard to make sure service providers allow access to any Web sites or programs, so they don't just steer their customers to their own partners or portals.

He's become a hero to social conservatives fed up with what they see as smut on TV and the radio, by seeking the largest fines ever levied against broadcasters who violate the FCC's indecency regulations. The most notorious recent case was the fine his predecessor, Michael Powell, sought against CBS for Janet Jackson's Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction," but Martin has carried that crusade much further. "Chairman Martin has been a tireless advocate for consumers and parents and families," says Dan Isett, the director of public policy for the Parents Television Council, a group that wants to clean up prime time. "He recognizes the impact that the media environment has on children."

At Martin's urging, the FCC has fined CBS $3.6 million for showing a simulated teenage orgy on the drama Without a Trace and Univision $24 million for steamy telenovela scenes—by far the largest fines the agency has ever proposed. The commission also took a case to the Supreme Court to defend its right to sock broadcasters with hefty fines for violating decency standards after it lost at the federal appellate court level. (The final ruling isn't out yet.) The industry has mocked Martin for this particular policy direction; Ad Age magazine called him the "Church Lady" earlier this summer, a snarky reference to the old Saturday Night Live bit featuring Dana Carvey as a morality cop. But Martin says he's just doing his job. "We, the commission, should be doing what we can to protect families and give parents the tools to protect their children from content," he says. "When I arrived at the commission, the first year, we only had a couple hundred complaints. And the next year we had thousands of complaints, and the next year we had tens of thousands — hundreds of thousands — we had over 1 million in 2004, and hundreds of thousands since then." (That argument is a little misleading — groups like the Parents Television Council have been deliberately funneling mass complaints by getting members to fill out online forms, hoping to goad the FCC into cracking down. Martin says a complaint is a complaint, and that the indecency standards are part of his responsibilities under the law.) Many of the broadcasters who Martin has clashed with grumble that he's catering to religious conservatives with his crackdowns; he took the indecency fight beyond even what Powell, also a Bush appointee, had done. He may have been pandering to Congress as well, since lawmakers managed to make a lot of political hay out of grandstanding attacks on loose TV morals.

Martin's main frustration in office, he says, has been the pace at which the agency makes decisions. "The biggest challenge at the commission is actually getting the other commissioners to make hard decisions," he says. "Oftentimes, it's not that we don't know there's a problem — it's being willing to say, ‘Well, let's not put this off, let's make a hard decision, what's the right answer.' " But his critics, inside and outside the agency, say Martin's own management style has something to do with that. Decisions — major or minor — frequently had to circulate through Martin's office before the FCC could act on them, and that slowed things down. "He has not done well in terms of creating a cohesive commission," says Andrew Jay Schwartzman, the CEO of the Media Access Project, a public-interest group in D.C. that has frequently clashed with Martin over consumer issues. The Democratic staff of the House Energy and Commerce Committee issued a scathing, 110-page report on Martin's leadership in December, finding "unexplained staff shakeups and micromanagement" demoralized the FCC's staff. Within the agency, people were wary of crossing Martin. "It wasn't like he was trying to be mean to people, but if they questioned him and got in the way, the method was intimidation," the senior FCC official says. Cable companies in particular clashed with Martin, accusing him of being tougher on them than on the phone companies who are now also competing for TV subscribers.

Martin knows he's made some enemies, but he says it's partly because he never stuck to an ideological vision for the agency's work. "There's times I vote with the two Democrats [on the commission], and there's times when I vote with the two Republicans," he says, chuckling. "Everyone's mad—no one remembers when I'm with them, they only remember when I'm against them." The House report landed without much of a splash outside the narrow world of telecom law and lobbying in Washington, and Martin's staff mostly dismissed it. Martin says criticism automatically comes along with the nice office and the fancy title. "Whenever you are put in a position of responsibility, that you have to make actual decisions, particularly when there's competing interests, some people aren't going to like the decisions you make," he says. "You have to recognize that kind of comes with the territory."

On a November Sunday afternoon just outside Phoenix, NASCAR's Sprint Cup race was nearly over. Suddenly, on lap 274, there was a wreck. David Gilliland's number thirty-eight Ford Fusion wound up sitting on top of fellow driver Scott Speed's hood. That probably wasn't so good for Gilliland, but the nearly eighteen-minute cleanup did mean a lot of exposure for the ads all over his car—sponsored by the FCC.

Midway through the fall, with the digital TV transition fast approaching, Martin announced the FCC would spend $350,000 to put an ad about the change on Gilliland's car for three races at the end of the NASCAR season. (The car crashed in the first two, prompting Martin to remark that "the cars that are in wrecks get a lot of attention.") The move was soundly panned by the other FCC commissioners and by government budget watchdogs, but it became more fodder for the frenzied rumors that Martin is trying to boost his profile in NASCAR-friendly North Carolina for a future bid for office. Why else, the theory goes, would he get the FCC involved in auto racing?
Martin is clearly fond of North Carolina, and Charlotte in particular. He grew up commuting to the city every day with his father, who owned a small insurance firm downtown; though he lived in Union County, he went to St. Gabriel's for grammar school and Charlotte Catholic for high school. He went on to UNC and later earned a master's degree in public policy from Duke before getting a law degree at Harvard—it may not be good for a possible North Carolina political career that a friend jokes that Martin manages to be a fan of both the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils. "Certainly I've enjoyed our time in Washington, but there's always a pull to try to think about going back home," Martin says. "My mom still lives in the same house where they lived when I was born." As of early December, Martin says he doesn't have any plans yet for after stepping down as chairman. He does hint at a desire to stay involved in public life: "I'll always look for opportunities to come back and serve again in the future, wherever I am—whether it's in North Carolina or up here."

Like many rumors, though, the evidence for this theory is circumstantial. The North Carolina Democratic Party claimed Martin was traveling back home while in office to help lay the groundwork for a race; he picked Wilmington as the first test market for the digital TV switch, which meant he was in the state a lot over the last couple of years. (Though not, according to Martin, often enough to suit his family: whether he gets home a lot "depends on if you ask me or my mom," he jokes.) Still, he didn't leave Washington in time to get involved in the 2008 campaigns, and it's not clear what office he'd seek if that's what he decides to do. Friends and colleagues say they're not sure he's interested in all the schmoozing required to run for office. And Martin himself, after the last bruising few years, sounds like he might be ready to get out of the spotlight for a while. "My wife would tell you it's probably time for me to go get in the private sector and get a real job for a little while," he says.

Mike Madden is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Salon. For the September issue of this magazine, he wrote about Barack Obama's efforts to win North Carolina.

Categories: Politics