The co-founder of AOL and longtime resident of the Washington region shares his vision for the future of tech.
C-SPAN viewers can attest to the fact that reality television from Capitol Hill can be both riveting and painfully dull. But for the network’s founder, Brian Lamb, the goal has always been to give the American public insight into the process of governing and access to people in power. We talk with Lamb about what he’s achieved so far and what’s next.
- Brian Lamb founder and executive chairman, C-SPAN; host, Q&A
Lamb’s first Booknotes, which is C-SPAN’s Sunday author interview series, featured Neal Sheehan talking about why he wrote his book “A Bright Shining Lie.”
Lamb talked with Brit Hume, managing editor and anchor of Fox News Washington, about the charge that the television network leans right in this 2008 interview:
Lamb interviewed Evan and Michael Gregory, two of the four people who make up the group “The Gregory Brothers,” about their political parodies in this 2010 segment:
In this 2011 interview, Lamb talked with former President George W. Bush about his memoir “Decision Points.”
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. He has been honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Lone Sailor Award and numerous other accolades, interviewed everyone from Louis Armstrong to the guys who auto-tune the news along with Presidents Carter, Nixon, Clinton and both Bushes and countless other D.C. powerbrokers.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut in all the hours he's logged on C-SPAN, the Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network that he founded, it's said that he never once uttered his own name, Brian Lamb. How does someone stay so modest in town built on ego? We are interviewing the interviewer to try to find out. Brian Lamb is the founder and executive chairman of C-SPAN and host of the program "Q&A." Brian Lamb, a pleasure to meet you.
MR. BRIAN LAMBMy pleasure, Kojo, but as I said to you earlier, I've listened to you for years. Nice to meet you in person.
NNAMDIIt's a mutual admiration society. I've been watching you for years. Television may be where you've made your biggest mark, but your love of radio goes way back. What is it about this medium that appeals to you and how'd you get started in radio? Tell us that story.
LAMBWell, I started when I was in Indiana in a small town and grew up. I was not an athlete. My brother was the athlete in the family and I would literally go down the street to a neighbor's home that had one of those very old-time radios with the big speakers.
LAMBAnd I loved it because I could dial in, you know, signals from all over the Midwest. And I just followed my nose to the radio station and literally knocked on the window and said, could I come in? I think I was about 13 when I did that and, you know, you probably have the same story.
NNAMDIYou were hired for, it's my understanding, the princely sum of a $1 an hour.
LAMBFrom my great mentor, Henry Rosenthal, yes. And the odd thing, Kojo, is that he died a couple of years ago at the age of 92 and he ended up working for C-SPAN on a part-time basis at the end of his life. And he said, you know, he paid me a dollar and I made it up to him later by paying him a dollar.
NNAMDIWhat goes around...
NNAMDIYou've said that you did not have a grand plan when you started C-SPAN. What was the spark that started the network and what were the early days like?
LAMBWell, we started in an atmosphere of not very much television in this country. only about three television networks and there was -- of course, PBS had grown, but I know when I was growing up, we could only watch one television station out of Indianapolis and it even had snow on the screen. Really, it's because of the technology that it all changed. And when the satellite in this country was starting to be used in '75 was when the industry was looking for new ideas and new programming. That's where it started.
NNAMDIAnd I know those of us who were covering the House of Representatives, and I was, in the late 1970s, C-SPAN was a godsend to us at that point because it meant we could, -- wherever we were in the building, we could look at what was going on out on the floor. Now, the entire country can do that. Are you a devoted C-SPAN watcher? What do you like about the network? Call us at 800-433-8850, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or you can send us a tweet at kojoshow.
NNAMDISome people love C-SPAN and have it on constantly. Others think it's, well, not that exciting. But it's never been, for you, about entertaining people, has it?
LAMBNo, as a matter of fact, I tell people from time to time it's not really television as we've grown up to know it. It can be entertaining, but it's not there for entertainment. It can be informative. It also can be boring. It's an odd thing to have listened over the last 33 years to so many people say how boring it is because in the process of being boring, we now have almost $16 trillion worth of debt. So had we paid a little closer attention maybe we wouldn't be in such debt.
NNAMDIBut I think that a whole lot of people who either say that it's boring somehow still watch it, nevertheless still watch it because that's the only real access we have to what's going on in the halls of Congress on a 24/7 basis. Is that what you've found?
LAMBYes, people come to it irregularly. We always talk about the 10 percent that watch it on a regular basis and the others come to us when there's an issue that they're interested in. Don't expect them to be there all the time, don't -- frankly, which is really strange to say, don't need them all the time because of our economic model where we don't have ratings.
