City councilman faces balancing act

TV/RADIO COLUMN

Roles: Kenneth Harris Sr., a Comcast executive, avoids issues involving the cable company during meetings.

October 10, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

In May 2000, motivational speaker Kenneth N. Harris Sr. took on new responsibilities: He was tapped to be the director of government and public affairs in Baltimore, Harford and Howard counties for Comcast, the regional cable powerhouse.

He holds another job, too; he represents Northeast Baltimore on the City Council. Harris was named to the Comcast post, which pays $70,000, six months after he was sworn into his council position, which pays $48,000 a year.

Why should any of this matter?

Last year, Comcast reached an agreement to buy the cable franchise for Baltimore City from TCI. This year, the company hopes to renegotiate the terms of its contract, an exclusive deal that lasts until 2004. And other issues are facing Harris' colleagues on city council, such as pending legislation that would force the company to chip in more money to city coffers.

Harris is the one who makes sure Comcast lives up to its contractual obligations in the three counties, such as providing free Internet service to schools or public access television stations. "I'm the person everybody comes to when people have questions," Harris says.

Before winning his elected seat, Harris was a motivational speaker and held a job selling heath-care policies to federal employees and union members for a stretch with CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield in Washington.

The councilman disclosed his outside employment, as required, in a single line in papers filed with the city Board of Ethics. And he says he scrupulously shies away from any contact with Comcast issues in the city, either at his public office or in the company. "I don't want any conflict of interest," Harris says.

Colleagues who cover City Hall for this newspaper say that Harris appears to avoid involvement in cable issues. His boss, Comcast regional general manager Doug Sansom, didn't return a message left with a spokeswoman seeking comment.

But this is how business is done by major institutions. They make sure there are familiar faces representing them, as their peers make difficult choices. At the Johns Hopkins University, for example, prominent jobs are held by state Del. Maggie McIntosh, state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman and other politicians.

There are other ways to curry favor, as well. Down in the windowless basement of a congressional office building in Washington, there's a recording studio where Maryland lawmakers routinely troop to sit for interviews to be aired on Comcast's cable system in their districts.

It's an inside joke among lawmakers. They regularly receive several minutes of free cable time with a friendly questioner - so friendly, in fact, that the members of Congress provide their own questions, as one U.S. representative boasted to me.

In Anne Arundel County, where Comcast is one of several cable providers, the ethics board ruled last year that the interviews with county council members represented an unreported gift to the elected officials.

According to the Washington Post, the initial ruling read: "The five minute 'interview' is not really an interview at all, but rather [it] is a staged dialogue that may feature a list of the official's accomplishments ... or other politically friendly messages."

The ruling was revised earlier this year to allow the interviews, as long as the cable stations' staffers wrote the questions themselves - suggesting less collaboration between purported journalist and politician.

The issue was brought to the fore, however, because one county official was pressed about negotiations over future cable contracts by Comcast officials just before her interview was to be taped at the company's studios. She found it upsetting.

Maybe they should have just offered her a job.

Hieronimus goes national

Baltimore's own Zoh Hieronimus is going national.

The conspiracy-spouting, alien-touting Hieronimus was unceremoniously dumped just last year by WCBM (680 AM).

Reborn on WOLB (1010 AM), Future Talk has found new life. The Baltimore City Paper named her the area's top radio host, and, starting Oct. 20, she'll be able to reach many new listeners. Hieronimus will be broadcast nationwide late Saturday nights on dozens of stations.

"Hometown girl does good!" Hieronimus wrote in a jubilant e-mail.

She will be syndicated by Business Talk Radio, a Florida-based company whose offerings tend to focus on the fortunes of financial markets. "It's more of an intellectual-type discussion than you find elsewhere," said Chet Tart, the company's president. "I just think it jogs the mind."

Radio awards

The fourth regional Achievement in Radio Awards finalists are out, heavily represented by WBAL-AM, WPOC-FM, WERQ-FM and other stations. The ceremony on Nov. 8, at which the winners will be announced, will honor ESPN and San Francisco Giants broadcaster Jon Miller, the former voice of the Orioles on WBAL.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folken-flik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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