Carolyn Chambers


Interview Date: 2000
Interviewer: Liz Burke


Carolyn Chambers describes her start in the cable industry, having first established a broadcast station in 1960. She talks about the formation of Chambers Communication Corporation, with systems in four states, as well as broadcast stations and a production company. She discusses raising capital. She goes on to talk about the future of her companies, the types of programming created for the networks, the effect of deregulation, as well as the cable-related organizations she has been part of, including NCTA, the California Cable Association, and WICT, serving as president. She describes the employee relationships between her companies, and how she recruits for management positions. Chambers discusses advice to small operators, and training for employees. She recounts the transition when her cable company, Liberty, was sold to TCI. In addition, she comments on the challenges as the industry itself began changing in the 1980s as well as ongoing issues with franchises. She concludes with remarks about the Cable Center being constructed in Denver.

Interview Transcript

LIZ BURKE: Hello. We’re in McCormick Place in Chicago. I’m Liz Burke, this is Carolyn Chambers. We’re doing an oral history project sponsored by the Gustave Hauser Oral History Program which is part of The Cable Center in Denver. I’d like to start out with a little background on Carolyn and what she has been doing in the cable industry, and then expand on that, talk about the history of her company, some of the things she envisions for the future, some of her personal goals and interests, community and industry involvement, some of the things she does to motivate people at Chambers, and some of her views on the cable industry looking back and looking ahead. So, Carolyn, with that in mind is there something in particular that has always been and continues to excite you about the cable industry?

CAROLYN CHAMBERS: I think the change is what really excites me because it’s constantly changing. Nothing is the same today that it was yesterday and I like that.

BURKE: How long have you been in cable?

CHAMBERS: Since 1967.

BURKE: And what did you do when you first went to work in communications and cable?

CHAMBERS: I was doing accounting work, and I was the treasurer and executive vice-president of Liberty.

BURKE: Can you tell us a little bit about Liberty?

CHAMBERS: Well, I started the company and in 1960 we went on the air with the first TV station after having gone through the FCC hearings for 6 ½ weeks for a competitive hearing that we had.

BURKE: That must have been exciting.

CHAMBERS: Well, it was… Being on the witness stand from 9 in the morning until 5 at night for several weeks was interesting, but I can’t say it was exciting.

BURKE: Was there a reason you decided to do that? Was there a driving force that one day you woke up and said this is what I’m going to do?

CHAMBERS: Well, I had been looking for something to do as a business and Eugene only had one TV station and I decided they ought to have a second one.

BURKE: What was it like when you first started working in the television and cable industry?

CHAMBERS: It was very different, and we certainly, in doing the broadcast, were starting out on new ground and looking at budgets and equipment.

BURKE: Were there people around that were particularly helpful to you?

CHAMBERS: Yeah, there were a lot of people that were very helpful and we got a lot of pointers on things to do as we went along.

BURKE: Who was in your first company?

CHAMBERS: There were several stockholders around the Eugene area that had been friends of my fathers that helped. It was kind of like early franchising of cable where you had various individuals with small interests to help you through the hearings.

BURKE: And how long were you with Liberty?

CHAMBERS: Until TCI purchased it.

BURKE: And when was that?

CHAMBERS: In 1983. That’s when I formed my own company.

BURKE: And tell us about your own company that you formed.

CHAMBERS: I kept my interests in Liberty and then bought back the TV stations, so that was how my company got formed.

BURKE: In between Liberty and Chambers you were also involve in McKenzie River Motors, which is a different business.

CHAMBERS: This is just ongoing.

BURKE: Oh, it’s ongoing?

CHAMBERS: That’s ongoing, it’s been forever. My parents were automobile dealers and I became an automobile dealer in Springfield, Oregon when I was in college.

BURKE: So you’re Oregonian born and raised?

CHAMBERS: Yes, yes, born in Portland.

BURKE: You had the opportunity to be in family business. You have five children; have you had your children involved in the business?

CHAMBERS: Three of my children work with me.

BURKE: Okay, and what do they do?

CHAMBERS: Scott is now president and chief operating officer, and my daughter, Liz, does the risk management, the benefits, and manages the winery.

BURKE: And one more? Three of the five are in the business?

CHAMBERS: Then my youngest, Silva, handles real estate management for a company that we have that has several large buildings in town.

BURKE: And you have two more children. What do they do?

CHAMBERS: My oldest son has his own business in Corvallis. He has a food processing business and now sells into 15 foreign countries, 22 different products. My other son works as a missionary.

BURKE: And where does he live?

