1:00pm

Wed March 21, 2012
NPR Story

After 34 Years With C-SPAN, Brian Lamb Steps Down

The Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network went live in 1979. Its founder and CEO, Brian Lamb, became a pioneer in cable television when he pushed for public access to government proceedings. Congress at first resisted, but the House eventually opened its doors to cameras, and the Senate later followed.

The network now includes three cable channels, C-SPAN radio and an online video archive of all programming that has aired since 1987. Lamb is stepping down after 34 years with the network.

Lamb hosts several shows for C-SPAN, including Booknotes, Book TV and Q&A, the last of which he will continue to film. He talks with NPR's Neal Conan about what it was like establishing the unbiased watchdog of the congressional chambers, the future of C-SPAN and his as-yet unfulfilled wish for the network.


Interview Highlights

On whether he accomplished what he set out to do

"I guess. I mean, I didn't have a grand plan. Certainly when we started with eight hours a day, sharing the Madison Square Garden Sports Network, I wasn't sure where it would end up, whether it would even end up. I mean, after a short time, it could have gone away.

"But having three networks and a nationwide radio station and a network probably was not in my head, but I think what was in my head is that this whole world of communications was going to change dramatically, and if we didn't do it, somebody would."

On blaming Brian Lamb for the soundbite, because C-SPAN cameras roll in otherwise empty chambers

"I don't care what anybody's reaction is. They can blame us all they want to. This country prided itself on openness and yet, it wasn't open. It's still not open. And all we're trying to do is let people know how their money is being spent. And clearly ... they've tried to push it under the rug for years, and now we've got a problem."

On callers who curse during live broadcasts

"I don't like swearing on the air. As a matter of fact, I'm not a prude, but ... I watch HBO and some of the comedy stuff, and I'm constantly asking myself, why have we gone there? It seems like it's unfortunate. It's so cheap. It's so easy.

"And so when people take advantage of the fact that we have open phones with no delay and do what they do here, it's a disappointment more than anything. It usually comes in spurts, and then it goes away for a long time. ... We are always looking at this and we get close to [using] the delay and nobody really wants to do it because they want to keep it free and open. But if the American people abuse this privilege, some day we may have to do that."

On his unfinished business: televising Supreme Court arguments

"I have long since realized that's going to be one very difficult accomplishment, and it won't be on my watch, and I never did think it would. They're pretty well dug in over there, and it's too bad because I think they are a great institution, and I think that the public would benefit from the education alone."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Since the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network went live in 1979, its self-effacing founder became C-SPAN's most visible presence and tireless advocate. Brian Lamb convinced cable companies to fund his fledgling operation, convinced first the House of Representatives and then the U.S. Senate to let cameras inside. Over all these years, C-SPAN has been staunchly nonpartisan and purposely very low key. And for the first time, it will have a new CEO.

Brian Lamb announced that he will leave his post on April 1st. How has C-SPAN changed politics, journalism, and how has it changed your viewing habits? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website, go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Because of the link to politics, we've asked political junkie Ken Rudin to stay with us. Brian Lamb, the founder and CEO of C-SPAN, hosts the show's "Booknotes," "Book TV" and "Q&A," joins us now from C-SPAN Radio here in Washington. Nice to have you back. And I don't suppose, Brian Lamb, this is some sort of elaborate April fools' joke.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BRIAN LAMB: I was thinking - I may still do this. I was thinking of sending an email to the people that are - will become CEOs on April 1st and saying that very thing. But I've blown it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: So why are you planning to leave now?

LAMB: Oh, it's just time. The two folks that are taking the job, the CEO job, have been there for 25 and 30 years, and they're in their mid-50s, and I'm 70. And this seemed to be an appropriate time to make this change, and it gives them plenty of time then to look beyond themselves to a change down the road 10, 15 years. And it was just one of those things that all seemed to work out. The board was for it. And I said let's try it. I got a lot of things I can do, including staying here in - on the periphery for a couple of years and continuing the Sunday night show that I host.