NNAMDIAh, yes, we're going to talk about that economic model in a minute. In case you're just joining us, we're talking with Brian Lamb. He is the founder and executive chairman of C-SPAN. He also hosts the program "Q&A." If you'd like to join the conversation, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there or simply call us, 800-433-8850. Do you think C-SPAN has changed how Congress operates since it was launched in 1979?
NNAMDIEarly on, C-SPAN added call-in programming to its lineup. Why do you think that was a good format for the fledging station at the time?
LAMBWell, part of it was a symbol of being able to let the audience talk back to us. It never had been on television. It'd been done on radio and successfully radio. It started on radio, as you know, back in the '50s and it didn't go national until Larry King in '78 and we came along in '79. And so when we started a call-in on television, it was unusual.
LAMBI always thought the best part of the symbol -- and I was the very inexpensive host from the beginning, that the audience could talk back, could tell me, therefore us, and it would give them a sense of being involved instead of the way it had been all through the years where television talked down to us or at us from New York City.
NNAMDISome people assume that C-SPAN is a government-run service. Tell us what you've talked about earlier. How is the station funded and run?
LAMBThere is no taxpayer money in C-SPAN. It is a private-industry-developed public service. We get our money from those who subscribe to cable television and the satellite and we get $.06 a month. Our budget for a year is a little over $60 million and that's the best thing about our economic model because we don't worry about our money from year to year, as long as our cable television executive board supports what we do.
NNAMDI$.06 a month, that's how much it costs the average cable subscriber, but the network is built on the idea of access. Has it ever bothered you that people without cable or Internet service cannot watch C-SPAN?
LAMBSure, we have a radio station in Washington and some 60 million people in this area can listen to it if they want to. We're on XM radio, but again, that costs money. But you know, I've never really thought that much about it, frankly, because we're lucky to even be here. And there's no way that you can transfer what we do to the public at large without spending millions more than we have to spend now.
NNAMDIPaul Farhi of The Washington Post recently wrote that "what MTV did for popular music, C-SPAN did for Congress and the wonks who follow it." Do you have a sense of how C-SPAN broadcasts, or maybe changes the way that Congress itself operates?
LAMBI don't. I do know this, that you almost have to look at it on an individual basis. You know that people far away from Washington can now see the Congress. We don't know how many at any given time. All it takes is one person to see a debate in the system at some place to have impact. I always think of it in terms of the fact the President of the United States, before we came along, couldn't watch members of his own administration administrate. And now, as they go to the Hill and testify, you know, he can go to the set, turn it on and see what somebody's doing on Capitol Hill. And beyond that, I've really not thought a lot about it.
NNAMDIYou know, I read where a young Congressman named Dick Cheney, shortly after C-SPAN started, was actually on the House floor when he got a call from one of his constituents suggesting an amendment to a piece of legislation. But going back to the early days of C-SPAN, I particularly like this clip coming from what was then a fairly obscure member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
TIP O'NEILLChair has examined General (unintelligible) proceeding and announce the House's approval thereof. Pursuant of clause one, rule one, general stands approved. Gentlemen from Tennessee.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE 1As you know (unintelligible) .
ALBERT GOREMr. Speaker, on this historic day, the House of Representatives opens its proceedings for the first time to televised coverage. I wish to congratulate you for your courage in making this possible and the committee who has worked so hard under the leadership of Congressman Charles Rose to make this a reality. Television will change this institution Mr. Speaker, just as it has changed the executive branch.
ALBERT GOREBut the good will far outweigh the bad. From this day forward, every member of this body must ask himself or herself, how many Americans are listening to the debates which are made? When the House becomes comfortable with the changes brought by television coverage, the news media will be allowed to bring their own cameras into this chamber.
ALBERT GOREIn the meantime there is no censorship. Every word is available for broadcast coverage and journalists will be able to use and edit as they see fit. The solution for the lack of confidence in government, Mr. Speaker, is more open government at all levels. I hope for example that the leadership of the United States Senate will see this as a friendly challenge to begin to open their proceedings.
O'NEILLUnder the rules, the gentleman's time has expired.
GORETheir marriage of this medium and our open debate has the potential, Mr. Speaker, to revitalize representative democracy.
O'NEILLGentleman from Indiana.
NNAMDIThe voice of the Speaker of course is the voice of the legendary Tip O'Neill. The voice of then Congressman from Tennessee was Albert Gore. Brian Lamb, can you talk a little bit about how the network has changed the relationship that the American people have with their legislature? I gave the Dick Cheney example earlier but you might have more.
LAMBI have to say, though, before we get to that, that it's odd to hear somebody say about Tip O'Neill that he had courage to let television cameras into the chamber. It seems to be a bit over the top, but that's the way, you know, it is up there on Capitol Hill. It's such a tightly wound place. You know, every individual who's elected to the Senate or the House now can come to their chamber and they can guarantee that they're going to be able to speak.
