FCC’s colorful Media Bureau chief

Apr 29, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Just after a top personal aide to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell recently insisted publicly that a comprehensive plan by the chairman to spur the digital TV transition is entirely voluntary-that there was “no stick”-Ken Ferree, the agency’s new Media Bureau chief, gave broadcasters a decidedly different take.
“Don’t worry about the stick,” Mr. Ferree told key industry lobbyists attending the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas this month. “I’ll be the stick.”
“They need a good cop,” he added, explaining the apparent contradiction between the agency’s public and private positions on the issue. “I’ll be the bad cop.”
Mr. Ferree subsequently told a reporter he had been joking.
“We want the industry to work with us,” he said.
But industry sources said firing-from-the-lip candor is just one of the charming traits that Mr. Ferree has brought to an agency leadership post traditionally commanded by indirect, cover-thine-own-butt-first bureaucrats.
“He’s an unbelievably straight shooter in a town of nonstraight shooters,” said Preston Padden, executive VP, worldwide government relations, for The Walt Disney Co. “He tells people what he thinks, and it’s wonderful.”
Mr. Ferree, 41, is certainly one of the more colorful FCC bureau chiefs ever.
At 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, he cuts an imposing physical figure. That he commutes to work on a motorcycle (a 1,100cc Honda named Little Sorrel after Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s horse), has a black belt in kung fu, played college football (offensive tackle, All Ivy, All New England), flies airplanes, teaches at a law school and plays classical piano add dimensions to the legend.
A friend of Mr. Powell, Mr. Ferree was originally brought on board to head the agency’s cable services bureau in May 2001. When that bureau was folded into the mass media bureau in March of this year, Mr. Ferree was put in charge, taking on one of the agency’s most important assignments: overseeing the staff of 270.
Among the bigger policy bites on his plate will be overseeing the digital TV rollout and making sense of the agency’s media ownership regulations, many of which have been thrown into jeopardy by the courts over the past year or so. In addition, the bureau is leading the FCC review of the pending merger of Comcast with AT&T and EchoStar Communications’ proposed acquisition of DirecTV.
“I think he’s up to it, but it’s a helluva job,” said Greg Schmidt, VP, new development, and general counsel, LIN Television.
“He’s got the energy and charisma to bring the parties to the table and make things happen,” Mr. Schmidt added.
Said Andrew Schwartzman, president of the activist Media Access Project, “We consider him to be a very effective guy.”
Before his arrival at the agency, Mr. Ferree worked for seven years at the telecommunications law firm of Goldberg, Godles, Wiener & Wright in Washington, where he represented a variety of telecom interests, including PanAmSat, an international satellite firm, and OpTel, a private cable TV company.
Henry Goldberg, a partner at the firm, said Mr. Ferree was a free spirit even then. He would get a rise out of clients when he walked into the office fresh from his commute still wearing his helmet and motorcycle leathers.
“I would say, `No, he’s not a messenger, he’s my partner,”’ Mr. Goldberg said.
But Mr. Goldberg said Mr. Ferree also established himself as a quick but meticulous lawyer, a combination the firm’s clients appreciated.
“He didn’t run up the bill by taking his time,” Mr. Goldberg said.
Among the key issues at the top of the Media Bureau’s agenda, according to Mr. Ferree, will be rewriting the agency’s media ownership rules-a review he doesn’t believe will be completed this year.
“The reality is we can’t keep doing half the job and sending these cases back to the court and getting reversed again,” Mr. Ferree said.
“We’re in the process now of a more global rethinking of the framework for evaluating concentration in local media markets,” he continued. “All of these rules are going to be wrapped up in this rethinking process, and it’s going to take some time.”
Mr. Ferree said he first ran into Mr. Powell when they were students at Georgetown University Law Center in the early ’90s. But the two didn’t really get to know each other until after they clerked for U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Harry Edwards.
“Ken’s intelligence, knowledge of communications issues, team-building skills and decisiveness make him an ideal person to build and the lead the new Media Bureau as we deal with the vital issues of convergence and the impact of the digital revolution,” said Mr. Powell.
In his new post at the FCC, Mr. Ferree is also playing to positive reviews from his chief industry constituents.
“He always wants to hear both sides and challenges the parties’ assumptions,” said Robert Sachs, president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.
Added Jeff Baumann, NAB executive VP, ”He’s been very fair in allocating time and has always given us a fair hearing.”
In addition to his other accomplishments, Mr. Ferree, who is married and has two children, has an MBA from San Jose State University and worked for the law firms of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering and Wiley Rein & Fielding.
After graduating from Dartmouth College in 1983, he and a friend launched a business importing Mexican textiles into New England. He also worked as an assistant football coach in 1984 at his alma mater, and afterward as a salesman for a California technical supply company.