Interviewer: Jim Keller
Interview Date: November 1, 1999
Interview location: Denver, CO
Collection: Hauser Collection
KELLER: This is the oral history of Drs. J. Robert and Jeanne Rowley Burull who were early cable operators in the state of Wisconsin and very early pioneer programmers of advertising supported programming in Wisconsin, former educators and all around entrepreneurs. Bob has extensive experience in both cable television and from the telephone company and telephony in the early days, as well as the teaching of communications in a number of universities. This oral history has been funded by The Gustave Hauser Foundation and is part of The Oral History Program of The National Cable Television Center and Museum. Bob and Jeanne, would you please tell us a little bit about your background prior to the time you got into the cable business?
R. BURULL: Well, should I start off Jeanne? I think I would preface this by saying that the two of us met each other way back in grade school and of course we had no idea that we would eventually get into such an exciting industry and project as cable television. I went to The University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin and took a bachelor’s degree. I flew in the service for almost four years, came back out, Jeanne and I were married during that interim and then I studied for and received a master’s and a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin. Jeanne worked in the political science department at that time, keeping us both in food and in clothes. From there I went to Kansas State University as the farm radio director for a five state network, Colorado being one of those five states – there I enjoyed an excellent experience both in production and on-air work in film, tape and broadcast networks and so forth. From there, in 1966, we went to Bradley University, a private university in Peoria, Illinois, where I obtained tenure as an associate professor. By this time we had two children and during my time there, I worked off-campus with outside radio stations and met a manager, engineer of an FM, 100,000 watt station who introduced me to cable television. I in turn talked about it with Jeanne and one thing led to another and then about a year after that, in 1968, we had franchised Stoughton cable television, a subsidiary of Viking Media Corporation, which we started. We left Bradley University, resigned from that position there, and started our cable television adventures.
KELLER: What year was that, Bob?
R. BURULL: We started Stoughton Cable Television in the fall of 1969, and the start of it was, like many small cable television starts in those days, mostly on leverage and on an incredible sense of faith and optimism. and maybe you have something to add to that Jeanne?
KELLER: As we were talking earlier, Jeanne was saying that she was a jack of all trades in the early system. She did the billing, she answered the phone, she worked in the studio – and I want to get more into that studio operation at that time – and did virtually everything as well as take care of the family and take care of Bob. In the early days, you said that you were financed, as many of the systems were at that time, by the Jerrold Corporation.
R. BURULL: That’s exactly right. The Jerrold Corporation, as most people know, was a manufacturer of electronics and Milton Shapp, the president and owner, had a wonderful vision for cable and he also knew that probably for this kind of a new upstart industry, getting financing would be nigh unto impossible. So he had this wonderful deal where he would, in many cases, finance 90% of the cost of the investment for the entire cable television system. I learned about Jerrold Corporation from one of their sales reps, Rob Santora, an engineer sales rep, and through him and another area salesman, Charles Moody, we eventually were able to start a cable system through the 90% financing of Jerrold Corporation. We also had to go find our other 10%, which was more difficult to do in those days, since the banks were almost hostile to the idea of this new, very risky kind of situation – even though you could put in front of them beautiful looking proformas and projections, being wise old bankers they wanted to see it before they would believe it.
KELLER: As you developed, how many miles of system did you build?
R. BURULL: We originally built about 32 miles of system.
KELLER: And how many homes did you pass?
R. BURULL: We passed about 2,000-2,500 homes and we started out with the typical community, which already received three networks of television plus an educational network. We started out at $5.00 per month per subscriber and put in free installations. Nothing like Magness did out here in the West where he charged $150 for an installation. We would have loved to have done that, but we wouldn’t have really gotten to first base on that, especially in a hardcore Norwegian, very conservative community only 15 miles from 4 off-air channels.
KELLER: So you were fighting four off the air signals?
R. BURULL: That’s exactly right. We had four off-air signals. But we went in there with the idea we would bring in extra signals from Rockford, Wisconsin; the flagship station from Chicago, channel 9, WGN-TV; from Milwaukee, channel 4, WTMS-TV; and channel 18, an independent station. We did that for awhile but then, as you know, the broadcasters who were very, very strong and looked upon cable as being the real enemy got a distant signal freeze. So, suddenly, there we were with only our local channels. To combat that, and this is where I think our unique backgrounds in television production and radio production hands on experience, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, helped us enormously because we realized that this system would survive only if we could give to our subscribers something they didn’t have – an ability to reflect upon themselves and their own community through live programming editorials, all-issue reporting and through special interest presentations from the schools and from the Madison legislature, which was kind of nearby, and that’s where we really, I think made a contribution to cable television from February 1970 through the early years to 1974-’75. We set a high standard of bringing local programming, or local origination as it was called, to the Stoughton community. To do that, we solicited programming not only from the community, but from the state government, state universities, and from celebrities who would be coming through, to give the subscriber something they couldn’t have unless they were cable subscribers in that community. One of the more exciting events and activities we had was to bring live sports: wrestling, football, basketball, sometimes track, as well as LIVE school board meetings, LIVE city council meetings – remember this was 1970, ’71 – LIVE programming ran against the grain of the newspapers to some extent, the theaters to some extent and absolutely to school boards and city councils, who felt first of all that they should be paid for this sort of thing and secondly, the school board especially, did not really want the community to see what they were doing.
J. BURULL: Well, that was true of the city councils too.
KELLER: You think that was true at that point?
J. BURULL: Oh, definitely true because I think we did an editorial calling the city council a “rubber stamp” city council. That was at a time of great conflict, but the ending was, I think, more fascinating.
R. BURULL: Absolutely. Again, we used the editorializing tool, which I don’t think cable systems today do.
KELLER: Not enough of it.
R. BURULL: That’s exactly right, but editorials in small cities are very interesting when they’re done, especially if they’re done LIVE, because unlike hearing an editorial from Fox News Network where the person is in New York or California. In local cable, when you’re done you walk out the door and there are your viewers right in front of your face sometimes. So we did lots of editorials and we challenged the two main bodies in the community, the city council and the school board. As Jeanne referred to, I did an editorial one night on the “rubber stamp” council and the phones rang and people stopped in from the neighborhoods; they were delighted.
KELLER: This was after you received the franchise?
R. BURULL: Absolutely! By all means! We never even mentioned that sort of thing when I was going for the franchise.
KELLER: Bob has a reputation of being a fighter and it seems like he’s been involved in battles as he mentioned some of them – the city council, the school board, then we’ll get on to the state level too, fighting the state regulation of cable television and the formation of the Wisconsin Cable Television Association, of which he was the first president. Bob, I want to take these issues a little bit further. You talked a little bit about your battles with the city council after you had the franchise and your battles with the school board. Tell us a little more about the school board battles.