LAMBIn days past, they had to wait for either you or I to say okay, we'd like to have you on our show. And people don't have to watch it, but they do have access now. Of course, it's turned upside down with the Internet and YouTube and all that. And I think if you look back on the history of this, the revolution in communications really started back in the late '60s, early '70s and then when the satellite came in, this process is so open now. It's just a much different world across the board, not just with Congress.
NNAMDIIt's a much different world in large measure because of C-SPAN's initiative. Now, there are a lot of people who would like to speak with you so I have go to the telephones. We will start with Charles in Alexandria, Va. Charles, you're on the air, go ahead please.
CHARLESHey Kojo, great show. I listen to you all the time.
CHARLESI've been watching C-SPAN pretty much since it started and I've watched it evolve and it is just magnificent. It's a good window into democracy and I particularly love the "Q&A" show and "Book TV." There's just some really wonderful interviews and the discussions with the authors of some of these books, they're just riveting and I TiVo them every weekend and I can't tell you how great it is. And I also wanted to mention, I noticed Susan Swain, she's been there a long time. I imagine she's instrumental in the growth of C-SPAN. I suspect she is. Anyway, thanks a lot (unintelligible) ...
NNAMDIBrian Lamb, care to comment?
LAMBI sure do. Susan Swain has been with us for 30 years and she is the brand new co-CEO. I love her story because she came to us when she was -- I probably shouldn't give her age. She came to us...
LAMB...when she was 26 years old. Started out as a $15,000 a year producer and just got better and better and had more and more influence on what is now C-SPAN. Yes, he's right and her colleague, Rob Kennedy has been there for 25 years plus we've had an enormous amount of people come when they were 22 and now they're now 52. And they built the place.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Brian Lamb. He's the founder and executive chairman of C-SPAN. He's also host of the program "Q & A." If you'd like to join the conversation, call us 800-433-8850. Has something you've seen on C-SPAN influenced the way you vote or encourage you to contact your representative? Call us, 800-433-8850 or send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Brain Lamb, founder and executive chairman of C-SPAN. He also hosts the program "Q&A." I coveted this interview. But it looks as if a lot of listeners coveted it more than I do. So I'll go directly back to the telephones to Jeff in Montclair, Va. Jeff, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JEFFThank you, Kojo. I love your program. And Mr. Lamb, I love C-SPAN. I've been watching it for years. I don't watch as much as I can anymore because my job -- my timing doesn't work. But I wanted to ask you...
NNAMDIHey, get your priorities straight, job or C-SPAN, come on. Go ahead, please.
JEFFYour program -- your call-in program, you get a lot of people claiming from the far left or from the far right claiming you're political motivated. And some of the callers, sometimes they get angry. And I'm just wondering, how do you handle all of that? How do you -- do you ever get frustrated with some of that or...
LAMBYeah, Jeff. It -- after having done this for so many years, you get tired of the obvious. I mean, when they call up and we'll punch the buttons, somebody will say, you guys are all a bunch of Republicans. And you punch the next button and they guy will say, you're all a bunch of Democrats. You know, the fact of the matter is, we don't really care who wins. It's just not our job. People think it's strange, but if you're in that kind of a job, you just roll with it. Whatever happens, happens. It's the country that makes those decisions. But, yes, you're right. It is frustrating from time to time.
NNAMDIWell, Jeff, thank you very much. But you raised an issue that a lot of people ask about Brian Lamb and that is, you're so famously, so relentlessly, kind of bipartisan, neutral, detached and how have you managed to maintain that neutrality in a town where you're expected to choose sides all the time?
LAMBWell it's our job. You know, it's very easy. We decided to set this company up to be out of the political mainstream on purpose, so people could -- whatever they see, they can make up their own mind. It was just about that simple. And when I first came here in the Navy, I worked in the Lyndon Johnson White House as a Naval social aid and then I worked in the Nixon administration in the office of Telecommunications Policy. I've seen both sides. I don't want to be involved in politics. I've not been a member of a party. And it's not hard when that's your job.
NNAMDIWell, you worked at local radio and TV stations in Lafayette, Ind., in high school and college. You were spinning records, you were a D.J. You were selling ads. You eventually hosted your own television program, "Dance Date," which you created while you were -- Purdue modeled after "American Bandstand." You had a stint in the Pentagon's Public Affairs Office during the Vietnam war, some of the other jobs that you mentioned. At which one of those jobs do you think you learned most?
LAMBWell, I was out on a ship for two years and then came to the Pentagon for two years in the middle of the Vietnam War. I had come from a small town in Indiana, that was my first outside of Indiana experience. It just was a very, very important time for me.
NNAMDIAnd a time in which you felt that you had mature, changed because of moving away from home. It was the, I guess, some people would say a seminal experience in your life?
