Michael Powell plans to step down as chairman of the FCC, ending an often-rocky tenure dominated by swift changes in the media and telecommunications landscape.

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WASHINGTON — Michael Powell yesterday announced plans to step down as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), ending an often-rocky tenure dominated by swift changes in the media and telecommunications landscape and fights over indecency on the public airwaves.

Once a bureaucratic backwater chiefly in charge of handing out television and radio licenses, the FCC is now a pivotal agency, its obligations and impact expanding with the technological revolution.

As chairman, Powell steered the FCC on a largely deregulatory path, believing that such a philosophy would speed new gadgets and services — such as next-generation cellphones and Internet phone service — to the public.

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The past four years have seen remarkable change on that digital frontier: Cable giant Comcast entered the consumer phone business while AT&T began pulling out, phone service came to the Internet, digital television and satellite radio appeared in stores, and cellphones become a ubiquitous necessity.

During his tenure, Powell was criticized by the FCC’s two Democratic commissioners and a variety of organizations and advocacy groups for allowing Big Media to grow even bigger.

Eventually, the Republican-led Congress took one of the rules — determining how many stations a television network can own — out of the FCC’s hands and fixed the limits in law.

Michael Powell

March 23, 1963, Birmingham, Ala.

Bachelor’s degree College of William and Mary, 1985; law degree from Georgetown University Law Center, 1993.

U.S. Army, rose to rank of first lieutenant in the 3/2 Armored Cavalry Regiment in Amberg, Germany.

Job history:
Policy adviser, U.S. Department of Defense; judicial clerk to chief judge of U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit; attorney, O’Melveny & Myers; chief of staff, antitrust division, U.S. Department of Justice; commissioner.


Appointed to the commission by former President Clinton in 1997; appointed chairman by President Bush in 2001.


Married to Jane Knott Powell; they have two sons.

Source: The Associated Press

The rest of the rules were put on hold by a federal court, pending review. “I’m not nearly as disappointed about media ownership,” he said yesterday. “It really wasn’t one of my priorities.”

Powell also rejected criticism that the agency favored big business, saying the FCC had approved rules over industry objections allowing consumers to keep their phone numbers when they changed providers and also backed a do-not-call list aimed at curbing telemarketing.

A cultural force

At the same time, the agency under Powell became a cultural force.

It has responded to an unparalleled number of complaints about the coarsening nature of radio and television broadcasts with a fusillade of proposed fines — more than $8.5 million during his four years as chairman — which gained momentum after singer Janet Jackson’s breast was briefly exposed during the halftime show of the 2004 Super Bowl.

During his nationally syndicated radio show yesterday, shock jock Howard Stern bragged that no one would know who Powell is if not for him. For more than a year, Stern, who is employed by Viacom’s Infinity Broadcasting, has railed against Powell and the FCC for the crackdown on indecency.

Polarizing figure

In October, Stern announced he plans to leave over-the-air radio when his contract expires in January 2006 for Sirius Satellite Radio, a subscription service outside the control of FCC decency regulations.

Powell cut a polarizing figure, criticized in some quarters as a friend of big business but praised as a visionary in others.

“I have a vision that’s about technology that empowers consumers over institutions,” Powell said in an interview yesterday. “I felt we had largely accomplished our agenda.”

The son of departing Secretary of State Colin Powell, he said he plans to leave the agency in March. Powell, 41, said he does not have another job offer and has not interviewed with or been contacted by another employer.

“It’s logical to leave between administrations if you’re not really interested in staying” the entire second term, he said.

Powell’s exit begins a transition in agency leadership. A likely successor is Republican FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin, who has sometimes clashed with Powell on policy.

Martin’s wife, Catherine, is an adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney, and both have friends in the administration.

Ally of Powell

The commission’s other remaining Republican is Kathleen Abernathy, a close ally of Powell’s. Her term expired in June, though she received an extension. She has not sought renomination and has privately told some that she would like to leave the FCC this year.

Democrat Michael Copps’ term expires in May, though he seeks another. Only fellow Democrat Jonathan Adelstein, who was reappointed last month, is settled on the five-member commission, which traditionally includes three members from the party that controls the White House.

Powell, a telecommunications lawyer, is a former Army officer who left the service after suffering a near-fatal injury in a 1987 training exercise. He was appointed to the FCC by former President Clinton in 1997.

After George W. Bush was elected president in 2000, Powell was elevated to the post of chairman.