CHAMBERS: He’s in Salem, Oregon right now.

BURKE: Oh, okay. So you’ve got a lot of family in Oregon.

CHAMBERS: They’re all in Oregon, 7 grandchildren.

BURKE: Very good. Now tell us something about Chambers Communication Corporation, the way it was when you started it and how it’s come along.

CHAMBERS: Well, we started it with the one TV station and four cable companies, and we now have five cable companies but we have sold a couple and purchased others that are different sizes and areas.

BURKE: And where are all your cable operations today?

CHAMBERS: California, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

BURKE: And your headquarters are still Oregon?

CHAMBERS: In Eugene, Oregon, and we’ve got a couple of other TV stations now.

BURKE: Did you have prior training and skills to get into telecommunications?

CHAMBERS: I’m an accountant and that was my skill. Where I started I worked in a radio station for a couple of years doing accounting and while I was there they had me do practically every job there.

BURKE: I’d imagine even to this day you wear a lot of hats.

CHAMBERS: Well, I do. When I was at the radio station I subbed for all the vacationing people, so I learned how to do a lot of things in a hurry.

BURKE: What was it like raising a family and running all these businesses?

CHAMBERS: Well, it wasn’t easy but I was able to choose some of my own hours and so I would stay home in the morning first thing with my children, and then I would drive them to kindergarten or whatever it is that they needed to go to, and then I would take work home and do it after they went to bed.

BURKE: And how did you develop your staff and find the kind of people you wanted to have work with you in your companies?

CHAMBERS: That’s kind of a hard one to answer. You look at people and see what kind of skills they have and then you make them fit to the jobs that you need to have done depending on what each one of them does best.

BURKE: Did you wind up doing a lot of training?

CHAMBERS: No, most of the people knew some of the basics of what they were starting. Yes, we did do training, too, as time went on, but in the beginning they had had some experience.

BURKE: What was it like being involved in a real growth industry that changed a lot?

CHAMBERS: I think that was one of the most important parts of it. It was more exciting that way.

BURKE: How long did it take you to plan to have your business and how did you plan your expansions? What was your process in that?

CHAMBERS: You want to talk cable?

BURKE: Oh, yeah, let’s talk cable.

CHAMBERS: Just cable. Well, we started off with, as I said, several cable companies, and then we looked at various areas of the country where we wanted to be and where we wanted to continue to expands, and so that’s why we sold a couple of those companies and then expanded in more northern California.

BURKE: How do your other entities relate to and affect your cable service? You’re in construction, you’re in internet, and you’re in real estate: do they work well together?

CHAMBERS: They all work well together and we have the offices in the same office building for the most part.

BURKE: How big is Chambers Communication today?

CHAMBERS: Well, we have 80,000 subs and three TV stations and a large production company.

BURKE: How did it grow to that size? What were the growing pains like?

CHAMBERS: Some of it went by spurts and then some of it was slow. We planned new ventures.

BURKE: Did you have some sources for major funding, or how did you raise capital?

CHAMBERS: Well, in the initial company when I was doing the broadcast, I borrowed $100,000 from my father, and then when I changed from Liberty to Chambers Communications, why I could bank.

BURKE: You could go to the bank then?

CHAMBERS: I could go to the bank then.

BURKE: Has banking been a challenge in the cable industry?

CHAMBERS: Not for me.

BURKE: Great. Knowing what you know now and all the things you’ve done, are there some things that you would do differently?

CHAMBERS: Oh, I’m sure. I wouldn’t be probably as tentative on some of the things, I’d be more decisive.

BURKE: From your early skills in training, before you were in cable, you also were involved in the Oregon daily newspaper; you were doing radio; were some of those skills very useful and important to what you’re doing today?

CHAMBERS: I’m sure that they were. It’s kind of by osmosis. You don’t really realize what you learned that you’re still using, but obviously they were very important.

BURKE: How do you envision the role of Chambers Communication and line that up with the future of the cable industry? Do you see continued growth?

CHAMBERS: Well, I think that we’ll try to continue to grow, but I think there’ll be changes. Obviously we’ll have to be offering telephony and other things as time goes on and exactly how we do that we’ll make some changes.

BURKE: Do you have a vision for the future of Chambers, of how you’d like to see it go?

CHAMBERS: I guess I do. I think that we’re starting to produce more shows for cable. We are providing the networks with various programming and I would like to see that particular arm of it grow.

BURKE: Tell us more about the kinds of productions you do.