LAMBYeah, it was one of those gee-whiz things, you know. I mean, I traveled to foreign countries. I had to have responsibility as a Naval officer. And they give you more responsibility in the Navy or the Army or the Air Force or Marines at that age in almost any place, anywhere unless you're just one of these wunderkinds.
NNAMDIHere's Bonnie in Annapolis, Md. Bonnie, your turn.
BONNIEHi, oh, my God, I'm such a Brian Lamb fan. I can't believe I'm actually talking to Brian Lamb. The thing that amazes me is, I've never heard you interviewed, I've found -- I've only found one interview in print. You never talk about your private life. And it's kind of amazing that you're on the radio talking about your history.
NNAMDIWhat have you learned about him during the time that you have been listening to this broadcast?
BONNIEWhat did you say?
NNAMDIWhat have you learned about Brian Lamb during the course of the last 20 minutes or so?
BONNIEWell, what he was just talking about his own personal history and in the Navy and whatever. But two comments I want to make, one was that it is amazingly nonpartisan, C-SPAN. I'm a huge fan of Poker TV also and also C-SPAN radio where they do the Supreme Court Oral Arguments from Saturdays, many times. But I think I got a little bit of a clue into what his real political orientation is because I heard him do a personal interview with Laura Ingraham. And not soon after or before, he also did an interview with Janeane Garofalo. And with Laura Ingraham, he seemed almost a little bit ignorant of what her show was like or what she did on her show or whatever. And with Janeane Garofalo, several times her prefaced a question by saying I hear you say...
NNAMDI...so wait a minute. You have made a partial career out of trying to find out exactly what Brian Lamb's political leanings might be because he seems so determined not to reveal any?
BONNIEOh, that's for sure.
NNAMDIShe says, of course, that's what I did, isn't that what everybody does? Well, C-SPAN sources aside, Brian Lamb, where do you go for news?
LAMBI mean, I suspect I'm just like you. I go everywhere, every day and -- I have to say thanks to Bonnie for what she said, but there's a one very strange missing element in this is that I've never met nor been on Janeane Garofalo's radio program. And I have interviewed Laura Ingraham myself on the "Q&A" show. I love all these characters because they are willing to stick their chin out and get in the business.
LAMBAs I told you Kojo, I've listened to you for years. I listen to radio at night a lot and it's always a learning experience. I mean, how else can you learn without going to all these different sources. And you know, as long as I'm not in your face with my views, you shouldn't care what they are.
NNAMDIIndeed. Well, there are two aspects of that that I'd like to reveal, Bonnie. One of them, in case you haven't seen this one yet, US News and World Report reporter Susan Milligan wrote recently that before the internet, before 24/7 news coverage at 7:00 o'clock on a Saturday morning, Brian Lamb had somehow already managed to read virtually every major newspaper in the country, along with a few other publications.
LAMBJust weird, isn't it, Kojo?
LAMBIt is weird.
NNAMDIWell, I tell people, that's because we have no life, that's what we spend all of our time doing is just reading stuff. Bonnie, thank you very much for your call.
NNAMDIAnd you, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Do you have questions about how C-SPAN operates or its programs, you can also send us a tweet @kojoshow or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation right there. It's fascinating to me that people are always trying to find out exactly where Brian Lamb might be leaning. You seem to be quite comfortable in your shoes, so to speak.
LAMBYeah, I've heard it for a long time. You know, though -- and I don't listen to you every day, but I've listened to you enough to know I don't know necessarily where you're coming from. I have not heard you make some, you know, you get as excited about -- you get excited about a guest that comes on here based on the fact that you're learning something. It's a great world out there, as long as you're alive and walking around.
LAMBAnd there are people -- and you're entitled to do this, to have strong views. We encourage people who have strong views to let us know what they are. The big problem I've always had, and I've been in town for 46 years, is people in our business who won't let others speak. That drives me completely berserk and that's probably why I feel so strongly about letting people have their say without interference.
NNAMDIBecause in the final analysis, it's not about you or it's not about me, it's about the people that we are privileged to have as guests on this show. People are more interested in hearing what their perspective is, what their point of view is because in the final analysis, they're the ones with the expertise in whatever particular area they happen to be in.
LAMBCouldn't agree more.
NNAMDIAnd so, that's why you never ever say your name on television?
LAMBWell, it's weird because I haven't, to my -- I didn't start saying that, somebody in the media asked me and I said as far as I know, I haven't. And when the announcement came out that I was stepping aside as the CEO, that night on -- somebody found a clip and they put it on the air. And it was the first day we ever went on camera, back in 1980, and there it was, me saying my name on the air. But that was the last time, as far as I know.
NNAMDIThe first day was the last time?
