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NAB: FCC Could Get Its First Chairwoman

Genachowski exit prompts calls for female nominees — and there’s no shortage of qualified candidates

The speculation over whom President Obama will tap to succeed FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has gone into overdrive since the long-anticipated announcement last month of his departure.

Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge, an advocacy group for Internet openness, called for someone who is “comfortable in the role of a regulator,” among other attributes. Jane Fonda, Geena Davis, Gloria Steinem and others from the Women’s Media Center called for a first-in-history female chair. The National Hispanic Media Coalition called for a “qualified woman of color,” noting the challenges faced by minority owners of media outlets.

Whoever gets the position will inherit one of the most important jobs in the media business, where there are crucial decisions to be made regarding a range of issues including the FCC’s plans to hold incentive auctions, net neutrality rules that could get overturned in the D.C. Circuit and a backlog of indecency complaints. The nominee should expect to be roundly grilled in Senate confirmation hearings.

Given calls for Obama to appoint a minority or a female chairman, it’s only natural that commissioner Mignon Clyburn is on the short list for the top job. After Genachowski and commissioner Robert McDowell depart, she will have the most seniority, having been appointed to the commission in 2009. She’s expected to serve as acting chair until Obama nominates a successor.

Also mentioned is Jessica Rosenworcel, a former staffer to Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), who won confirmation last year. Thirty-seven senators sent a letter to Obama on March 22 calling for him to name her. Clyburn, meanwhile, is the daughter of Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.). The drawback of nominating either Rosenworcel or Clyburn is that each has powerful congressional allies who may be none too pleased if their pick is slighted.

Another possibility is Karen Kornbluh, Obama’s ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Her ties to the president extend throughout his tenure in the Senate and to his 2008 campaign, when she was an adviser. She served as a senior staffer at the FCC in the 1990s, but gained particular attention in the past decade for her writings about the demands of time and finances on American families.

Also being talked about is someone outside the current Beltway circle: Catherine J.K. Sandoval, a member of the California Public Utilities Commission who also worked at the FCC in the 1990s, as director of the Office of Communications Business Opportunities.

Not all the top candidates for the position are female. One possibility is Tom Wheeler, partner with Core Capital Partners, who was a campaign bundler for Obama and led the 2009 transition team’s working group overseeing science, technology, space and arts agencies. He also has extensive experience in cable and telecom, having led each industry’s chief lobbying orgs — the National Cable Television Assn. from 1979-84, and the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Assn. early last decade.

And don’t count out Lawrence Strickling, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Strickling is working on one of Genachowski’s signature priorities, expanded broadband access and adoption. He also served in the FCC in the 1990s, and shares Chicago roots with Obama.

Considering the dramatic changes in the media landscape just in the past four years, there is probably more interest in Obama’s choice this time around. The Women’s Media Center put his pick in historic terms in a letter it sent to the president the day that Genachowski announced his departure: “There has never been a female chair of the Federal Communications Commission, and a woman chair would go far to making women more visible and powerful in media and technology.”

Given that the FCC is facing two vacancies, there’s some expectation that Obama will come up with nominations in the next few months.

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