CONAN: The "Q&A" show?

LAMB: Yes, sir.

CONAN: And you're also going to be continuing teaching at Purdue?

LAMB: I am and possibly other places. I have a relationship with George Mason University where we sent all the "Booknotes" books for the library out there, and they're putting a website together and digitizing all the marginalia. So it's going to be fun.

CONAN: Are there - is your handwriting good enough?

LAMB: It is not.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LAMB: The good news is I never had an opinion in those columns but I...

CONAN: But you never wrote what a jerk aside the column?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LAMB: Well, the thing that I most fear about it was there was one particular book I remember where somebody used the F-word a lot, and I remember writing it in the margin just so that I can be reminded of how many times and then ask the author that's not going to look good when it comes out digitized.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: I wonder. Do you think - 34 years, did you accomplish what you set out to do?

LAMB: Wow. No one's asked me that question. I guess. I mean, I didn't have a grand plan. Certainly when we started with eight hours a day, sharing the Madison Square Garden Sports Network, I wasn't sure where it would end up, whether it would even end up. I mean, after a short time, it could have gone away. But having three networks and a nationwide radio station and a network probably was not in my head, but I think what was in my head is that this whole world of communications was going to change dramatically, and if we didn't do it, somebody would.

CONAN: Ken, how do you think C-SPAN has changed politics?

KEN RUDIN, BYLINE: Well, I mean, all I know is that I was on "Washington Journal" on Sunday, and then the next day, Brian announced he's quitting. So I don't know...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: ...if there's any connection there at all. But, you know, something - this is very fascinating to me. There's always been the debate about style versus substance on - in the House of Representatives, and whether style became far more evident after the - you were able to broadcast the proceedings. And yet, Brian Lamb, you said that it really doesn't make a difference to you.

LAMB: No. I think, you know, you try to - I don't think about it much, to try to figure what impact you're having on the system, and is it good or bad. I don't really think, at this stage, it matters. The Congress, as an institution, is in some trouble, and they'll get reelected and all that, and there'll probably won't be many new members, and it doesn't matter. But the country has had to get used to having more information than they've ever had in their lives. And because of that, it's created a change, and it's not just us. It's everything on television. It's a tremendous success of National Public Radio. It's across the board. There is so much there that there is not enough time in the day or week to listen to it all.

CONAN: Because the cameras were there, members of - particularly the House of Representatives would give up at strange hours and make very short speeches that would somehow end up in their political advertising. Some, Brian Lamb, blamed you for the soundbite.

LAMB: I feel the pain.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LAMB: I never - I don't care - Ken knows this. I don't care what anybody's reaction is. They can blame us all they want to. This country prided itself on openness and yet, it wasn't open. It's still not open. And all - we're all trying to do is let people know how their money is being spent. And clearly, that's been try - they've tried to push it under the rug for years, and now we've got a problem.

CONAN: It's still not open. Is that the sound of your teeth gnashing at the prospect of those big Supreme Court hearings next week and no cameras in the room?

LAMB: I have long since realized that's going to be one very difficult accomplishment, and I won't be on my watch, and I never did think it would. They pretty well dug in over there, and it's too bad because I think they are a great institution, and I think that the public would benefit from the education alone.

CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers in the conversation. We want to hear how C-SPAN has changed politics and journalism and your viewing habits. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. James is with us from Valdosta, Georgia.

JAMES: Hi. How are you doing today?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

JAMES: Yeah. I would like to just mention that, you know, I'm relatively young. I was born in 1985, and I've kind of been watching TV here for a few years. And it kind of, you know, not only drew me into U.S. politics, but late at night, when there's nothing else on and you got the prime minister of Britain being questioned, that is one of the most exciting things that I can't stop myself from watching.

CONAN: Prime minister's question time, which is a staple, of course, of, well, many years - British radio and TV, of course. And, Brian Lamb, you brought that to the United States.

