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From AJR,   April/May 2012  issue

Letting the Sunshine in   

Brian Lamb reflects on 33 years at the helm of C-SPAN. Weds., April 11, 2012.

By Michelle G. Chan
Michelle G. Chan (michelle.grace.chan@gmail.com) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

When Brian Lamb left landlocked Indiana and joined the Navy in 1964, he learned the importance of mutual respect. It's a principle that has guided him during his long stewardship of C-SPAN, the idiosyncratic cable channel he founded 33 years ago.

In a world featuring polarized and polarizing news outlets like Fox News Channel and MSNBC, C-SPAN plays things strictly down the middle. Lamb says the goal is to offer as many sides of an issue as possible, and often that number is more than just two.

"One of the things we've prided ourselves on is holding back on people having their say. We never judge what somebody says," he says. "If they're saying it to an audience, and the audience has some interest in the political system, we'll show it from start to finish."

Lamb, 70, stepped down April 1 as C-SPAN's CEO to allow Susan Swain and Rob Kennedy to take the reins as co-CEOs. He says the transition had been in the works for some time and this seemed like the "right thing to do." Swain and Kennedy have worked together at C-SPAN for more than 20 years, and Lamb says his departure gives the duo "plenty of time to run it on their own." Lamb retains his connection with his creation, staying on as executive chairman.

Brian Lamb (Credit: Mary F. Calvert for C-SPAN)

While it's easy to take for granted C-SPAN's blanket coverage of all things congressional, Lamb says launching a nonprofit network based on the importance of transparency in Washington, D.C., wasn't easy.

"The circus..has been going on from the beginning of the country," he says. "Openness is something the town fights all the time, and always has. They don't want to open it up so people can see their every move, because they're often up to some strange things."

But because the government is funded by the public, Lamb says, all of its activities should be on display for the people footing the bill. Currently, C-SPAN broadcasts all sessions of the Senate and House as well more than 2,000 hours per year of committee hearings captured on government-controlled cameras. C-SPAN also offers public affairs interview programs and airs other policy-oriented events.

Initially, C-SPAN faced opposition from some congressmen, according to its communications director, Howard Mortman. He says not every member saw the value of televising government proceedings, although others embraced the idea. C-SPAN, short for Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network, still has not won the right to control the cameras for its legislative coverage. And while Lamb has long campaigned for the right to televise the proceedings of the U.S. Supreme Court, he has yet to taste success.

"It's not any great intellectual position I'm taking, but when the people spend my money, your money, we should be able to see how they do it," Lamb says. "That simple."

C-SPAN has been all about simplicity from the get-go. Lamb was coming off a career in which, after serving as a surface warfare lieutenant in the Navy on the USS Thuban off the coast of Virginia, he had stints working in the Pentagon, the Senate and the White House. Seeing those organizations up close from the inside motivated him to approach cable companies about forming a network to showcase elected officials in their working environments.

"I had no money, and I'd never run a business," he says. "I just had an idea. The cable television executives who owned the major systems were looking for new programming opportunities. My interests and their interests came together."

They key was the advent of cable. No longer would television programming be dominated by just a few broadcast networks. Operating a network became exponentially less expensive, and Lamb was able to capitalize on that development.

"I just wanted the opportunity to change the way people relate to their television set to get a lot more information," he says.

In late 1977, the industry agreed to underwrite the costs of putting C-SPAN on the air eight hours a day, five days a week. The network debuted with just four employees and aired only the proceedings in the House. Over time, the organization grew to today's version, which features 24-hour programming seven days per week. It has more than 280 employees.

Looking back, Lamb says if he could do it over again, he would have tried to raise more money initially. "We really were on a shoestring," he says. "We didn't have any equipment. That meant that we were always kind of behind." But, he adds quickly, "I'm not sure that would have made a big difference. You can't tell at this stage. We evolved."

"The idea was to prove that there was interest in this kind of thing. I never thought there'd be a dramatic amount of interest, and there was lot more than people realized."

That popularity has translated into the mushrooming of that barebones operation Lamb launched in 1979. It now has three television stations, a radio station, online streaming, even an iPhone app. Its main Web site, c-span.org, links to a number of other sites related to C-SPAN's various programs, a video archive and a classroom site.

All of these platforms are funded by the cable operators who get access to C-SPAN. Among them are such major players as Comcast, Cox, and Time Warner. C-SPAN's board is made up of representatives of the companies, and Lamb emphasizes that this unusual structure is critical to its ability to operate. Because it doesn't have to make money, C-SPAN doesn't have to worry about selling advertisements or attracting large audiences.

"We couldn't exist by ourselves, and we don't even try to appeal to everybody," he says. "We don't have to appeal, frankly, to anybody, because we don't have to have numbers. Everybody else has to sell how many viewers they have to advertisers."

Lamb's Navy duty was a defining experience, and as the boss at C-SPAN for the past 33 years, he says his Navy experience guided him as he led his growing team. He would often work the room, moving from desk to desk talking to staffers. One of his most enjoyable experiences, he says, has been the opportunity to watch young journalists grow.

Lamb also emphasizes the importance of respect, up and down the ladder of corporate hierarchy. This, he says, meant C-SPAN believed in responsible growth. This allowed the network to avoid mass layoffs in hard economic times but also kept the company trim during times of plenty.

"We try to keep it personal. It's not a cult, it's not a family, but it's meant to be a place where people don't get surprised," he says. "The fact is that we have a lot of respect for the people that work here."

Lamb says he likes the fact that with C-SPAN he managed to carry out a project that from the beginning felt like an uphill battle. "Without question, the favorite part of this is building something and not being sure that it will work," he says. "Having to convince other people that you've got an idea that you think might matter."

Lamb also says he has enjoyed learning from historians and politicians. He has hosted a weekly interview show, "Q&A," for the past 23 years, and will continue to do so. The most important part of that experience, he says, is allowing his guests to speak freely about issues on which they are experts.

"I don't care if they have big names," he says. "We're in the business of transferring the information people have to an audience. So many times politicians are very careful to say exactly the things that won't get them in trouble. We're not looking for that so much."

While it's far from his approach, Lamb isn't critical of the partisan flavor of some other networks. "One of the things that has happened with all of the different channels is that they have decided that in order to make money, they need to take a side," he says. "Nothing wrong with it."

He acknowledges today's environment is a sharp departure for those who learned journalism, say, 35 years ago, when they were told they had to be objective, fair and balanced.

"That's kind of an invention of earlier journalism. You can still find that kind of journalism, but not as much as you used to," he says. "Frankly, now the burden is on the person who is reading or watching or listening."