CHAMBERS: We’ve done them for ESPN and for the Outdoor Network and for Lifetime, and we have some plans now to do them for the Food Network. I think that there’s a great variety that we can offer. We have a couple sound stages and can even do movies made for television, and we have done two movies so far.

BURKE: How involved in that process are you?

CHAMBERS: Not day-to-day, but put the stamp on everything that they do.

BURKE: Do you foresee some major challenges and hurdles in order to continue on the path that you’ve set?

CHAMBERS: Well, I’m sure that there will be some. They come up every day, but you take them one at a time.

BURKE: Just in light of deregulation and continued deregulation, that’s had a major effect.

CHAMBERS: I think that deregulation certainly helps us, but at the same time it provides problems with cities.

BURKE: Why did you choose particular other related companies to be part of your family of Chambers Communication? You have the production, you have the real estate, and you have a vineyard in your family…

CHAMBERS: Well, I think each one was just an opportunity as it came along, and the construction industry was one that my husband did. He passed away in ’86 and when you’re building buildings that are several million dollars and you’re doing several of them and they’re all at different stages and points in construction, there’s no way to let go. You have a tiger by the tail. So I kept it going. Each one has been uniquely different as to why, but they’ve all arrived.

BURKE: That’s probably a good description, having a tiger by the tail. Outside of communications do you have other hobbies?

CHAMBERS: I have a greenhouse and I spend a lot of time with my plants and enjoy getting them to grow. There’s an awful lot in my offices because eventually as I start new ones I have to do something with the old ones, so I’m always giving plants away.

BURKE: That’s great. Are you involved in cable-related organizations?

CHAMBERS: I am not currently in a lot of them, but I have been. I have been in the Oregon Cable Communications, I was through their chairs and was their president; I was president of the Pacific Northwest Association, and I’ve been active and was on the board for ten or twelve years of the California Cable Association, and was on the NCTA board for several years.

BURKE: Do you see any particular strengths or future for Women in Cable? Have you been involved with that organization?

CHAMBERS: I’ve also been the national president of Women in Cable, and spent several years on their board. I think that there’s a great future for that. I’m glad that they’ve expanded it somewhat as to their title, but I think it’s a necessary group and one that will help women.

BURKE: Going back to Women in Cable as an organization, what do you think are some of the major highlights and contributions that you’ve seen?

CHAMBERS: I’ve seen them do a lot of training of women and helping them with their network, and I think that they’ve done a really good job.

BURKE: Do you have some positive things to relate as a woman cable executive in America today?

CHAMBERS: That’s one I’d like to defer.

BURKE: Do you have other personal goals that you want to see accomplished?

CHAMBERS: Yeah, I think that there’s quite a few things that I want to see done in my local community in the state, some philanthropic things that I have in mind that are going to be taking place before too long.

BURKE: What do you see yourself doing in five to ten years from now?

CHAMBERS: Probably playing in my greenhouse more.

BURKE: That sounds nice!

CHAMBERS: Traveling, I do a lot of traveling.

BURKE: Do you still attend a lot of company events and activities around the company?

CHAMBERS: Oh, yes. I’m in my office every day when I’m not traveling, and I attend all the events.

BURKE: What are the kinds of events that you like to have at your company?

CHAMBERS: Well, we have barbeques for all the employees a couple of times every summer, and we have different days during the year that we do some kinds of crazy things, and we’ve had big Halloween parties for all the employees and children. That type of thing.

BURKE: And in the day-to-day, how much input do employees have in running the organization?

CHAMBERS: Well, I think each in their own department they have quite a bit to do, obviously not through the whole organization.

BURKE: Do you get a lot of interaction between your different companies? How do you keep track of all your interests?

CHAMBERS: There is some interaction. That’s been a little bit of a problem at times because they get a little jealous of each other.

BURKE: A lot of stuff going on.

CHAMBERS: Yeah, if you’re paying a little more attention to one division than another.

BURKE: You’ve grown so much you’ve had to recruit upper management and sales and production. How do you go about that process?

CHAMBERS: Well, I quite often put the word out that I’m looking and then once I have some people identified, I visit with them and talk with them and check on their background and go from there.

BURKE: Are there certain qualities that you’re looking for when you’re looking for your long-term employees?

CHAMBERS: I always want someone who’s a quick study, who’s eager, and personable, knows what they’re talking about in whatever area they’re being hired for.

BURKE: Do you have a system for promoting people within your company?

CHAMBERS: Yes, we always look within before we go outside at all times.

BURKE: What kind of training and education do you like to make available to employees?

CHAMBERS: They’re all allowed to take courses at the local community college or university in Eugene since there is the university there, and we pay tuition.