NNAMDIHere is David in Arlington, Va. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVIDHi, Kojo. Hi, Brian, how you doing?
DAVIDWell I'd like to say that I find it fascinating that you didn't use your name on the air. Most people really tend to, you know, want to do that to promote their career. I think C-SPAN is necessary for providing information for people that watch it. I mean, it does seem nonpartisan and in my opinion is absolutely wonderful. I've actually had the privilege of working with C-SPAN crews, doing shows at a local auditorium, and they were fantastic. And I really saw no partisan politic in, you know, the way that anything was covered or in watching C-SPAN, I just don't see it being left or right. It seems very central. And I really enjoy that.
LAMBWell, David, your comment about the crews, very welcoming. They are tremendous characters. They've been around forever. We've got people that have been there, a bunch of them, over 25, 30 years in those crews. And I'm, frankly, very proud of the way they conduct themselves. And I'm glad that you report that back to us. But, you know, this bias thing is interesting.
LAMBI don't know about you, Kojo, but part of the reasons why people are so upset about the bias thing is that I think a lot of people in our business said, too often, that they were not biased and you can hear it. And that's always the problem. We're not biased, we're fair, we're objective and all this stuff. And then you could sense that somebody was always in a certain area. And I think it's partially the media's fault that the public uses that issue so often to beat us over the head with.
NNAMDIAnd David, thank you very much for your call. I have all kinds of opinions and all kinds of bias, but not for the airwaves, they're for my personal life. For the airwaves, I have to interview people and so they can reveal why they have their bias. We -- there is one thing, however, that Brian Lamb is very passionate about and we got an email from Amy, from McClain who says, "I know Brian has tried to get the Supreme Court to allow TV coverage and been denied."
NNAMDI"My question is why are they allowed to say no? They work for the taxpaying American public, they should be open to the public. Very, very few people get into to see a case and we deserve to see our government in action." What would your ideal level for broadcast access to the Supreme Court be, Brian Lamb?
LAMBWell, the Supreme Court has never gone on television. They have moved in this world along to allowing us and anybody in the media or the public at large to get the oral arguments on audio at the end of the week of the argument.
NNAMDITape delay, yes.
LAMBIt used to be six months till after the end of the term. But they just don't want to interrupt the atmosphere at the moment and I agree with Amy, I think they should. I think that, for no other reason, for educational purposes, if those oral arguments had the impact of a political discussion, then you would worry about it, possibly. But those nine people that sit on the court are there for life. They're the only ones that I know of who have a lifetime job, absolutely, unless they're impeached. After they've been there 15 years or age 70, they get the same salary for the rest of their lives. And they only meet for about 80 hours a year. This is not going to change things in that court, as much as they all think it is.
LAMBThey're scared to death that it's going to create an atmosphere of great change. But remember that the chief justice has the gavel and the attorney standing before him and them, the other members of the court, are subject to all kinds of criticism if they grandstand it. So it's not worth worrying about. It's time for them to go on television, and they, although I have to say have total control of whether they ever go on television. No one can tell them, including in my opinion, the Congress.
NNAMDIBrian Lamb actually wrote in response to the argument that lawyers and justices will play to the cameras, he said, "The people that have the most to lose by playing to the cameras are the attorneys, because if they play to the cameras and grandstand, that will have an impact on their cases. The people that have the least to lose by playing to the cameras are the Supreme Court justices. Why," says Brian Lamb, "they have a job for life." Here now we move on to Joe in Northwest Washington. Joe, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOEHey, pleasure to have both you gentlemen, my -- you know, to talk to both of you, Mr. Lamb and Mr. Nnamdi. Well, thank you for your work, Mr. Lamb. I have a quick question. Sorry I'm a little stuttering here. I didn't expect to be clicked on there. I -- thank you, thank you, thank you. But here it is. With your host on your show, which we regret you're not there every Friday, man, that was a blessing to see, and we understand people have to do other things, but we miss you on Fridays, if that makes any sense.
JOEBut with your host, just as a listener, and I'm an Independent, if that means anything, I think that -- I wonder how do you make sure your hosts don't have a persuasion? Is that something you battle or work with, and we appreciate your work and we wish you in my opinion, Godspeed to do more, and thank you for everything, Mr. Lamb and Mr. Nnamdi, thank you for your work.
NNAMDIYou're welcome. How do you instill this into your employees, Brian Lamb?
LAMBWell, anybody that comes to work there knows what our mission is.
NNAMDIThey know the drill.
LAMBThey know the drill. It's an eclectic group of hosts. The one thing at C-SPAN that's unusual is that no host does that only for a living. They have other major responsibilities inside of C-SPAN. Some of them are producers, and we've always felt that -- part of what goes on, Kojo, in this business is if you're hired at a major network, you're hired and given a tremendous amount of money to be on the air, you're a personality. You're supposed to be a personality. There's no other way to look at it.