LAMB: 1989 was when the House of Commons in Great Britain went on television. And, you know, in those early days, we had Margaret Thatcher, and that was a great way to start because of, you know, her worldwide visibility.

CONAN: James, thanks very much for the phone call. And you're not relatively young, you're young.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAMES: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

LAMB: Boy, is that for sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Let's see if we can talk with Jim. Jim is with us from Massillon in Ohio.

JIM: Well, great. What an honor it is to talk with Brian. I was - I've been to C-SPAN three years, wandering around in there. I had a tour a number of years ago. We were able to bring the bus to my hometown. It was a part of that 25th anniversary thing when I wrote an essay. I remember - Mr. Lamb, I'm sure, remembers all of those interns. And personally, C-SPAN has rounded out my education. I'm a science teacher; never had a lot of interest in political science or U.S. history, and C-SPAN has put all of that into my, I guess, into my resume now. And, you know, we're all going to miss seeing Brian regularly. We all missed when he stopped doing the "Booknotes," although he's kind of extended that program on Sunday night to other things. So I think it's just difficult to express the impact personally that C-SPAN has had on me.

I watched - I think the first thing I watched on it I believe was the testimony of - oh, gee, on the Iran-Contra affair. What am I...

CONAN: Colonel North?

JIM: Col. North.

CONAN: What am I? A potted plant over here?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JIM: Col. North's testimony, that's right, and that's what I remember turning on when I first got cable. And so, that's how long I've been with C-SPAN, and I just wanted to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Lamb for what he has done. It's almost immeasurable. I wrote a letter to President Bush well back, recommending you for the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and I think you did receive it. Did you not?

LAMB: That's correct, sir.

JIM: Well, bless your heart.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much.

LAMB: Thank you, Jim, very much. Nice call.

CONAN: Email from Mary in Cedar Rapids: As a political junkie in Iowa, I appreciate the C-SPAN Road to the White House series where entire political speeches by the candidates can be watched without the filter of the media. I appreciate this very much. Brian Lamb's direction on C-SPAN will be missed. That raises the question: I think, I was using the expression relentlessly nonpartisan earlier today. That was the goal from the beginning, no?

LAMB: Yes, sir. Yeah. This is - you know, it's really interesting what's happened to television, and I don't - it doesn't bother me. I think it's great that we have all of those different voices. But we started out realizing that if we're going to try to do this in a nonprofit environment, that we had to stay out of it, and it worked for our purposes. You didn't have to do it. There's no law about that, but I think it worked out for our industry in the right way, and, you know, it's - what - the audience goes to personalities, and you know that, Neal. How long have you been doing that show?

CONAN: Ten years.

LAMB: Yeah. That's a long time, and you do it every day. People follow you personally. And we have avoided that here not because there's anything wrong with it, it's just we decided that our mission was different.

CONAN: Here's an email from David in West Hartford, Connecticut: I always feel bad for Brian Lamb when people call up live and use profanity on the air. Please ask - I didn't know Ken called that often. Please ask how he feels about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LAMB: I'm of mixed minds on that, and we aren't here to - I don't like swearing on the air. As a matter of fact, I'm not a prude, but I go to the movies and then wonder - I asked myself the same question, and I watch HBO and some of the comedy stuff, and I'm constantly asking myself, why have we gone there? It seems like it's unfortunate. It's so cheap. It's so easy. And so when people take advantage of the fact that we have open phones with no delay and do what they do here, it's a disappointment more than anything. It usually comes in spurts, and then it goes away for a long time. So we're always - I don't know whether you guys have delay or not, but we are always looking at this and we get close to the delay and nobody really wants to do it because they want to keep it free and open. But if the American people abuse this privilege, some day we may have to do that.

CONAN: We do have a delay. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Our guest, of course, is Brian Lamb who steps down April 1st as a CEO of C-SPAN, the cable news network that he founded 34 years ago. Ken?

