Kennard races into jam

FCC chair accused of abusing office after favor to station

WASHINGTON — FCC chairman Bill Kennard just can’t get a break. Having tried to do a favor for a Republican congressman and 100,000 car racing fans, he now stands accused of abusing his authority.

Last week a senior FCC official declared that Kennard has allowed political favoritism to get in the way of the agency’s enforcement of its own rules.

At issue is a decision by Kennard to overrule local FCC officials in Texas and allow the owner of a race track to broadcast a relatively weak TV and radio signal to 100,000 people at a weekend NASCAR event.

When the local FCC officials forced the race track owner, Billy Meyer, to shut down the TV and radio broadcast, he warned them he would complain to his congressman Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Kennard, according to a complaint filed by Richard Lee, who at the time of the incident was the chief of the compliance and information bureau.

Back on the air

Meyer made good on his promise, leading to a flurry of calls between Kennard and agency staffers, the result of which was that Meyer was allowed to go back on the air. In a statement released Friday, Kennard said he made a “common sense” decision to allow the station to return to the air on the condition that it shut down as soon as the event was over.

Another serious allegation is that Kennard ordered FCC staffers to help Meyer apply for a license to operate a micro-radio station at his race track. According to Lee’s complaint, several FCC officials were uncomfortable with giving Meyer a license, but at Kennard’s direction, it was awarded anyway.

Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) has called for an investigation of the “serious allegations” against Kennard. That investigation will be carried out by the agency’s inspector general.

Lee points out in his complaint that allowing Meyer to continue broadcasting to the fans at his Texas Metroplex raceway was clearly against agency policy. In fact, so-called pirate radio stations like the one operated by Meyer have been declared public enemy No. 1 by the FCC. More than 500 unauthorized broadcasters have been shuttered by the FCC during the last two years — under the direction of Kennard. The crackdown has led to demonstrations at the FCC and at the annual National Assn. of Broadcasters confab.

Meyer was clearly the exception. But unlike most pirate radio operators, Meyer is an active political campaign contributor. According to FCC records, Barton has received at least $2,000 from Meyer.