LAMBWe're not supposed to be personalities. And so people that come to work there go along with our mission, and if they didn't, of course, they wouldn't work there, so it's pretty simple. Thank you, Joe.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Joe. We move on now to Ella in Washington, D.C. Ella, your turn.
ELLAThank you so much, Kojo, and this is a special day for me. I listen to your show every day, and Mr. Lamb, I've been a fan of yours since C-SPAN started, and I wanted to thank you so much for "Booknotes." I'm an avid reader, and particularly the series in which you had the major American historians on to talk about their perception of the United States and what might have happened had the North not won the Civil War, I found absolutely fascinating. I want to thank you so much for your contribution to my intellectual development.
NNAMDIWell, Ella, here's the thing. The final count for how many "Booknotes" shows that Brian Lamb did, I think was 801. He interviewed no more than 700 nonfiction authors, but it is my understanding that he was not exactly a bookworm when he was growing up. Brian Lamb?
ELLAIt doesn't matter. It's what happens on the end, not how you start out.
NNAMDIHow -- the question -- you're right.
ELLANot how you start out, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou're absolutely right. But how did you come to host "Booknotes," Brian Lamb?
LAMBIt grew out of the network. When the network started in 1979, we didn't have anything on except the House of Representatives, and as we started to add things like the National Press Club, which you all do here at public radio, we started to add the call-in show. It became more and more obvious to us that books play a major role in the political discussion, and so I kind of fell into it after the bicentennial of the Constitution.
LAMBI normally never get involved in anything, but a chief justice retired, Warren Burger at the time asked a bunch of us to be on a committee. He gave us a book called "Miracle at Philadelphia," by Frances (sic) Drinker Bowen, and I read it and it was really -- it's a narrative about the Constitution and the convention back in 1787. And that was kind of the trigger for me.
LAMBAlso another book, and I read it because a bunch of people were reading it and we wanted to see who could get to the end the fastest was "Bonfire of the Vanities" by Tom Wolfe...
NNAMDILove that book.
LAMB...which came true. The whole thing came true, and...
LAMBSo it was just a matter of getting older, maturing, and seeing the value of books and hoping that frankly, it's a bit selfish on my part, but I could learn something myself and maybe do a little bit better than I did in college.
NNAMDIAnd you had a reputation for reading all of the books that the authors wrote who were on your show. You got up at ridiculous hours of the morning to read it, and I think you suffer from the same fear that I do that caused you to read the books, and that fear is, the author's gonna find out I didn't read the book, so I better read the book. Is that...
LAMBWell, that -- that is one fear because, as you know, authors complain about that a lot with people like us. But the other fear, frankly, was that there was a nugget in that book buried on page 452 that would change the nature of the interview, and that's happened so many times, and it's a great value to read the book if you can figure out how to get the time.
NNAMDIElla, thank you very much for your call. If you've already called, stay on the line. We're gonna take a short break and then we'll resume our conversation with Brian Lamb. He's the founder and executive chairman of C-SPAN and host of the program "Q&A." If the lines are busy, shoot us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Do you have a favorite C-SPAN moment? You can share that with us by going to our website kojoshow.org and sharing it there, or sending us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is Brian Lamb who has been interviewing me during the breaks in this broadcast. He can't seem to help himself. He's the founder and executive chairman of C-SPAN, and host of the program, "Q&A," and we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Why did you focus on nonfiction on "Booknotes"?
LAMBWell, simple. Because we're a nonfiction network, and that's really the role that nonfiction books play in politics, and so we just stuck with that.
NNAMDIGot a comment on Facebook from Amanda who says, "I just want to thank C-SPAN for teaching me everything I never knew that I didn't know about Congress and the legislative process. I always tell people that I watched C-SPAN at work for two years while earning my masters in public policy to make up for never having an internship on the Hill. Thank you for your program." This tweet we got from Charity. "In the age of infotainment, C-SPAN is one of the very few places I trust for information. If there's a spin, it's from the source." On now to Kelly in Hyattsville, Md. Kelly, your turn.
KELLYHi. I am -- I love C-SPAN and I love your show, Kojo, and I'm grateful to be on here right now. I love democracy. One of the things that I really question is like my level of intelligence when it comes to politics and government and all those types of things, and so I'm wondering if there is a particular book or set of books that you might recommend that would help me when I'm listening so that I'm more in the know.
NNAMDIIs that a question for Brian Lamb or for me?
KELLYFor Mr. Lamb and also for you.
NNAMDIWell, I'll let Mr. Lamb answer first since I have none.
