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Association Bisnow
October 29, 2007
Is Running an Association Harder than an Agency?

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As Deputy Secretary of Energy from 2002 to early '05, Kyle McSlarrow was effectively the COO whose orders were commands.  “You get used to making decisions and just having people execute them,” says Kyle, who left DoE to take charge of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.  While his CEO duties at NCTA are less stressful than worrying about nuclear weapons facilities, decision-making can be more complicated.  “I have a lot of family-owned businesses as members. Trying to arrive at consensus is not always easy. There’s a little bit of herding cats.” 

The association represents 50 cable operators including big names like Comcast, Cox, and Time Warner; 200 networks like ESPN, Oxygen, and TNT; and lots of associate members.  The biggest change Kyle has implemented internally is asking everyone to work at some level on issue advocacy.   Gone are the days when NCTA sponsored the annual Television Critics Association tour, which has been given to the industry’s marketing arm.  While the increased policy focus requires more time dealing with the FCC, Kyle says that “I find myself drawn to the business side. What I find fascinating is the pace of the change in technology. It’s just very cool stuff.”  He likes being a board member of CableLabs, the non-profit R&D industry group, and getting to run the annual cable show attended by 15,000 who test the latest gadgets over 200,000 square feet of exhibition space in places like Las Vegas or New Orleans.

That model oil derrick is one of the few gifts from foreigners that Kyle could afford to buy when he left the U.S. government.  It was given to him by Russia’s state-owned oil company, Rosneft.  Kyle hasn’t lost touch with 1600 Penn—he’s serving on the President’s National Security Telecommunications Advisory Committee, counseling on emergency preparedness.

The NCTA has 34 board members and Kyle makes sure he talks to two or three of them every day—people like Comcast CEO Brian Roberts or ESPN chief George Bodenheimer, and issues like “net neutrality.”  The cable industry itself is very collegial, he says, so there are lots of dinners and keynote opportunities.  Building and keeping membership isn’t so much of an issue because the industry is fairly stable. That’s also true of Kyle’s board. “The board members have been around for a long, long time and they get Washington. I was lucky in that sense. I didn’t have to come in and recreate something.” On the other hand, there are other telecom and entertainment trade associations to take into account.  “We sometimes fight like cats and dogs,” says Kyle, who got useful training guiding DoE in internecine agency battles and negotiations with Congress.  “But my sense is there’s a lot more coordination over the last year than there was three or four years ago.”  

Among Kyle’s office treasures is a soccer ball signed by Pele.  Kyle was an amateur player in Virginia adult leagues until he injured his back.  Now he’s living vicariously through the sports activities of his three sons, aged 16, 7 and 5. But of course he has his political side, too.  Above he has an inscribed pic from the California Governator, grateful for DoE’s help during the state’s electricity crisis of 2001. 

The Cornell and Georgetown Law grad who grew up as an army brat in Germany and southern Virginia and came to Washington after ROTC to work in the Pentagon, finds politics second nature.  He worked on the Hill for Senators Bob Dole and Paul Coverdale, ran Dan Quayle’s Arizona presidential campaign in the late 90s and with Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry at a start up called

What else does he do in his spare time?  Naturally Kyle says he “walks the walk” of his association by being “a big consumer of television,” much of it recorded by DVR for later viewing:  FOX’s Prison Break and House, TNT’s The Closer, and the Sci Fi Channel’s Battlestar Galactica.  Of course, as a former DoE big shot, he probably knows something about Roswell and may not think he’s watching science fiction.   


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