“Before I begin my remarks, three ground rules: First, everyone must sign an ethics pledge that you will not profit from the retelling of my jokes for two years [a reference to the two-year ban on lobbying one’s former agency]; Second all jokes about Comcast/NBC deal are subject to must carry; third, any Verizon employee leaving early a pays $350 dollar fee (a riff on early termination fees).”
The speaker was FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and the venue the Federal Communications Bar Association’s Chairman’s dinner, where the guest of honor is expected–make that required–to poke fun at other commissioners, lobbyists, and usually themselves. The chairman did not disappoint.
Like a client being billed by the hour or a stand-up comic wanting to leave his audience wanting more, Genachowski kept his time with a ballroomful of communications lawyers short and to the point as he deftly skewered targets left and right.
“Just this afternoon,” he said, “AT&T put out a statement accusing Google of ghost writing my jokes, he said, then followed that jab at his telco critics with some sport at the expense of the conservative talkers who have yet to take the chairman’s no for an answer.
“Talk radio hosts have been concerned that I am going to revive the Fairness Doctrine, which is ridiculous,” he said. “I am 100% opposed to the fairness doctrine. I asked for airtime to rebut their claims, but they refused my request…which seems completely unfair to me and ought to illegal.”
Any bets on whether that quote will be taken seriously and converted into another rallying point by the blogosphere?
Most of his riff was devoted to a device borrowed from Stephen Colbert’s ‘Word of the Day.’
Genachowski said the FCC’s Twitter feed is the third most popular government feed (he said that was actually not a joke), with 200,000 followers.
Saying he wanted to break with tradition and talk seriously about key issues and challenges, the chairman also said he wanted to try and collect some real time tweets reacting to those issues.
What followed were a string of mock responses from familiar names–company lobbyists, association heads, FCC staffers, journalists–that were filled with clever inside jokes.
“One important issue,” he began, but the rest was drowned out by a roomful of hysterical lawyers as the first of a string of ‘tweets” began to appear on the video screens around the room: “Brian Roberts: UR Hilarious. Best Chairman’s dinner ever,” followed almost immediately by “Zucker: Totally Agree.”
“An open Internet creates jobs and spurs economic growth,” Genachowski continued, as this tweet, ostensibly from an AT&T lobbyist, appeared: “Jim Cicconi: You Lie!”
“As everybody knows, we’ve been working around the clock to develop a national broadband plan,” the chairman deadpanned. Raucous laughter again as the following appeared “[Free Press’s] Ben Scott: Has anyone else noticed the wait staff has prioritized service to Comcast?” followed by “Brian Roberts: C’mon, that’s just reasonable dinner management.”
The crowd was essentially one, roiling sea of laughing lawyers.
“In fact, since this dinner began, our broadband team has scheduled two workshops and issued a public notice,” he said, as the following tweet appeared: FCC: ‘How To Extend Robust Dinner Service To The Furthest Tables.” Comments in 3 minutes.”
“We have to improve broadband deployment and adoption for three key reasons,” he said.
Mock tweet: “Preston Padden: Piracy, Piracy, Piracy.”
Among the other tweets drawing long laughs: “Kyle McSlarrow: How does dessert work? I hope it’s not a la carte?” Actually, there was a card on the table advertising wine “a la carte,” but I was at the NAB table so it did not raise any eyebrows.
And this exchange when the chairman was talking about encouraging mobile broadband:
“[NAB President] Gordon Smith: Did Blair Levin Just Take My Dessert?”
”[FCC Broadband Advisor] Blair Levin: You weren’t going to eat all of it.”
Among the other targets of what was generally gentle good humor was the loyal opposition. “It is a real pleasure to work with Commissioner Robert McDowell,” he said. “I’m sure he would agree…and dissent in part.”
Genachowski said Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker not only brings invaluable insights from her stint as acting head of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, “she also brings her dog.” (Editor’s note: Baker has a lab which she has brought in for a few hours every few weeks, said one staffer, who added that someone at the FCC had complained and the visits might have to be curtailed.)
“We made an exception to the ‘no pets’ policy,” said the chairman, “when commissioner Baker explained that the dog was trained to sniff out unused spectrum.”
Genachowski said the FCC staff included entrepreneurs, doctors, educators, consumer advocates, a PHD in theoretical physics, “and now, the Sham-Wow guy,” who he said had been hired to clean up the Universal Service Fund. “It’s a four Sham-Wow job,” he added.
The FCC has been updating its site to make it more user-friendly, said the chairman. “Now, when you look up a filing you get a pop-up that says: ‘Here are some other pleadings people like you might enjoy.’”
The room was laden with lawyers and stuffed with FCC staffers and filled with former FCC chairmen and commissioners and bustling with businessfolk and peppered with press.
Familiar faces included Former Chairmen Michael Powell and Dick Wiley, the latter the subject of at least two jokes from the current chairman.
Former Chairman Reed Hundt was spotted, as were former commissioners Deborah Taylor Tate, Harold Furchtgott-Roth, Susan Ness, Kathleen Abernathy, and Jonathan Adelstein. The current FCC crew was all in attendance with their significant others. That proved to be quite a slog for Genachowski’s wife, Rachel Goslins, independent TV and film producer and the new executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. She took a 25-hour flight to make it back from Moscow, where she was on official business.
It was worth the trip.