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WASHINGTON – FCC Commissioner James Quello, who has been a key ally to the broadcasting industry and a thorn in the side of current chairman Reed Hundt, will step down after 23 years with the agency.

Quello, a Democrat who was appointed by President Nixon in 1974, said he will exit in June. While the 82-year-old commissioner said he would be willing to continue to serve, it appears that the Clinton administration wants to make a change. Quello’s most recent term expired last June.

There is no official word yet on who will replace him next year, but a leading candidate is Federal Communications Commission general counsel William Kennard. One FCC source said Kennard’s appointment is a “done deal,” although any appointment will face congressional scrutiny.

There is already one vacancy on the five-seat commission: Republican Andrew Barrett’s slot has yet to be filled. The leading candidate for that post is FCC Common Carrier Bureau Chief Regina Keeney.

The two other commissioners are Democrat Susan Ness, who is usually on the same page as Hundt, and Republican Rachelle Chong, who has often battled with Hundt. The addition of two new commissioners could make Hundt’s agenda easier to push through.

Kidvid foe

During his tenure at the FCC, Quello was a key player in many broadcast battles. Most recently he fought against Hundt’s proposal to impose strict kidvid programming regulations on the TV industry. Ultimately a compromise was reached, with a three-hour weekly kidvid mandate for the industry going into effect next year.

He also was instrumental in helping Fox grow, supporting the weblet’s fight for waivers of many regs, including the financial interest and syndication rules and the primetime access rule.

Two years ago, he led the charge against those seeking to strip Fox of its TV stations when a debate arose over whether its parent, News Corp., was in violation of the commission’s foreign ownership rules.

Prior to joining the FCC, Quello was a senior radio exec for Capital Cities and ran its Detroit radio stations. The appointment of the decorated World War II vet turned into a battle between broadcasters, who wanted him on the commission because he had experience, and advocacy groups, who feared he would be a pawn of the TV and radio industry.

“He had a sterling career and it was refreshing to have someone who understands the business at the commission,” said Tribune Co.’s top lobbyist Shaun Sheehan.

Short stint as chair

Quello’s career highlight probably came in the early 1990s, when President Clinton named him acting chairman of the FCC. Although it was a short-term appointment, Quello was at the helm when the commission rolled out new cable industry regulations and did away with the financial interest and syndication rules that had prevented the Big Three webs from owning and syndicating their own programming.

Most recently, Quello was known for his disagreements with Hundt. From the time Hundt took office in 1993, the two never really got along. Hundt has clashed with other commissioners, though not as publicly as he has with Quello. Besides kidvid, the two differed on cable regulations and the Fox ownership question.

Their latest battle is over whether the FCC should weigh in on the debate over liquor advertising. Since MCA parent Seagram started buying TV time earlier this year, Hundt has been pushing for an FCC inquiry into hard liquor ads in the hopes of formally banning such blurbs. Quello has disagreed with such a move, arguing that it is up to the Federal Trade Commission, not the FCC, to decide what to do about hard liquor advertising.

Candor and humor

Quello, known for his willingness to speak his mind, was a favorite among lobbyists and the press. He once acknowledged listening to, and enjoying, radio personality Howard Stern at the same time the commission was fining Stern’s parent company Infinity Broadcasting $1 million for allegedly violating the commission’s indecency rules.

He also often joked that his appointment to the FCC cost him millions when CapCities and ABC merged in 1986.

Quello said he plans to finish a book he has been working on and also may consider a teaching post at Michigan State U. Quello is a Michigan native.

Although the timing of Quello’s decision caught many off-guard, the decision of his top aide, Lauren Belvin, to take a post with incoming Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) earlier this month was seen as a sign of things to come.

Christopher Stern in Washington contributed to this report.

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