R. BURULL: The school board battles were wonderful. I was born and raised on a farm and at the time we came back to Stoughton, Wisconsin, most of the school board members were farm boys, believe it or not, and looking back they were pretty darn good when you consider what’s going on today in our public education. They were really nailing it on the head, so to speak. In fact, they would say, “All we want from our students is someone who can drive a nail into a piece of wood.” But the analogy of that was we want our students to learn subject matter basics. The school board and I, old friends of mine, we really got into a tangle, especially about not only education but about high school sports. We felt it was necessary, pragmatic, that we needed to do sports live. We needed to build an audience because our distant signals were no longer carried and so I notified the school board that we were going to be there on the first football night. We didn’t ask them.
KELLER: I want to back up just a little bit. You mentioned that your distant signals were no longer being carried. So you had started out with signals from Chicago, Rockford, Milwaukee and Madison and you had to discontinue carriage of the signals from Milwaukee and Rockford at that point?
R. BURULL: And Chicago.
KELLER: And you had to discontinue Chicago at that time?
R. BURULL: Yes, we discontinued Chicago.
KELLER: Because you did have an independent in Wisconsin?
R. BURULL: Yes, that’s right. So we ended up with these four major network signals that everyone received anyway without cable, so in order to attract audiences we wanted to give the subscribers something that they could lay claim to that their neighbors couldn’t who weren’t cable television subscribers. So you do what a lot of journalists do, you create controversy. But in this case we also had the allure and the persuasion of doing sports live, especially for senior citizens and especially for people who had paid school taxes for years and years and couldn’t get out to the games and what better argument to say, hey everyone deserves to see what it is their tax dollars are doing. The school board of course said, “Well, you can’t do that. You can’t go on the field.” We said, “If you let radio on, you have to let cable television on,” and it developed into a huge fight. They warned us not to be on the field and of course we went out there and you’ll like this, Jim, we plowed in with a farm plow the underground cable into the schoolyard and up to the football field and it was a problem because part of it we couldn’t put underground and inevitably on certain football nights a couple of kids would come along and pull the cable apart. Of course Jeanne there too…
J. BURULL: I was in the studio.
R. BURULL: …was a gopher and she’d let us know and we’d have guys go on out there and do the repairs.
KELLER: You were doing a play by play?
R. BURULL: We were doing play by plays for basketball, wrestling, football. We garnered a large audience, we garnered a really large audience, at least on a pro rata basis from that community. The sports turned out to be wonderful for Stoughton Cable because it got us a lot of support from the community and it also increased our subscribership and it also helped us in our advertising. We needed to advertise in order to do the local origination and even to help us with our local payroll. So we would have maybe ten, twelve advertisers on a per game basis. We tried not to have two banks at one time or two real estate dealers at one time – we’d say, “if you do this, then I’m not going to go to any other real estate dealer.” It was kind of extortion with levity, because we were beginning to get quite a good audience there. Surprisingly, when we got into the fight with the School Board about being on that field, we always said we’d love to discuss this with you anywhere, but our cameras will be there as well and so the whole community saw the debate and negotiation. That garnered more of an audience, the school board in action on issues, than the sports did.
KELLER: It’s interesting to note that this is all from a community of under 10,000 people in the middle of Wisconsin.
R. BURULL: Yes, I think that Stoughton finally realized they were pretty lucky because most small communities of that size didn’t begin to have any kind of cable live coverage of that nature. So this controversy went on for, I think, for the whole football season and there was gnashing of teeth and board members would call me and complain, and not so kindly, so I had an editorial about the school board. I noticed one night that all the school board members had pickup trucks, after all they came from the country. So I had an editorial on the pick-up-truck philosophy that prevails at the school board. That was the wonderful thing about cable. We had a live outlet, we had access whenever we wanted it, we could bring our philosophy and our own issues and our own perspective to an audience and having been in radio and television, we could talk it pretty well too, whereas most people were afraid to go on camera. That was an advantage. But then we turned around and we invited members of the school board, each individual member of the school board, the superintendent of schools, all of them to come in and participate live, have call-ins, promise them, “No, no, I’m not going to badger you. You just talk, I’ll ask the questions.” So it brought to that community an awareness of how their school board operates, and the city council, that they never had before.
KELLER: The reason they fought you initially is because they wanted to get paid?
R. BURULL: Yes, they wanted to get paid and it was a provincial kind of feeling that what we were doing on the field, would cause the gate receipts to go down. And I think we proved that their gate really went up.
KELLER: I think television itself has proven that.
R. BURULL: That’s right. So the fight was over that and there was a fight over power. Remember, we were hometown people, we’d been out in the world, we came back and Jim, there’s always that kind of thing about power and not wanting to give up a certain amount of power and the board members and the council members, the mayor, the elected officials recognized that there was more power here than they had thought before, in terms of information about who they were and their stands on certain issues. All of that could now be brought out LIVE and there’s a big difference between appearing on television LIVE versus reading the news. You need them both, but all of that, I think, scared these people somewhat. We had an editorial about the mayor, who was very instrumental in getting us the franchise. The city council committee on ordinances had stalled and stalled and I remember calling the mayor one day from Peoria, Illinois and said, “Look, if you want us to come up there you’ve got to do something about your committee.” And he did. He was a good strong-arm mayor. Well, we got our franchise and we’re moving along and maybe six or seven months later, the city election was going to take place. I did this editorial on “why doesn’t someone else run for mayor for a change?” Well, Coop, the mayor, was a plumber from the South, from Texas. He walked by that studio of ours with his sleeves rolled up and then about the third walk-by the next day, he’d come in and say, “Bleep bleep you, Burull. How dare you.” I said, “Well, look, it’s freedom of speech, Coop. And I never told you I wouldn’t have that here.” Out he storms and about the third or fourth time he came ramming in there and said, “G—D—you, Bob, I’ll take you on on the council floor.” I said, “Well, fine, we’ll have the cameras there and then everybody can see this.” Well, that was the end of that. It took about three months, but pretty soon we became fast friends because we supported his programs and gave him equal time on cable.
KELLER: Was he re-elected?
R. BURULL: Oh, yes. And he learned that support from us was a lot better than a fight because we supported him loyally, as a matter of fact. We invited him in to be a guest when Pierre Salinger was there or when Senator Carl Thompson was there. We had more Democrats marched in front of him then he ever though he’d have, so it worked out well for him.
KELLER: What about your battle with the theater?
R. BURULL: Oh, the theater was – when we came back to Stoughton, I don’t think we even had our equipment in Stoughton and the theater put up on their marquee, the only theater in Stoughton, Wisconsin, what was that? “Go home cable”, or something like that, or “Don’t subscribe to cable.” It was very blatant.
