think tank

A little Southern charm for Tate's coming out

I felt a little guilty as I ducked out of the FCC's field hearing in Nashville last week. But Cletus, from the neo-Billy band the Surreal McCoys, said he could hook me up. He lured me away with the promise that the best second-hand country and western store on the East Coast was a few blocks away. When in Nashville …

In no time, Cletus and I were pawing through the racks at Katy K's Ranch Dressing. There were clothes that might even embarrass Porter Wagoner. Well, probably not.

I was a little disappointed when Wagoner testified before the FCC. It wasn't his testimony. That was fine. It was his attire. I was told that he decided to tone it down and wear his "conservative" suit before the GOP-dominated FCC.

I grew up with Wagoner and George Jones, two of the individuals who spoke before the commission as members of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. But it was impossible to miss the contrast between the old and new when the Recording Artists Coalition brought in Cowboy Troy and Big and Rich.

While the stars grabbed the headlines with their message against allowing any further media concentration, the fact that they turned out may have won them more than their message ever could.

In cold political calculus, celebrity has its uses. The all-star turnout made FCC commissioner Debbie Tate's coming-out party something special. The recording artists delivered for Tate, who maintains close ties to Nashville.

Field hearings are often more important for what happens outside an auditorium than what goes on inside. Tate and FCC chairman Kevin Martin were spotted at the Blue Note after the hearing, listening to Democratic commissioner Jonathan Adelstein blow the blues harp. When in Nashville …

Politics, of course, is a give-and-take game. There's always a tit for your friend's tat, or in this case Tate. In her first press conference, Tate said she wanted to do something to help the music community in Nashville. That community rallied to Tate last week. Now, the question becomes what does she give back?

Tate, who gives visitors to her office Nashville's own GooGoo Clusters and speaks with a soft Tennessee Twang, can put herself in the swing seat on this issue if she wants to. She's a Republican, so there's no way she's going to vote to strengthen media ownership regulations overall. Somewhere in the margins, however, she might be able to deliver something. She could side with Adelstein and Democratic commissioner Michael Copps on some issue buried in a decision that benefits the loosely defined community. Maybe an issue Martin is willing to give on in order to get a majority.

It can be pretty tough to come up with a majority on the five-member panel. Past chairmen have been accused of not being able to count to three. Martin has had a hard time getting to three with the AT&T-Bellsouth merger, where a 2-2 deadlock has held up the deal for months. Tate is Martin's most reliable ally on a commission discovering just how valuable a majority can be. Of course, predicting the future actions of any one commissioner or the panel is always dicey, and there is no direct quid pro quo.

"Does this guilt her into doing something on localism?" asked a representative of the artist groups. "I don't know. I do know she teared up when Porter Wagoner testified."

It remains to be seen if Tate, whose unabashed Southern debutantism and Mrs. Smith Goes-to-Washington attitude, is a steel magnolia or just a wall flower. But when in Nashville …