Pandora taps tech policy warrior

From the fight against the Stop Online Piracy Act to the effort to block AT&T’s bid for T-Mobile, Maura Corbett has been on the front lines of the top tech policy battlegrounds in Washington.

Corbett, the founder and president of public affairs firm Glen Echo Group, has gained recognition over the years for her coalition-building efforts and ability to unite a diverse team of public interest advocates and top corporations around a divisive policy issue, even when they don’t see eye to eye on virtually anything else.

Based on Corbett’s past work, online radio service Pandora has tapped Glen Echo to help with its communications efforts ahead of a brewing battle over royalty fees for musicians and recording artists whose songs are played over the Web.

Corbett had worked with the Oakland, Calif.-based company back in 2007 when the royalties battle between the record labels and Internet radio services flared up the first time.

While at Qorvis Communications, Corbett built the SaveNetRadio coalition after the Copyright Royalty Board proposed to significantly raise the royalty fees that Internet radio services like Pandora would have to pay recording artists and musicians. Pandora argued that the new rates threatened to put it out of business, noting that the rates are higher than the royalties that cable and satellite radio stations pay.

Record labels and Internet broadcasters ended up striking a deal on the fees, but the terms of the agreement are set to expire in 2015. Both sides are already gearing up for the fight.

U.K. rock band Pink Floyd penned a scathing op-ed in USA Today in June that accused Pandora, now a publicly traded company, of attempting to “trick artists” into supporting an “unfair cut in pay.” The band noted that Pandora backed a bill last year that the company believed would lower the royalty fees it pays. Pink Floyd likened the proposal to a congressional “bailout” for the Internet radio company.

Corbett said she hopes the upcoming discussion about royalty fees starts “a substantive, serious conversation about the royalty structure as a whole.”

“The system is broken. It doesn’t work for anybody, including big music,” Corbett, 46, said in a recent interview with The Hill. “Music should let technology in. They’re not going to bite.”

“I think the Internet and technology has democratized music,” she added.

As a former rock band singer and keyboardist, Corbett has a personal interest in the issue in addition to a professional one.

She has often married her interests in tech policy and music. With her last band, Satellite Red, the South Orange, N.J., native would talk about the latest policies she was trying to get through at the Federal Communications Commission and competition in the telecom market between sets at bar gigs.

“The band had an intervention with me and said, ‘We’re going to lose fans if you keep talking about that,’ ” she said, laughing.

But Corbett, who received a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Notre Dame, said she fell into tech policy “totally by accident.”

She was originally drawn to Washington to advocate for at-risk children. A job at a now-defunct social service organization associated with Arena Stage for at-risk kids eventually led to a telecom analyst role at business information firm Dun & Bradstreet, where she covered the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

That’s when her interest in tech and telecom policy was sparked.

“I got the bug, like it was in my blood and I couldn’t get it out,” she said.

After a job at the former Information Technology Association of America (now known as TechAmerica), Corbett headed to a senior policy adviser role at MCI, where she said she “learned how to really do advocacy” and run campaigns.

It was at MCI that she learned the importance of storytelling when it comes to communicating about dry and technically complex policy issues. Glen Echo applies that approach in its current work and treats each tech or telecom policy issue “like a candidate” to help get a company or coalition’s message across to the public.

“A lot of this is telling stories because [the issue is] really dry and really complicated,” she said. “How do you boil it down? Treat it like a candidate and not an issue.” 

Corbett helped rally together Sprint, Cricket Wireless, Earthlink and public interest groups like Public Knowledge and the Media Access Project to form the coalition No Takeover Project to fight against AT&T’s proposed bid for T-Mobile in 2011. After AT&T abandoned its bid due to opposition from the Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission, the No Takeover Project won the 2012 Public Affairs Campaign of the Year award from the Public Relations Society of America.

Corbett launched Glen Echo Group in November 2010. She has grown the firm from just herself working out of a Bethesda, Md., Starbucks to a team of five full-time members and one contractor. Although the firm is small, it counts several big-name companies as clients, including Google, Sprint, Aereo and now Pandora.

“When you’re small, you can be big. You can work with clients you support, and believe in and feel good about,” she said. “You can be picky and really work on stuff you want to work on, and you’re not in a position where you have huge overhead that forces you to make difficult decisions.”

Glen Echo’s approach has won Corbett respect from her peers, people who are often battling against her on an issue.

“Maura is one of the best in the business and one of the classiest people in town. We’ve not always been in agreement on public policy issues, and I can say with certainty that it’s always better when she’s on your side,” said Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of communications at the National Association of Broadcasters.

“She’s able to bridge industry and the public interest sector. She’s regarded as a neutral broker, if you will,” said Vonya McCann, senior vice president of government affairs at Sprint. “Both sides respect her. She’s got a lot of integrity.”

“We do tend to line up with the underdogs,” Corbett said of Glen Echo’s past coalition work. “[We’re] trying to make the world a little safer for people who are tilting at windmills and innovating against the machine, and trying to find better, cooler, faster ways of doing things.”