The White House has confirmed that President Donald Trump has selected Ajit Pai as chair of the Federal Communications Commission. Pai, 44, has served at the FCC since 2012. Broadcasters are giving Pai hearty support for his pro-radio work during the past several years.
“I am deeply grateful to the President,” Pai said in a statement. “I look forward to working with the new administration, my colleagues at the Commission, members of Congress, and the American public to bring the benefits of the digital age to all Americans.”
The National Association of Broadcasters supports President Trump’s selection “without qualifications,” according to a statement. “Ajit Pai is a known quantity who brings integrity, good humor and a fierce intellect to the Commission,” NAB president Gordon Smith says. “We look forward to working with him and his colleagues on a pro-growth FCC agenda that benefits tens of millions of Americans who rely on free broadcast radio and TV for the most popular content, credible news, and lifeline local emergency alerts.”
Pai—who met with Trump in New York a week ago—succeeds Tom Wheeler, who fulfilled his pledge to step down from the Commission with the new President’s swearing-in. Wheeler had led the agency since 2013 and his term wasn’t set to expire until Nov. 3, 2018 but by tradition the FCC chair departs when a new administration takes over.
Broadcasters have been outspoken in their support of Pai who has put the spotlight on a range of radio issues, most notably the AM revitalization effort which has so far allowed more than 1,000 translators to be relocated and paired up with AMs as a potential lifeline.
“Commissioner Pai is one of the best commissioners that we have ever had,” West Virginia Radio Corp. president Dale Miller tells Inside Radio. He credits Pai not only for the AM revitalization effort but also for pushing the agency to scrap the 42-year old newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership prohibition. “Because he understands, as a guy from the Midwest, that in a market like Mason City, IA owning a newspaper and a big FM might be the way both of them survive,” Miller says.
Religious broadcasters have cheered on his defense of free speech and his efforts to quash the final remains of the Fairness Doctrine that lingered on the federal government’s books. “He is a great man and he has been a great commissioner and I think he understands broadcasting issues and we’ve been very pleased with him,” NRB vice president Aaron Mercer says.
BIA/Kelsey chief economist Mark Fratrik says he too has been impressed with both Pai and fellow Republican commissioner Michael O’Rielly calling them “forceful advocates” for their position. “I’m more encouraged by the fact that they’re ready to take action,” says Fratrik, who previously worked at the National Association of Broadcasters and Federal Trade Commission.
“He knows the business, unlike Tom Wheeler who had a focus on broadband. [Pai] led the AM revitalization project.” MVP Capital managing director Eliot Evers agrees, calling Pai “a commissioner who is deregulatory and knowledgeable.”
Pai vowed to “take a weed whacker” to FCC regulations last month, promising the agency would take a “more sober” regulatory approach under Republican leadership. During a speech at the Free State Foundation in Washington, he signaled his initial agenda would be undoing some of the actions taken by the FCC over the past eight years, telling the crowd that the “days are numbered” for the agency’s controversial net neutrality rules. And when attention is turned to new regulations the bar will be set high. “Proof of market failure should guide the next Commission’s consideration of new regulations,” Pai said. “And the FCC should only adopt a regulation if it determines that its benefits outweigh its costs.”
Former FCC commissioner Robert McDowell—who worked alongside Pai for a year before leaving the Commission in 2013—says the new chairman has “a deep and broad intellectual understanding” of the issues and a “clear and unambiguous” governing philosophy. “He will be among the most experienced and substantive FCC chairs in the agency's history,” McDowell says, predicting, “He will work to implement public policy according to his principles as soon as he can.”
Not everyone is quite so enthusiastic about Pai’s appointment, however. Free Press president Craig Aaron says Pai has been an “opponent” of media diversity and has been “on the wrong side” of just about every major issue that has come before the FCC during his tenure. “He’s never met a mega-merger he didn’t like or a public safeguard he didn’t try to undermine,” Aaron says. “Pai has been an effective obstructionist who looks out for the corporate interests he used to represent in the private sector. If the new president really wanted an FCC chairman who’d stand up against the runaway media consolidation that Trump himself decried in the AT&T/Time Warner deal, Pai would have been his last choice — though corporate lobbyists across the capital are probably thrilled.”
Because Pai already serves at the FCC he won’t be required to go through a Senate confirmation process immediately. Still, he’d need to be reconfirmed by year-end since his term technically expired last year. The White House will instead name a new Republican and Democrat to serve on the Commission, with Beltway sources saying former commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel may be in line to return to the agency to fill the Democratic seat. She exited the Commission on Jan. 3 after her previous term expired and the Senate failed to act on her re-nomination. Before leaving office, President Obama earlier this month sent to Congress a second re-nomination request. Senate Commerce Committee chair John Thune (R-SD) said he is “open to the idea of confirming her later this year.”
Wheeler, 70, has joined the Aspen Institute as a senior fellow. He is the he sixth consecutive FCC chairman to join the nonpartisan think tank after leaving office. Wheeler took to Twitter on Friday to wish his congratulations to his successor.
Read Inside Radio’s 2014 Q&A with Ajit Pai HERE.