Was that Kevin or Steve Martin?

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Armed with a top 10 list–actually top seven–a la David Letterman and a phone answering machine bit–shades of that other Button-down guy, Bob Newhart–FCC Chairman Kevin Martin took gentle aim at himself and his critics at the annual Federal Communications Bar Association's chairman's dinner last night in Washington.

After his warm-up act, a tongue-mostly-in-cheek introduction from Former National Association of Broadcasters President Eddie Fritts reprising a similar role at last year's dinner, Martin took aim at the perception in some quarters that he has picked on cable while cuddling up to the Baby Bells, and chided his fellow commissioners taking particular aim at newest commissioner, Republican Robert McDowell, who has proved an independent-minded addition and an occasionally tough third vote for the chairman.

The dinner had been scheduled for December, but had to be moved to April.

Martin said the rescheduling had been due primarily to "problems with the commissioners. Commissioner Tate raised concerns that the dessert brownies had too many calories for any children who were present [Tate and Martin have teamed on a task force to prod industry to work with government to attack the childhood obesity problem]. Commissioner Adelstein wanted to keep the brownies, but he said friends in the music industry wanted to put something extra in the brownies to, quote, help the music flow. Commissioner Copps was concerned about how the meat would be presented," said Martin. "He kept talking about the importance of steakholders. Commissioner McDowell refused to participate at all in choosing the menu, but then expressed outrage that we were serving swiss cheese. And I, of course, wanted the whole meal to be served a la carte."

Martin got some extra mileage out of a joke he told at last year's dinner about the KGB-like atmosphere at the FCC, a reference to reports his management style tends toward the controlling. Last year's joke was used against him by California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, who suggested to Martin the criticisms of his management style were no laughing matter.

"As a result," he said, "when we got together to write these remarks there was, and there is really no other way to put this, a KGB-like atmosphere at the commission," a line that drew extended applause.

Saying the FCC was not like the KGB, Martin ticked off the top reasons why:

7. The KGB knows how to terminate a backlog.

6. KGB agents speak Russian. Linguists still unable to determine language of FCC orders..

5. KGB can monitor the NSA’s activities.

4. KGB officials don't wait for public hearings to decide things.

3. The KGB is run efficiently.

2. The KGB knows how to handle recusals (McDowell recused himself from the AT&T/Bell South merger vote,forcing Martin to accept some merger conditions pushed by the Democratic commissioners). There was much groaning from the audience at this second reference to McDowell, but there was more to come.

1. The highest rank ever achieved in government by a former KGB official: President. The highest rank ever achieved in the U.S. government by a former FCC Chairman: FCC Chairman.

Saying some people were alleging he has been picking on the cable industry, Martin said he was trying to do all he could to show that was not the case. "For example, I just set up a private meeting of cable industry leaders with a very senior White House official. The hunting trip with the vice president is all arranged."

As a step toward changing its message toward cable, Martin said he was starting with the commission's answering machine:

"Hi, you've reached the FCC. If this is AT&T, please press one for our merger approval hotline. If you're calling from a Vonage phone, please hang up and dial from a Verizon phone. If this is the cable industry and you're calling about a waiver, your call is very important to us [extended pause] goodbye."

Martin said his son Luke had been very excited about getting the chance to play with McDowell's son, Griffin, Martin added that Griffin was "a little demanding. At first it was unclear whether he wanted to play or not. Some people thought he would. Some People thought he wouldn't. Finally, he said he would only play if we bought him a suit of armor [yet another reference to McDowell's recusal from the AT&T/Bell South vote]."

Martin chided Adelstein for his "side deal" with radio stations in a payola settlement. The stations agreed to set aside 4,200 hours of airtime for independent artists. "Ten percent of that set-aside must be used to play the music of a certain harmonica player," said Martin, flashing a picture of Adelstein, who plays the instrument.

Calling him "the professor of our group" and "Dr. Copps," Martin said Commissioner Michael Copps had done an "extraordinary job of rallying his troops on the media ownership review," flashing a picture of Copps as Elvis for his appearance at a Nashville public hearing on media ownership, then as The Pope addressing "the faithful in Columbus," the site of a town meeting on ownership.

Then came the kicker: "Can you imagine the crowd he'd get if the FCC were actually going to do anything on media ownership."

By John Eggerton

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