RUDIN: Yeah. I maybe one of the reasons why NPR does have a seven-second delay. Brian, I have a question. There's a famous scene of Newt Gingrich standing up in the well of the House, attacking the Democratic leadership, and Tip O'Neill instructed the cameras to show - to pan to an empty House chamber. Do you have - that's a very memorable moment for me on C-SPAN. Do you have a particular memorable moment?

LAMB: Oh, there's a lot of them. I think my most memorable moments have come at a time when you least expect it, when you learned something. There could be these times, like the - actually, you know, Ken, your memory is a little off because it wasn't Newt Gingrich that was standing at the microphone when the camera was switched. It was Bob Walker. And the only reason I mentioned that is because Trent Lott walked in into chamber and handed him a note and said, you don't realize this, but the camera is showing the entire chamber. But it was Newt Gingrich's group that led to that, and he's the one that got under this speaker's scan. And eventually, they took the speaker's - they took his words down.

But, you know, I don't know what my most memorable moment, except that I know in interviewing, it's always something somebody tells you that you least expect, and it often comes from a historian - or Ken Rudin.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: We wanted - certainly enough. But anyway, Jason is on, another caller from Valdosta.

JASON: Yeah. Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

JASON: I was wondering - and this sort of feeds off on some of the other questions you've been asked. But since you've been there, there's been a lot of technological changes that had been made in communication, and I wonder one of the things, I guess, that people have talked about, just as your last anecdote was, was sort of a manipulation by politicians of the communication. And I just wonder, how do you think that the Internet, websites, Twitter or things like that are affecting Congress?

LAMB: I don't really know how it's affecting Congress as much as I know how it's affecting us. First of all, I think this change is tremendous. I think it's given the average person some real power in their own hands to create, to communicate, to have an impact on the system.

We started with a call-in show on October 7, 1980, and it's the best thing we've ever done, because I know I used to host a lot of them. It was just a good feeling to know that the public could talk back to you. If they didn't like what you're doing, they could tell you off. It didn't hurt. I mean, it's just words. So I think all this new technology has got to be having an impact on the Congress. I just don't know where it's going to go, and I'm as interested as you are in watching the next couple of years, because it will - I think we can always - already point to impact on the whole vote that they're going to have over there on SOPA and these issues that affect the Internet. People came on very strongly on that, and it change minds.

CONAN: Jason, thanks very much. And we read this email from Debbie in Columbus: Some event was going to be on C-SPAN. I popped popcorn, curled up on the couch and waited with anticipation. My mother came over and looked at what I was doing and said, I'm never going to have a grandchild, am I? I guess, you could say C-SPAN has changed my life...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: ...if you ask my mom. I'm grateful for all I've learned from it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LAMB: That's one of the best.

CONAN: Well, we have this one that shows that it may not be entirely detrimental to your social life: When I was 22, I was dating an 18-year-old and C-SPAN came up in the conversation. We were talking about our favorite C-SPAN moments. It turned out we have the same one. We both reminisced about Condoleezza Rice's Senate Intelligence hearing about the PDB, the Presidential Daily Briefing. And when we were talking about that, we both, at the same time, said, bin Laden determined to strike on U.S. All of our dates revolved around watching every single primary debate from both parties during the 2008 election and then conventions and the election coverage.

I also used to stay up really late at night, Pacific Standard Time, just watch "Washington Journal" in the morning. It was amazing and help me get to sleep with smart thoughts in my head. That's from Zander in Portland, Oregon.

So you claim at least one relationship success there, Brian Lamb.

LAMB: I would guess that Zander doesn't tell many people that that is their habit, because they'd look at them like they were in serious trouble. I love the story, make good interviews.

CONAN: Brian Lamb, thanks very much for being with us. Congratulations on 34 years in the establishment of an American institution.

LAMB: Thank you very much, Neal. And, Ken, stay out of trouble.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUDIN: Thank you, Brian.

CONAN: Brian Lamb steps down as CEO of C-SPAN on April 1st. Ken Rudin, well, sadly, he'll be back here on TALK OF THE NATION next Wednesday. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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