LAMBWell, it's hard to say that there's one book. There are several. I would say this, that the Robert Caro series on Lyndon Johnson, it is 3267 pages up to date. The interview I have on the "Q&A" Sunday night is the second edition of the Robert Caro interview for this particular book. You can learn an awful lot about all aspects of power and the House of Representatives, and the United States Senates and the presidency and all that.
LAMBThere are so many good books out there, it just depends on your interest. I say, frankly, biography of major of historical figures of what I've always enjoyed the most and where I've learned the most.
NNAMDII'll recommend on the fiction side for you, if you want to enter another world, try the fiction of Walter Mosley, because Walter Mosley not only writes about fictional characters in the world of the detective genre, he also does science fiction. But whatever he writes, he makes it easy because of his writing style, and he takes you into a variety of different worlds. So that would be my recommendation, Kelly.
LAMBIt may surprise you, Kojo, but I've interviewed Walter Mosley because...
NNAMDIBecause he writes nonfiction, too. He does nonfiction, too.
NNAMDIKelly, thank you very much for your call.
KELLYThank you so much.
NNAMDIOn now to Susan in Vienna, Va. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUSANHi Brian. It's such an honor to talk to you.
SUSANI've learned so much from C-SPAN. I used to work on the Hill, but you learn more from C-SPAN because on the Hill, you're busy opening the mail, but on C-SPAN, you actually get to see the whole hearing. So thank you for that. I have a question, though. Because it seems in the older days you used to cover more of the NCSL and council state government meetings, you know, the particularly interesting sessions, and nowadays it seems like your covering CPAC and the really partisan stuff where they're not even politicians, they're just sort of pundits, and, you know, the stuff they talk about is just so mean-spirited and nonproductive. And I just wondered why gavel-to-gavel coverage of CPAC and not as much of NCSL and CSG, although I did hear NGA recently.
LAMBI think you may be right, but I would just tell you that we've covered CPAC since 1980, and we cover all these think tanks. We have three networks, we have probably, at most, eight crews out for a day. I -- it might be your perception. You may be right about that, and I don't know because I'm not involved in the day-to-day decision. I know that our politics has changed a bit in the last 30 years, and that may be what you're seeing as the stridency on both sides now is much more obvious, and a lot of the meetings that are held internally are not nearly as divisive as the ones that are held by the parties and the different factions.
NNAMDIWhy cover the British Parliament and the Canadian House of Commons as well?
LAMBIt's a great way to learn what we're not.
NNAMDISusan, thank you very much for your call. Here now is Mary in McLean, Va. Hi Mary.
MARYHello. Can -- I can't hear you. Are you there?
NNAMDIYes, you can. We're here.
MARYOkay. There you are. This is a -- this is just an absolutely blatant fan club-type message for Mr. Lamb. There were three programs that I remember that left such an enormous impression on me. One was an interview you had with Christopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan, just the three of you talking. There wasn't anything you didn't talk about. It was absolutely hair raising, riveting, fascinating, and I enjoyed every minute of it.
NNAMDIOf course, Hitchens is no longer with us, but he was always a great interview. But go ahead, please.
MARYThe second program was one of the most moving, and certainly one of the most instructive to me. You did a long Saturday morning interview with these Rolling Thunder motorcycle people in the Pentagon parking lot one Memorial Day weekend, and you just -- you talked to everybody, and it was so revealing as to who these -- who this whole segment of really caring citizens were. It was a revelation to me. And the third one was just so much fun, was watching you interview Dava Sobel.
MARYI have rarely, rarely seen such wonderful attraction on something purporting to be a public television -- she had your number.
LAMBOh, that's hilarious. I know exactly what she's talking about.
NNAMDIOh, and you obviously liked it a great deal, too.
LAMBYeah. I did because it was -- Dava Sobel is -- I haven't seen her for years, but she did -- "Longitude" was one of her books, but she was -- she had a lot of fun because she loved to dance, and we got into one of those little back and forths on the program about dancing, and I'm sure that's what Mary is calling about.
LAMBChristopher Hitchens and Andrew Sullivan used to appear together all the time on our call-in show, and what was interesting is, if you go back and look at the old ones in our video library where you can see everything we've ever had on since the early '80s, you'll see that the two of them change their views almost dramatically -- they almost flipped, where Andrew Sullivan was a, you know, strong conservative, and viewed as such, and Christopher Hitchens was a strong even socialist, and I got a big kick out of -- I did I think the last TV interview with him ever a year before he died, and interviewed him, I think we counted up about 25 different times, and both those guys are tremendous. The Rolling Thunder, I have to tell you one quick thing, because...
LAMB...my wife for some reason or other loves to tell people about Rolling Thunder when I even got up on one of those hogs and sat there, and she thought -- she just thinks that's so great. But the Rolling Thunder people have always been interesting and not they're not what you think they are in terms of their views when you see them with the leather jackets on and all that. They're doctors and lawyers and truck drivers, all different kinds of people. A terrific group.