J. BURULL: Right across from the post office so everybody would see it.
R. BURULL: The owner had a little harder time then Coop did, because after all, this was his business. Coop was elected; he could live with or without being mayor of Stoughton, Wisconsin, but the theater owner was a small business operator and he visualized movies by the gazillions just driving him out of business, which of course didn’t happen at all. In fact, we began to support his theater. I’d call him one day and say, “Why don’t you let us put on our little advertising wheel the movies you’re going to have.” Competition is good. It took him by surprise, but then he too became a friend. Everyone became a friend except the city newspaper editor.
KELLER: That was going to be my next question. The next question was about the newspaper.
R. BURULL: Oh, yes, he was irredeemable I guess you’d say.
J. BURULL: From the very first time we went to see him.
R. BURULL: We went to visit him and he gave us a long lecture about Stoughton as being a tough community to sell and he was right, he was absolutely right about that and then he gave us all kinds of advice and we thanked him and went on our own way. Well, it didn’t take long for him to begin doing his editorials about Stoughton Cable. We had a small staff, so sometimes we probably weren’t quite as accurate as we should be in our coverage and he certainly would bring attention to that. He caught me one night at the election at city council and the ballots were coming in and I went over to see who had won and who had lost and I just have a hard time standing still, Jim, and I was wandering around the place and saw this box in front of me and said, “Well, I wonder what’s in here?” And here were all these… what do you call it?
J. BURULL: Absentee ballots.
R. BURULL: Absentee ballots, and the minute I peeked in the box and saw what was there and was putting the cover down, in walks the editor. So of course the next day’s paper had shaded in black this long column about Bob BURULL: breeching the electoral process. But it was a good time and the Stoughton community, our cable area, responded in a wonderful way, I think, to what we were trying to do for the community. We were really public service motivated. But I knew, both of us knew, at the same time, that that’s what we had to give at that moment and that hopefully would get us more subscribers. We started, I think, with 300 and ended up with 1,700 or 1,800, I believe, before we sold that system four years later.
KELLER: Let’s move from there. Let’s take a look at the state picture in Wisconsin at that time. Wisconsin was the leader almost, in this country, of the attempt to state regulate cable television and you were involved in that intimately for a number of years.
R. BURULL: Well, did you want us to provide a background of that? Madison, Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is thought of as an island surrounded by reality. It’s a very liberal community and the University of Wisconsin communications department at that time looked with greedy eyes upon what we were doing in Stoughton. We had brought the awareness of the power of local originations from local cable to the forefront in that state and in other states, but the people from the Department of Communications looked upon this as just what they needed so that they could use it for whatever they wanted to use it for. They had WHA, but WHA wasn’t giving too much time to individual departments.
KELLER: The university station?
R. BURULL: That’s right. So our local origination got a lot of headlines and it stimulated people like Larry Litchy, who was at the University of Wisconsin Comm department at that time. He was very outspoken. He was, I guess, what I would call, one of these folks who believed that whatever was private, half should belong to the state, in this case the university. He in turn, I’m quite sure, bent the ears of Lee Dreyfus, who was well known in the state of Wisconsin as the great communicator and he was. He was and is an extraordinary communicator.
KELLER: He became governor then, after that?
R. BURULL: He eventually became governor. At the time he was Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point. He also, I think, motivated the press secretary, Blake Kellog, for Governor Lucy at that time, the Democratic governor. Blake was called the commander. He was an ex-broadcast fellow and so among all of them, they got their heads together and they put together the idea and proposition that cable television was a threat to everybody, literally, in the state of Wisconsin, especially to broadcasting. But it was also an opportunity for the University to have more outlets. And then there was the real concern that if cable were left unregulated, it would just raise havoc throughout the whole state, both in terms of reporting, in terms of probably concentrating into one system and thereby having an absolute monopoly, all of those issues, and so they formed the State Cable Commission in 1971. The cable people in turn, the small, independent cable people like Jeanne and myself, and many other operations including Beloit Cable, which was part of your operation at that time, Jim. We said we’d better do something about this. So we formed the Wisconsin Cable Television Association. I was elected president and we set out then to try to educate the public as to the dangers and in fact the possible demise of cable television if state regulation should ever come to fore. It was that time, Jim, you might remember, that Minnesota did invoke state regulation and stopped cable development flat out.
KELLER: I remember that very well. Governor Lucy then appointed a commission, is that correct?
R. BURULL: That’s right.
KELLER: I want to go into the details of that commission when we pick up on our second tape.
R. BURULL: You bet.
BREAK IN VIDEO
KELLER: Bob, as we ended the first tape we had just gotten to the point where governor Lucy had formed a Commission to determine whether or not there was state regulation required of cable television just after your neighboring state of Minnesota had already regulated cable television.
R. BURULL: That’s right.
KELLER: How was that commission formed and what part did you play in it?
R. BURULL: The commission was formed by the governor, Governor Lucy, with a lot of input from Larry Litchy, who became the staff advisor to that Commission, while Chancellor Lee Dreyfus became its chairman.
KELLER: Litchy was on the Comm. Department at the University of Wisconsin?
R. BURULL: That’s right. He was an associate professor at that time, I think.
KELLER: The People’s Republic of Madison.
R. BURULL: The People’s Republic of Madison. The People’s Republic of the University.
KELLER: Dreyfus was still the Chancellor of UW – Stevens Point?
R. BURULL: He was still chancellor at the university but he had also been, before being Chancellor, Chairman of the UW- Comm. Department and he had hired Larry Litchy, so they were very close together and they, along with the Governor’s office, formed this cable commission and they solicited members for the Commission from all over the State of Wisconsin. They developed and invited subject-categories and one of the categories came from cable operators, other categories were from schools, and others from business and so forth.
KELLER: Broadcasters were represented?
R. BURULL: Broadcasters too, yes.
R. BURULL: Newspapers as well. You bet.
KELLER: It was a large commission, as I recall.
R. BURULL: 58 members, I think, or 52 members.
J. BURULL: 52 members.
R. BURULL: So, as that commission was being formed and as that evolution was taking place, we formed the Wisconsin Cable Television Association. That is, as I said, the cable operators and owners in the state of Wisconsin. We, in turn, decided we needed to really educate the public and we needed to fight as much as possible the idea of regulation of cable television. It was a scary time because it was so difficult for every cable operator, whether it was a multiple operator or a single operator, to make ends meet. To fight to try to get a new industry developing just from a business viewpoint as well as then fight a state regulatory bureaucracy knowing what would happen if we had a bureaucracy was scary – where somebody from Washington or someone from the state capital or from the university telling us how to operate: you can do this and that and so forth. As all three of us know here is the antithesis to private business and the idea of capitalistic freedom.
KELLER: So you had this guy, Litchy, who was a very liberal member of the Comm. Department at the University of Wisconsin, as the staff director.
R. BURULL: Very liberal. Yes.
KELLER: Was he able to direct the commission toward that liberal attitude?
