FCC’s Wheeler Delivers In Debut as Toastmaster

WASHINGTON — “A home run” is how one attendee rated new Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler’s turn on the dais at the 27th annual Federal Communications Bar AssociationChairman’s Dinner at the Washington Hilton Hotel last Thursday night (Dec. 5), adding, “I don’t know how he could have done any better.”

The over/under going into the speech was that it might be “over” on the serious and “under” on the funny. It was neither. The chairman historically roasts the industry with a series of one-liners, often with visual aids, and Wheeler did not disappoint.


He riffed on his age (he is a grandfather), the fact that he is not a lawyer and his lobbying background as head of both the wireless and cable trade associations.

In fact, he said, he is the first chairman to have lobbied most of his staff . “And do you know why I hired them? Because they never gave me what I wanted.”

When people ask why he has such a fascination with the Civil War, Wheeler said he didn’t know how to respond, adding, “Maybe you just had to be there.”

The dinner was certainly a “had to be there” event for Washington lawyers and lobbyists getting a read on the new chairman.

Wheeler provided those lawyers with some tips on how to lobby him, given that he once sat on their side of the table.

Those tips mostly came down to praising his books, quoting from his books, citing Ohio State football victories instead of cases like FCC v. Pacifica, using Civil War metaphors, and “oohing and aahing” over his grandchildren, preferably asking to see pictures without prompting.

In fact, the video screens that ringed the room were often graced with shots of his three grandchildren, and attendees were urged to ooh and aah liberally. They did, once they got the idea.

“I’m not saying oohing and aahing over the grandchildren will get you the spectrum policy you want,” he said. “But it couldn’t hurt.”

Wheeler said quoting from his book was good, but bringing in a box of books to autograph was “too much.”

He was an equal-opportunity skewerer, taking shots at the cable, and wireless and broadcasting industries.


The biggest cable groaner was probably when he talked about his nomination being held up by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas): “People have asked me: What was it like to be at the mercy of one individual’s whims? To effectively be taken hostage and your life put on hold for what seems like an eternity? Think cable service call.”

He peered out at the audience, asking, “Where is the NCTA table?” And then, ”How are the programmers and cable operators getting along?” The National Cable & Telecommunications Association has had to keep its powder pretty dry on carriage and programming- cost issues, given it has members on both sides of the debate.

Following the audible groans from the cable section of the room, Wheeler added, “I guess I should apologize … But I won’t.”

Saying he was actually young once, Wheeler played a C-SPAN clip from a Women in Cable salute to him while he was head of the NCTA, showing a young, Mark Spitz-like Wheeler (the screen briefly flashed a Ron Burgundy photo) being sung to by a trio of pom-pom waving, baton twirling “Tom-ettes” shouting “Tommy, Tommy you’re so fine.” He indicated it had taken “years of therapy” to get over that “memorable” evening.

Wheeler had the phone companies’ ears burning as well.

The New York Times reported last month that the CIA was paying AT&T $10 million a year for phone data,” Wheeler said. “I know that AT&T is making shared data plans mandatory, but come on.”

Wheeler also alluded to the issue of whether bidding conditions should promote the participation of T-Mobile and Sprint in the incentive auctions and potentially limit the spectrum aggregation by AT&T and Verizon: “We have a good supply of wine here tonight, but it’s a limited supply. So, AT&T and Verizon, I’m going to have to ask you to limit yourselves. T-Mobile and Sprint, go at it guys.”

He added, “Would you show up and buy something?”

Broadcasters took a licking over suggestions they might have to move to a cable-only model if over-thetop providers don’t have to pay for their content. “Aereo has been in the news a lot,” Wheeler said. “It has rankled broadcasters, who are now threatening to stop broadcasting their content and move to cable. And here I thought we had to pay them to do that.”


It was a roomful of lawyers, so, of course Wheeler had lawyer jokes. Wheeler said he had always been “jealous of those who could use their legal sheepskin as air cover,” because saying “ ‘I’m a lawyer’ is so much better than describing it by what you really do.”

Wheeler pointed out that upon his arrival at the FCC, he had christened it the Federal Optimism Agency and said he would extend that sunny, positive attitude to his dealings with all the FCC stakeholders “until some SOB sues us in some B.S. lawsuit.”

Then there was the one about White House deputy chief technology officer Tom Power, who had worked during the government shutdown as a bartender. Wheeler said he had to clear it with ethics, and the only stipulation was he could not take tips from telecom lawyers. “That was easy,” Wheeler quipped.

Even former chairmen (and chairwomen) were fair game.

In fact, in a nod to former acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, it was she who stepped up to the podium, to cheers and lengthy applause, when Wheeler was introduced at the beginning of the night. “The mayor of Toronto and Tom Wheeler walked into a bar,” Clyburn deadpanned. “I’m not making a joke, I’m just telling you where Tom was.”

“Jokes about being the first female chair are even funnier when Tom tells them,” she added.

Wheeler took a gentle shot at former chairman Julius Genachowski, who joined a think tank after exiting the commission, a fairly common move: “At my age, many people are saying this will be my last gig. Are you crazy? I’m that close to being a senior fellow at the Aspen Institute.”

Then it was Reed Hundt’s turn. “He’s leading the charge to get the Redskins to change their name,” Wheeler said. “I’m sure that Reed and Skins owner Dan Snyder will be able to work something out. Both men are so well-known for their humility and flexibility.”

Wheeler said he sat down in the cafeteria with a couple of staffers and drew blank stares when he introduced himself as Tom Wheeler, and the same when he said he was the new chairman. Turns out, they were from across the street at Immigration and Customs and just came over for the food. “Think about what I just said for a second,” Wheeler said. “There are actually people who come to The Portals [FCC headquarters] for the food. That’s like going to [NCTA president and former FCC chairman] Michael Powell for hair care tips.”


Wheeler ended on a serious note, talking about the death of Nelson Mandela. “We can all pray that someday we could have the principles, the vision, the courage of Nelson Mandela.”

The dinner hosted a record 1,600 people and raised more than $44,000 for FCBA scholarships and other programs, according to FCBA president Joe Di Scipio.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.