SUSANHey, Mary, thank you very much for your call. Here's Kathleen in Athens, Ohio. Kathleen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATHLEENYeah. First of all, I want to say I think C-SPAN is an absolute national treasure, and Brian Lamb is one of my heroes for sure. But I wanted to, you know, I especially love -- I learn...
NNAMDIOh, no. Kathleen, are you still there? Kathleen, we seem to have lost you. I'm going to put you on hold while we talk to Mark, but I'm gonna come back to you because something may have happened to your phone. Here is Mark in Orlean, Va. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARKHi. It's a pleasure to call. You know, Brian and I were seatmates one for about three hours on an Amtrak train from New York to Washington, and I could tell you it was a much greater pleasure for me than I'm sure it was for him.
LAMBI don't think so.
NNAMDIHe probably interviewed you for all three hours. But go ahead.
MARKHe's a lover of Thai food. But anyway, I was calling -- I raised an issue with him when we were together that, you know, since that time I've become more convinced that this is something which really, you know, needs to be addressed, and that is, you know, when I talk to people today about some of the current issues that we're all facing, what I hear is, I don't know what to think. And when I talked to Mr. Lamb, I indicated, you know, I said, there's a false cruelty to the cards when you have two guests one, one offering one viewpoint, the other offering another, with no attempt to really get at the objective truth of things, and objective truth does exist. I mean, the word truth is a synonym for reality, and I don't know, maybe I'm wrong.
NNAMDIHe's beginning to remember that train conversation now. But go ahead, please.
MARKI think a lot of the partisanship today has arisen from the fact that people don't know what to think because there's this attempt by the news networks to offer what they think is balanced as if both sides, both opinions are equivalent, and to my mind, an opinion is only as good as the facts it's backing up. And I think it's the responsibility of any news organization to try the attempt to get at the truth, and when whoppers are clearly stated, the guests should be held accountable for the fact that they told an untruth.
MARKSo my question to Brian is, what do you think? Do you think there's some substance to what I've just said?
LAMBI do. I don't think this is a perfect world, and I don't think our business is perfect, and I think there's a lot about that I don't like. There's a lot that we do I don't care for. There are more than two points of view, and we are kind of in that kind of a thought process that if you've got one side on then you've got to have the other side, therefore, you have the truth. I think you're onto it. I don't know the answer to it. I think you're smart enough to read and think for yourself and make up your own mind.
LAMBI don't think you're gonna get what you want though out of the commercial, or for that matter, the public or public service media, because it's a fast-moving business and you cannot be perfect on it, but just keep calling and keep talking and maybe somebody will figure out how to do it right.
NNAMDIAnd I think if you keep monitoring and you keep calling and you keep talking, the whole purpose of media in the final analysis is not to tell you what to think, but to enable you to make your own intelligent decisions, and it is our hope that we present you the kind of information and the kinds of guests that put you in a position to be able to make that. You're entering a sort of semi-retirement now, Brian Lamb. What are you plans?
LAMBIt doesn't feel that way. My plans are to stay at C-SPAN for a couple years as the executive chairman, and that means -- it probably doesn't mean much. The two CEOs have been there for 25 years plus, and they're in charge and they're making the decisions. It's hard to step away from the great people I work with, from the issues, from the excitement, but I have started, and will continue to spend a lot more time with students. I think it's a time to pass on the little things that you pick up and hope that you can help them.
NNAMDIYou're enjoying teaching at -- you're at Perdue, right?
LAMBWe do a television course from here via Internet line at Perdue, and actually right now we have 18 Perdue students in town for two weeks at what we call a May-mester and they're completing that tomorrow, and that's been really fun.
NNAMDIWell, for my final question, I guess, it has to do with how much Indiana versus how much Washington are you. We got a tweet from Peter who says, "A conversation about C-SPAN punctuated by Chuck Brown bumps? Write down the date, this is the most D.C. show ever." After 40 plus years in this town, is there any way in which you, Brian Lamb, are D.C.?
LAMBWell, you know, it's funny about the Chuck Brown story today. I have never seen the Washington Post cover anybody, other than a president, the way they covered Chuck Brown, and I immediately went to YouTube, got his music up, and listened to it this morning because I love that sound. I'm an old disc jockey. Yeah. It's one of those weird days. You know, I don't know. My head is in Indiana, and my body is here and has been for 46 years, so I think I'll live duopoly for a while.
NNAMDISame here. C-SPAN's Brian Lamb is the founder and executive chairman of C-SPAN and the host of the program "Q&A." Brian Lamb, thank you so much for joining us. Don't be a stranger.
LAMBThank you, Kojo. It's a kick to be here.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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