R. BURULL: Absolutely. Absolutely. His goal was to regulate, control and have power over cable television in the state of Wisconsin for a number of reasons. One of them, from Litchy’s viewpoint, was to have access, for free, for nothing, not only on the cable channels, in other words have a one channel or two channel dedicated to them, but they talked about having the cable operators themselves finance that channel and provide the crew and the staff to put their content on the channel. The second reason was to regulate cable. They looked upon cable as a utility and they even solicited at that time the chairman of the public utility commission, Mr. William Eich. Ironically, Mr. Eich, who is now a judge, and I used to bartend together at The Brat House and so we knew each other. They wanted to control it. They wanted to regulate it. Freedom in business, I think, for many academicians is an anathema. It’s something that they really have a hard time dealing with.
KELLER: Parenthetically, and it’s something that should be mentioned here, that it was at this time that the Federal Communications Commission was also looking at the possibility of generally regulating cable on a national level and part of what their final regulations were about were providing that cable operators had to provide for the so called access channels: educational, public access, I don’t know what the third one was.
R. BURULL: Exactly, that’s right.
KELLER: I believe that much of that was fermented and started in the state of Wisconsin.
R. BURULL: Jim, that’s a good piece of history and the ironic thing about Stoughton Cable Television, our company, was that on one hand, we motivated and stimulated regulation because we were very successful in proving that you can take a small community and let them look at themselves and you can provide education and public services that, heretofore, hadn’t been done. So, our successful local origination caused these folks to say everybody’s got to have a free channel, two channels, three channels, for public education and public service. So what we were doing in a sense, while trying to survive by doing local origination and doing it very successfully, was at the same time motivating the evil forces of regulation to shut us down and it was a disturbing situation.
KELLER: Tell me this, were the then Chancellor, Lee Dreyfus, and Litchy looking to become of national importance in the cable television regulation field?
R. BURULL: Oh, there is no doubt about that. Both of these men were ambitious for public and, I think maybe on Lee’s part, national recognition. He would deny that but there’s no doubt they were trying to set a standard and to develop a reputation by developing an agenda, if you will, that would be a nationally recognized agenda and which would ultimately lead, maybe, to national regulation. So, you had that kind of force at work as well. The commission went ahead and scheduled ten hearings and as President now of the Wisconsin Cable Television Association I would, along with Chuck Burdick and others, be part of that Cable Television Association. We would attend these hearings and we started writing a lot of letters.
KELLER: You were a member of the commission, weren’t you?
R. BURULL: I was a member of the commission. That was the other part. I went to see Mr. Lucy and I had to go through his press secretary and I finally got five or ten minutes with Mr. Lucy.
KELLER: Governor Lucy.
R. BURULL: Governor Lucy of Wisconsin wanted to know why I should be on that Commission. I said, “Well, if you’re going to have a commission on cable television you better have someone who speaks for the industry.” And he agreed to that, but he kind of wanted to have a quid pro quo on that and I kind of said, “Yeah, we’ll be as fair-minded and we’ll try to provide as balanced a viewpoint as we can,” which was probably not quite accurate because once I was on the Commission I still continued as the President of the Wisconsin Cable Television Association and we were a vigorous, vigorous advocate for no regulation. As a private cable operator, we did the same thing, which then motivated a letter from Lee Dreyfus, who was Chairman of the Commission, saying, “Look, you better figure out who you’re going to speak for.” He was upset because we had started, I think, to get a public opinion trend toward us, which is what we were looking for.
KELLER: It seems to me that’s fair game.
R. BURULL: Yes, absolutely.
KELLER: The broadcasters were representing their stations as broadcasters, weren’t they?
R. BURULL: Oh, for certain and so were the educators.
KELLER: So I see no problem with that. Why did he have a problem with you on that?
R. BURULL: I think he still looked upon me as his doctoral student and he thought maybe I was under his mentorial influence, I’m not sure.
KELLER: Just as the mayor of Stoughton thought you owed him something?
R. BURULL: That’s right. But again, with Lee, as with the mayor of Stoughton, I said, “Look, we’ll do as much as we can for you on our stations, but after all, we have every right to protect our industry and we have every right to try and fight a regulatory power, at least when the chicken’s not even out of the egg yet.” Of course Lee is very good, as I said earlier. He was a friend of Governor Lucy, a liberal Democrat, and he was also a friend of Republicans and so he had a lot of clout.
KELLER: Dreyfus was a Republican though, wasn’t he?
R. BURULL: Yes, I think you’d call him a liberal moderate Republican.
KELLER: In Wisconsin?
R. BURULL: In Wisconsin, that’s right. So cable fought regulation. The Wisconsin Cable Television Association did. We did; we invited lots of people down into our cable television studios and we would talk about this and take phone calls sometimes, off the air. We brought in a lot of advocates against cable television regulation.
KELLER: What happened as the commission was holding these ten sessions? Did it become obvious that there was going to be state regulation or did it become obvious that there was not going to be state regulation or wasn’t there anything obvious about it at all?
R. BURULL: It was kind of like what goes on in 1999. The White House says one thing and the Congress says another thing. The cable regulators, through the commission, would say we really need regulation to protect the public. Chairman Eich of the Public Utility Commission said this is no different than telephone and electricity, there’s only one to every town.
KELLER: The Public Service Commission did want regulation?
R. BURULL: Oh, yes. It’s chairman advocated it.
KELLER: Which is contrary to a lot of other states where they didn’t want any part of it.
R. BURULL: That’s exactly right, but again, you had a political dynamic in the state of Wisconsin that tied these folks together somewhat. One other thing was interesting here. There was another family at that time in Wisconsin, a powerful pair of brothers, two brothers, the Carley’s, who were very close to the governor.
KELLER: Governor Lucy?
R. BURULL: Governor Lucy, yes. David, the elder, the oldest, was a political science doctoral student, graduate, PhD, and was also an entrepreneur. He was very pragmatic and he was siding with governor Lucy on this whole thing until he, in turn, became a cable TV investor. After he became an investor, suddenly, the politics began to change. So again, it would be a very interesting study. It would be interesting to look in the background of the political dynamics that were taking place then. Certainly, I don’t think that cable regulation stopped because the people who had promulgated the resolution and the idea of having cable regulation suddenly felt that it should be freed and it should have its way. I don’t think that was as much the case as there was a political consideration.
KELLER: But you implied that is the case. That the people who were in favor of regulation, from a political standpoint and from a monetary standpoint, became investors in cable television systems and therefore their idea of regulation just kind of evaporated.
R. BURULL: In part.
J. BURULL: It did. There was a change in the air.
KELLER: Was it obvious?
J. BURULL: It was obvious. At least to us it was very obvious.
KELLER: Was it obvious to the governor?
R. BURULL: I think the governor, if you can believe here say, was literally told outright, look, if you don’t drop this, we’re not going to support you. So I don’t think he would ever admit that either, but from people who were in the governor’s office, this is apparently what happened.
KELLER: That’s how things get done, but you have to recognize, at least from the cable industry, there were a couple of very powerful families, both in business and in cable in the state of Wisconsin. One was the Fitzgeralds, the others were the Carley’s and when they both got into the business of cable television then things did start to change.
R. BURULL: Yes, that’s exactly right.
KELLER: So there’s more than just a coincidence, wouldn’t you say?
R. BURULL: Oh, absolutely. It was kind of a physic, the hearings on cable television regulation. I mean they were held in every major city, as you know, in the state of Wisconsin, and many people became passionately involved in it. Lots of citizens became passionately involved in this issue and we did our best to get them as passionate as possible, to come there and to speak out against regulation. It was, again, as you know because you’ve been in these situations, Jim, being there, being in the cockpit for a while, those are singular occasions that don’t happen very often.
KELLER: Now, there was another campus of the University of Wisconsin located in Stevens Point and as I recall there was somebody in the Comm. Department up there by the name of Barry Orton, who also played somewhat of an influential part in cable, not necessarily positively, in Wisconsin at that time. Maybe even today, for that matter.
R. BURULL: I see his name once in a while. Barry Orton was from the UW – Madison. He knew a good thing when he saw it and that was that with all the hoopla about the evolution of cable he knew all cities would become franchised and so, consequently, from his viewpoint, every one of them needed to have a consultant to help them make the right decisions. So I would say that Barry Orton jumped on everybody else’s labor and took it upon himself to become a consultant, a number-one kind of person in the state of Wisconsin, at least, in helping cities develop and write their ordinances and their franchises. He was a real thorn in the front of cable would-be franchisers and owners because he wrote franchises that would just take the last drop of blood out of the people who were going to build the systems.
KELLER: I remember that very well. Is he still doing that? I’ve lost track of him entirely.
R. BURULL: You know, of course once all the cities had been franchised, then Barry Orton and other consultants became less important because re-franchising wasn’t that big a deal anymore but he still is involved in maybe advising certain cities. He probably advises cities on re-franchising, although cities themselves have become smart too. They too have been burned and they have learned from the operators what it costs to run systems and the idea that there has to be a certain amount of profit and that most cable operators, although you wouldn’t think so to read the newspapers, try pretty hard to meet the demands of the city requirements.
KELLER: Is he still a professor of communications at the university?
R. BURULL: I think he is, yes. I think I ran across his name very recently.
KELLER: At Stevens Point?
J. BURULL: No, he’s at Madison.
KELLER: Oh, he’s in Madison now.
R. BURULL: Yes, he went to Madison.
KELLER: Went to the big house, huh?
R. BURULL: Yes, exactly. When you go down you go up supposedly.
KELLER: He also made, as I remember, made somewhat of an impact with the Federal Communications Commission in carrying through some of these liberal ideas into the commission hearing and representing “academia”.
R. BURULL: That’s right. He definitely capitalized from the cable operators and municipalities for public service and that’s where some of these rules took place that demanded that the cable operator must dedicate certain channels for education and I think it went beyond that even.
KELLER: Education, government and public.
R. BURULL: Yes, there you are. Which today, by the way, some of them have been eliminated because it was too much of a programming burden and the other thing that happened of course is that once some of these schools got these channels, they did not have the wherewithal to put anything on them. That was this very impractical approach. Give us all of this and we’ll do this. The consultants were as big blue sky as the cable operators were sometimes.
KELLER: It’s still a point of contention and right now, AT&T, whose studio we’re currently taping in is going through a franchise renewal battle here in Denver and some of these same situations are coming up. Right now, though, the big buzz word is access to the cable for Internet capability and it goes right back to the same – they’ve already provided school channels, public channels, everything else like that. That’s already accepted now and now it’s a matter of free access to the cable for the Internet operators, so nothing has changed.
R. BURULL: No, it’s a gem that everybody wants a piece of and I think all of us here would agree that it’s okay to have public service channels. It’s fine. From my viewpoint, I always felt that it helped subscribership, but I had a good time later on saying to these academic would-be professionals who would tell us what to do – “hey, you guys can’t even mount a program to put on this channel that you’ve been given.” Of course in the city of Madison, today, the University of Wisconsin does have cable channels and they do use them.
END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A
START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B
R. BURULL: They provide several courses for credit, but I don’t think they use it for much LIVE debate on controversial issues or anything of that nature.
KELLER: So the upshot of it was that this attempt at regulation in Wisconsin just kind of fizzled when the powers that be got involved in the whole thing.
R. BURULL: Right. State regulation attempts just kind of fizzled out and fell by the wayside. The next real fight then taking place, even as that cable fight against regulation was taking place, was the dynamic tension that started to exist between conglomerates, multiple system operators (MSOs), and the smaller, independent cable operators like Jeanne and myself and that was a very interesting battle.
KELLER: That should have been good for you because you had all kinds of offers for your systems.
R. BURULL: That’s right, but being a stubborn Norwegian, you had to argue for maintaining your independence from larger conglomerates but everyone learns along the way, Jim.
KELLER: I see. But a conglomerate then as opposed to the AT&T conglomerate or the Media One conglomerate today is entirely different.
R. BURULL: Oh, completely different.
KELLER: Then, a million subscribers was a big operator.
R. BURULL: But didn’t you have a feeling, even way back in the early to middle ’70’s, that the ultimate end of cable television’s evolution probably would end with AT&T? I felt that and visualized that in the middle ’70’s when we started to see mergers taking place and we knew that those mergers were important simply for continuing to build systems if nothing else, create new financing so you could continue to build and continue to expand, as you know, to continue to handle your operating and building costs. You just kind of knew that there was one major “Borg”, from Star Trek if you will, the ultimate cash cow of all cash cows, and that was AT&T.
KELLER: Who were broken after awhile. They were broken up, and I was convinced at that time that sooner or later they would come back together again, which again you’re seeing happening. But there also was at this time, maybe even a little bit before that, the feeling that the telephone companies who had been fighting – that’s another fight we haven’t talked about – who had been fighting cable up till that point decided they were going to get into it and that’s another chapter in your life. We want to talk about that a little bit in detail a little later, but did you ever have any problem with telephone companies when you were building your system?
R. BURULL: Well, we were lucky in our cable area because all the poles were owned by Stoughton Utility, so with the exception of a couple poles here and there, in that first build we didn’t have a problem.
KELLER: That was a publicly owned utility?
R. BURULL: Publicly owned utility – Stoughton Utility. So when we did the franchise, we also had a side agreement to use the poles for $2 a year?
J. BURULL: It wasn’t very much.
R. BURULL: I think I cut a really good deal there. $2 a year for a pole, which wasn’t bad, to hang our service up on, which raised the point about the other kind of, what would you call it? There’s a word for this where one depends on the other. The cable television…
R. BURULL: Yes, synergism. Thank you, Jim. Cable depended upon telephone so they could hang their system up; we couldn’t afford to go underground at that time and in the same case with utility. So, utility and telephone helped cable even as telephone was kind of neutral maybe about cable. But I can still see these telephone engineers and utility engineers out there on every pole as we hung our cable up until they became satisfied we weren’t going to ruin their poles, tear their system down. It had to be what, 3 feet, I think from the utility line, that sort of thing. The rank and file were there.
KELLER: You had a telephone company which was separate from the utility, or did the utility also own the telephone company up there?
R. BURULL: No, no. It was separate.
KELLER: It was a power utility but they owned all the poles. So the telephone company rented from the utility also?
R. BURULL: Yes, exactly.
KELLER: So they had a monopoly there too. Again, everything controlled by a municipality or government again was typical of Wisconsin and Minnesota at that point.
R. BURULL: Very much so.
KELLER: What is there about the temperament of that part of the country that everybody wants the public to own everything?
R. BURULL: Well, Jeanne and I have a theory about it. Would you like to explain it?
J. BURULL: No, you go ahead.
R. BURULL: Well, the theory is from our standpoint, especially Stoughton and especially other areas in Wisconsin that were fully immigrated by Norwegians and other Norwegians from other parts of Norway went to Minnesota and Swedes went to Minnesota more than they did Wisconsin.
J. BURULL: But it was the Norwegians from the liberal party of Norway…
R. BURULL: …that went to Minnesota. And that’s documented. But something about that Scandinavian social and political philosophy they brought with them is what I think has made Wisconsin and Minnesota different kinds of states in terms of ownership of utilities, for example. I’m sure there are many other reasons for it, but being Norwegians we can understand it maybe a little bit better.
KELLER: I’ve often wondered that though, why that mentality developed particularly in those two states.
R. BURULL: I know Minnesota with Humphrey put together that rural-urban liberal party up there. A lot of those people are Scandinavians, but in Wisconsin itself, there were these Norwegian communities who had a great fear about government. They were very independent people.
KELLER: That’s an unusual dichotomy, isn’t it?
R. BURULL: Yes, a real dichotomy. I know a lot of people in my father’s age group who wouldn’t take a cent of Social Security. Absolutely not. They would die before they would take from the government because they did not want that connection. They wanted to be free and independent within themselves, not dependent upon a government for heaven’s sake.
KELLER: Then why would they want to regulate everything, utilities, cable, everything else that they could get their hands on?
R. BURULL: I think, Jim it was those few people who were smart enough to get off the farm, became educated, and just didn’t know any better.
KELLER: I don’t think I’ll touch that one.
R. BURULL: I think it maybe ought to be extricated from the tape.
KELLER: We’ll leave that one alone.
R. BURULL: But I have to tell you, just as an aside here, that that little Stoughton community of 10,000 or less, and it was a little community then of less than 4, 000, produced the chairman of AT&T, Haakon Romnes; Mr. Clare Eckvit, chairman of Boeing and the former President of the University of Wisconsin, Conrad Elvehjem. They all came from Stoughton. These were immigrant children of immigrants. All of them could speak only Norwegian when they came to that area and they just graduated upward and attained these incredible achievements, so there was something there.
KELLER: Apparently there was. Bob, we’re about to the end of this tape and on the third tape, I want to go into your connection with bringing the telephone company into the cable business and what your experiences were there, how long it lasted and what inroads you were able to make.
BREAK IN VIDEO TAPE
KELLER: Bob, after you sold your system, and that was in when? ’73, ’74?
R. BURULL: ’74, I think.
KELLER: What did you do after that?
R. BURULL: Well, Jeanne and I took about six months off and kind of got our life back together again and then I was hired by Chancellor Lee Dreyfus to go to University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, where I became his Director of Telecommunications and built their telecommunications center. It was a center having to do with a lot of production work and communication work. We were there about two or three years and really enjoyed it because we didn’t really have to depend on it but we enjoyed it a lot. Then Lee decided to run for governor and I was kind of looking around and I got a call from a fellow by the name of Leroy Carlson, chairman of the board of Telephone and Data Systems out of Chicago, who had put together a fine conglomerate of independent telephone companies throughout central and eastern United States, even out West in, I think in Oregon. He was a very forward looking gentleman and he could see that, this was in 1978, ’79, he could see that cable television, which at that time was booming because of satellites and so forth would be good for him to try and protect his telephone companies. He felt, and who knew, he felt that cable might surpass telephone in terms of carriage capacity. After all, one cable channel could carry many more channels versus two pairs of twisted lines because at that time we didn’t have digitizing and that sort of thing. So, he decided he wanted to franchise cable in all of his independent telephone companies. I think Telephone and Data Systems at that time was ninth ranked in the United States. He had well over 100 independent telephone companies at that time and so he called me one day and said, “It’s time for you to leave academia, you’re wasting your time there. Come out into the world.”
KELLER: Had you met him before?
R. BURULL: Yes, he had visited our studios and our systems in Stoughton and he was impressed by what we had done. I think he was also impressed by our entrepreneurial capacity, which is what he needed to build a broadband division, which he called it, in a telephone environment and as you know, telephone people were very skeptical. They were cooperative but not exactly warm and friendly with cable television people at that time. They were afraid of it and even though the rank and file of Telephone and Data Systems knew that this probably would maybe be their salvation someday and maybe augment their system. Like most telephone people, they just didn’t want to monkey around with cable television. Secondly, telephone folks are quite different from cable television folks because telephone was a utility – a necessity. Cable television was not a necessity and so you had to be a risk taker and an entrepreneur in a competitive environment, whereas telephone was a monopoly and a certain positive regulated cash flow.
R. BURULL: Flexible, thank you. You’ve helped me out twice now. (Laughter) So I was hired as corporate vice-president of broadband for Telephone and Data Systems and my job was to franchise and put in operation as many cable systems within the telephone exchanges owned by Telephone and Data Systems.
KELLER: They did recognize that their telephone franchise did not allow them to put in a cable system, right?
R. BURULL: Yes they did.
KELLER: There was a battle about that?
R. BURULL: There was a battle about that and of course Leroy, when he hired me, knew what he wanted me to do but he didn’t tell me that in addition to doing franchising and starting up operational teams, that I was also to try to talk the FCC into giving waivers for each of these exchanges.
KELLER: Which were required at that time for the telephone company to get into the cable business.
R. BURULL: Exactly. You needed a waiver, if you had a telephone exchange and wanted to put cable television into that exchange, you needed an FCC waiver. So he sprung that on me after I was there about six months and I was beginning to win franchises. He said, “You know, there’s this little law. Just go see what you can do.” I think in those days, when we were of a certain age and we were excited, I know you were the same, excited about mastering any new challenge we were given. And so the challenge of getting a waiver as well as getting franchises, all of that kind of kindled the spirit.
KELLER: How many waivers did you get?
R. BURULL: Well, I got my first waiver for Verona, Wisconsin.
KELLER: There weren’t too many given, as I recall. That’s because not too many telephone companies really wanted them but then they were forced out almost entirely, then, and the waivers were almost impossible to come by in the late ’70’s.
R. BURULL: Is that right? This is really interesting because we turned on Verona Cable and we purchased cable systems in our exchanges that were already operating and maybe there’s a grandfather clause to all that. Well, working with the telephone company, a highly regulated company at that time, and coming into new communities and working with the local telephone people of each of these owned systems was challenging. The telephone people were very helpful in making the right kind of contacts for at least getting the door open to win cable television franchises in Wisconsin, Tennessee, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma. It wasn’t like working in Stoughton, Wisconsin, or Monona or home area. So, I was out in these areas where I hardly knew anyone and even though I had a telephone company backing me, that at all times wasn’t good because there were lingering passions about the telephone companies.
KELLER: Tell me how you convinced the city council that it was better to give it to the telephone company then to an independent operator.
R. BURULL: Well, we would talk a lot about the service of the telephone company and that obviously the service would be the same for the cable television company owned by this telephone company. We’d promise the same kind of service the telephone did, which as you know didn’t happen in a lot of cable companies in those days and I would go into certain communities where the cable had been put in by a fly-by-night rider, maybe, and the cable was strung in trees and all over here and there. So from that point of view it was easier to convince the local gentry that telephone would do better because in many cases, that telephone company had been there for some years so they were known. You had the manager of the telephone company, maybe the chief lineman, and maybe the chief engineer, all members of that community who had quite a bit of influence.
KELLER: Better the devil you know.
R. BURULL: That’s right, exactly. Well, I have to tell you a story. I won Sevierville, down in Tennessee, as well as Concord, and then Roy Carlson, TDS owner and Chairman of the Board, said to me, “Well, why don’t you get something bigger.” So I went after the Sevier County franchise and there I worked again with the county commissioners just as I did with Concord. The great part about that story is that the head of the County Commission was an ex-World War II pilot and I was a Korean era pilot and we really hit it off well. He was convinced, and so everybody was convinced. So the night that the franchise was to be given he said, “Bob, you don’t even need to fly down here.” I said, “Okay.” But I had a local attorney there and I said, “Well, why don’t you go there so if they award us the franchise, you can pick it up at least.” He called me that evening and said, “You can’t believe what happened tonight.” I said, “What happened?” He said, “Well, the chairman walked into that commission meeting, took his hat off and he had shaved his head clean and he said tonight we are going to vote for Bob BURULL:.” (Laughter) That didn’t happen too often.
KELLER: It’s interesting. Sometimes that’s the way franchises were given.
R. BURULL: That’s right. It was being able to talk cable, engineering, technical, management, as well as programming. We could answer questions in all areas, all of which comes together sometimes and you win. Sometimes you lose. The losses are bitter.
KELLER: How long did you stay with the telephone company?
R. BURULL: I stayed I think for four years.
KELLER: That’s a long time.
R. BURULL: For me, it was a long time and it was an experience that was invaluable. But on the other hand, it was an experience where I gave up a lot of my home life because it was 70-80 hours a week. I would fly in our own plane out of Wisconsin to all these ports franchising and starting new systems. So then on top of that I had to direct the people we’d hired to help build and operate the systems. Somewhere, along the third year, I was beginning to get pretty weary and I know Jeannie was encouraging me to get out of it. I, myself, never thought I would go with a large corporation because of the intensity of it. Somewhere along the way, my employer, the owner, decided I should also go to Cleveland and try to resurrect some franchises there in the suburbs of Cleveland which he at one time had held, but foolishly had let expire.
KELLER: Do you remember what the names of those were?
R. BURULL: Yes, it was Garfield Heights, Maple Heights.
KELLER: These were outside?
R. BURULL: These were suburbs of Cleveland.
KELLER: But you were outside of your exchange areas?
R. BURULL: Yes, outside of the exchange areas. They were wonderful cable areas because they had 200 houses a mile. They were mostly blue collar. They were ethnic communities and the battles that went on there between the ethnic populations within these small communities – they weren’t so small, there were several thousands of people in those communities – was volatile. There I’d worked with the Democratic party and anyone else who would work with me. In Garfield Heights, which was probably the plum of all the suburbs there, I won the council with the presentations of educational services we could bring them based on a long history of educational services that we had brought personally or through the systems we had started and I had their vote. The chairman, however, of that council had been given lots of help by Viacom as a professor or director of communications at, what university was that in Cleveland, one of the universities there?
R. BURULL: Case University. So the night of the vote he had to go to the hospital and we had to cancel the vote. But, I held those council members together, visited them once a week at least and we came up for the vote a month later. Again, I had the vote, but the chairman of the council didn’t show, he got sick again and was in the hospital. Third month came up, time for the vote again, and he was there. You know after you’ve had so many experiences you can feel it up your back when you know there’s a problem. In this case, he had rounded up a letter from a council member from this little town of Verona, who had bitterly opposed TDS getting the franchise there, I mean bitterly.
KELLER: TDS being?
R. BURULL: Telephone and Data Systems, my employer. And so somehow, and I think probably it was gotten through the Madison people, he had found a way. He solicited a letter from a Verona council member that damned me and so just before the vote was taken with great drama he said, “Well, you know, I really hate to do this, but…” And he pulled out seven or eight manila envelopes and he said, “this is terrible but I want you council members to see this before you vote.” He pulled them out and here’s this letter, this damning letter. Well, I had a narrow vote, it was like four to three or five to four, I can’t remember and the swing man was an older gentleman who I’d worked really hard on and he had gone with us because of our educational services. Well, he dropped out. He was gone! That was a time where one works on something, among many political factors, and you lose on that basis, which of course we call highly unethical but which is part of the game.
KELLER: You left them in ’78. What have you been doing since?
R. BURULL: Jeannie and I developed a satellite company and we delved in satellite for awhile.
KELLER: Master Antenna Television.
R. BURULL: Master Antenna Television, and then we cooled it again. I decided why not go back into academia. I’m still trying this academia and this time I built a telecommunication system for the Madison area television, or Madison Area Technical Schools and also started for them educational courses via cable and via wireless that they hadn’t had before. Then I went to the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, and converted their audio-visual department into an instructional television department. But by this time, I was getting older and had a really difficult time with the political environments and the slow pace on campuses. So we hung it up and since that time we’ve enjoyed a very independent life from our earlier labors. We’ve also become involved again in my earliest vocation, which was agriculture and farming.
KELLER: Jeanne, what have you been doing through all of this turmoil that we’ve gone through, the battles. How did you participate and when did you get your Ph.D. in communications and how have you fit into this whole picture all the way over these last thirty years?
J. BURULL: I came into cable television with a degree in English and a minor in music, but also a lot of experience in business, so I took over all the business aspects of the operation as well as most of the programming. I ended up learning a great deal about cable television because I handled all the scheduling for the repairs, for the installations, the ordering of equipment, and working with the technicians. Plus, I became an on-hands camera person and director and I began to do just about everything. With the advertising I handled the cards that we made for the scan, the weather scan and for any of the other cards we used on camera and helped with community outreach, reaching all the different communities trying to develop really a friendly relationship between us and the community. With a core staff of three people – Robert, myself, and an engineer-installer type – plus additional help hired for heavy installation schedules and for local origination remotes (live city council meetings, school board meetings, football games, etc.), we built, developed and managed both the cable system and the local origination studio. Flexibility in management, development, and the problem solving was de rigueur. Our biggest employee problem arose in finding people who weren’t pigeon-holed in their thinking, who could handle pressure, a quickly-paced and always varied workload, and a narrow budget.
My role in developing a pioneering cable television origination system was less related to the political arena than Robert’s, although I maintained some involvement on the periphery. Among other things, upon request I testified before the Wisconsin Cable Commission as to the validity, value, and community response to cable local origination.
My Ph.D. in communications came about some years after my cable television experience, but my dissertation was related to that experience. The dissertation focused on an analysation of the legal claims of the cable television industry as related to First Amendment issues.
R. BURULL: Jeannie was just absolutely invaluable and it’s rare, Jim, when you get two people together, a husband and a wife, who can work so closely together and who can make such contributions. All of your contributions were just singular, but one of Jeanne’s great facilities is as an analyst and she was wonderful on analyzing books and just did a terrific job, even to this day, in that area. As you know, when you get down to borrowing money or selling or buying or whatever, your books are the most key thing in the world.
J. BURULL: Well, it was a time of idealism and stress, but I think the idealism carried us through all the stress.
KELLER: What was the ideal?
J. BURULL: The ideal was the local origination. Presenting something to the community and making that a focus rather than the signals because we had nothing much to offer really except WGN and then we couldn’t offer that, I can’t remember when we had to take that off, but that was a real call to subscribership, was letting the community see itself.
KELLER: Did you ever take any surveys to find out why people subscribed to your system in Stoughton?
J. BURULL: There was a survey done by the University of Wisconsin of our subscribers and if I remember rightly, the local origination programs were far higher rated than any other programs that we put on. The number of people that watched our newscast was very, very high in terms of percentage of subscribership, especially of course when we were in our battles, then we’d promote ourselves a little bit.
R. BURULL: In a typical week, on a school night week, we’d have a school board meeting live, we’d have basketball or football or wrestling live, we’d have a daily noon live broadcast and then the replay in the evening at 6:00, city councils live and sometimes we’d do special events live. So for a crew of three plus 1 ½ sometimes, to do the entire system would have been absolutely impossible unless someone like Jeannie had been there because of course Jeanne had her stake in this too. But, I agree with her that it was the idealism that moved us on. We found it very, very exciting and there’s no doubt about it, to be hailed mightily, right or wrong, was a lot of fun too, for your efforts. We’d do these things live at noon, we’d do our newscasts live at noon and have guests in as well as the daily news. One noon we had started just a touch earlier before the 12:00, the noon, siren went off, the fire siren. Well, the chief of the fire department was a great listener and that night he tuned in the replay, he had missed the noon live. Here is this siren and without even thinking jumps in his car, tears up to the fire department! Those were the kinds of things that were funny.
KELLER: What would you two do over again – let me put it this way: what would you not do if you had to do it all over again?
J. BURULL: That’s a hard question to answer, because idealism and drive overcome many lacks. I think if you’re realistic about something like that, you’d never do it without being well funded. We were well funded in terms of our energies and our mental capacities and our desires and it was an exciting time. It was a new thing. It was something to do and we never considered that we would not succeed, but it was a lot of hard work and it was something I don’t think that we could do for untold number of years.
R. BURULL: I think, in retrospect, the local origination drained us. It took a lot of time and effort but we had a lot of energy. We used local origination to obtain more franchises and all of this was a part of trying to develop and grow something knowing, first of all, that you needed the numbers in order to develop financial faith in your operations. On the other hand, there came that time when we had two ways to go, Jim, and we looked at each other – I think I remember the day – and we looked at each other and said, you know, we can keep going and we can obtain more money now and we can expand our systems. But, on the other hand, we had a young family and I think we just unconsciously decided the family was first. So, instead of moving forward in cable, and I have no doubt in my mind at all we could have continued to have won franchises and kept this loop of financial growth going, as you know how it works, we opted to go with the family and I don’t think we ever regretted that. Although I saw millions of subscribers and millions of dollars out there.
J. BURULL: Well, one could never have foreseen, or maybe one could have, that one would be battling all levels of government.
R. BURULL: But that’s not a big problem.
J. BURULL: But it’s an extra stress, especially if you’re on the receiving end.
KELLER: Just the paperwork that’s associated with a system today! So then you sold your system to TCI, is that correct?
R. BURULL: We sold our systems to the Carley brothers, who in turn sold it to TCI.
KELLER: The Carley’s were the brothers who we talked about earlier?
R. BURULL: Yes, that’s exactly right. They were entrepreneurs into many different things and at that time, cable was becoming very attractive. So they bought it. Interestingly enough, Jim, we had an opportunity to buy that system back from them about four years later. That’s when I was with Telephone and Data Systems and they wanted to sell because they couldn’t handle it. They did not have the background and they were pumping a lot of dollars into it. I’ll tell you, it was a real temptation to buy it back; it was a terrific temptation, but I think though, at that time, I kind of got a negative from Jeannie, I’m not sure.
J. BURULL: I think you did. I know you did.
KELLER: You preferred not to get back into it, huh?
J. BURULL: If you have a large enough staff…
R. BURULL: Well, we would have had the staff, but it would have meant 7 days a week, 24 hours a day again for a long time.
J. BURULL: That’s true.
R. BURULL: I guess we felt we had done what we set out to do and we’re happy about it.
KELLER: It looks as if you’ve had success on many fronts. Including your personal success of having a family and settling down on the farm and enjoying yourself.
R. BURULL: The farm, the land is our core, but we still do a lot of different projects. We do research for the state of Wisconsin now and then and we’re very proud of our two daughters that were kind of small tots at that time. As a matter of fact, our oldest daughter was, I think, responsible for us even calling you up one day and saying, I hear you have a project going there.
KELLER: We’ve had the opportunity to take the oral and video history of Drs. J. Robert and Jeanne Rowley Burull. The date today is the 1st of November, 1999. We’re in the studios of AT&T in Denver, CO. Your interviewer was Jim Keller. Thank you very much, folks.
R. BURULL: Thank you, Jim, wonderful.
J. BURULL: Thank you.
KELLER: This oral history was made possible by a grant from the Gustave Hauser Foundation and is a part of the oral and video history program of The National Cable Television Center and Museum.