BURKE: Pretty nice. Looking back, you’ve been in cable and media since the early ’50s, you’re really a pioneer. What does it feel like looking back on all the things you’ve accomplished as a pioneer and as a woman executive in the exciting cable industry where you’ve had a tiger by the tail?

CHAMBERS: I always advise everybody, I say, “Don’t look over your shoulder, don’t look back,” so I really haven’t too much. I look forward.

BURKE: Do you have some insights about the present and future of cable? Are there some things that you think are important?

CHAMBERS: That’s one I’d like to defer, too.

BURKE: We can come back to that. Do you have any advice that you would give to small cable operators today?

CHAMBERS: I think they have to pay special attention to the subscriber, and I think they probably need to form some strategic alliances to continue to provide that which systems around them are providing.

BURKE: In the community do you have any general advice you’d like to give to schools or teachers or young people about opportunities in cable television or telecommunications?

CHAMBERS: I’d like the teachers and the students to utilize what does come via cable – Cable in the Classroom – lots of these things that I don’t think they all use. I know in all our cable systems all the schools are connected. We do that automatically, connect every school, and most of them are providing internet service currently. I think that they need to utilize it, find out what is there.

BURKE: How big is your internet service?

CHAMBERS: We have about 7,000 people who use the internet.

BURKE: Are there other areas of interest or other observations that you can think of that are really special about being involved in the cable industry?

CHAMBERS: I think it’s because it is so dynamic and has had a lot of interesting people, and has been more of a constant – as it grows there are more and more entering the industry, but those who’ve been in it for a long time are still around and interested in it.

BURKE: That goes for you, too?


BURKE: Let’s go back into the area of when you were starting up and building your companies. What were some of your strategies and struggles that you were going through at that time? I guess specifically the transition from Liberty to your own company.

CHAMBERS: I think it was interesting that we had a lot of employees in Liberty, some of whom stayed with me and some of whom went with Liberty, and getting that sorted out so that everybody knew what their responsibility was, was a problem.

BURKE: What was the timeframe? What years and how long did that transition take?

CHAMBERS: Well, it took place in September of ’83. I think we knew for about three months before that it was going to take place, but different ones from the corporate headquarters were deciding just what each person wanted to do, whether they were staying or not, and who I felt I needed. It was a difficult time.

BURKE: Did you feel like you were rebuilding, or starting over, or starting something new? What was your thought process as you were…?

CHAMBERS: Well, I think we were rebuilding and somewhat starting something new because we had a whole different dynamic going. It was a smaller company but it still had some of the same operations continuing.

BURKE: What was the cable industry like in the early ’80s, and how did you get your programming and how did you structure your cable operations given the fact that there were far fewer options in those days?

CHAMBERS: Well, a lot of the companies and cable systems were traditional type that were using mainly the off-air signals, and then we began to, as satellite developed, pick up the pay TVs and other things that came along.

BURKE: And was that also in the time that you were starting up your new Chambers Communications?

CHAMBERS: Well, pretty much the satellite was a given at that point. We had the HBOs and the Showtimes. However there have been a lot that have developed since.

BURKE: How hard was it to get programming as a small operator?

CHAMBERS: I was able to negotiate initially and get some very good contracts. I was given the same contracts as Liberty had to start with.

BURKE: What are some of the other challenges you went through in the ’80s as the cable industry was changing and the technology was developing?

CHAMBERS: I think keeping up with the technology and making sure that you had the latest widget, if you would say. Things became obsolete quickly and you had to make sure you were on the cutting edge. While we didn’t try to plow a lot of new ground, we always tried to be there with everything that cable systems around us provided.

BURKE: How did you balance people on staff with outside consultants, with special projects? How did you do that?

CHAMBERS: Pretty much used our own staff.

BURKE: Did you have your own engineers and your own technical plants?

CHAMBERS: Yes, we have our own technical people and our own engineers. Just about everything was done internally. Some training was taking place with outside people, but otherwise, it was not.

BURKE: And when you were actually building, how fast was your buildup?

CHAMBERS: We, of course, had existing systems and we have rebuilt systems, and we have extended them as towns have grown, but we didn’t really build to start with.

BURKE: What were some of the challenges of dealing with the existing systems?

CHAMBERS: Some of them needed a lot more help than they’d had in the past technically and so we had to do a lot of work on them to make them fit the standards that I wanted them to fit.

BURKE: Did you have any particular challenges with all the franchises that you had to obtain for your areas?

CHAMBERS: We had some problems with franchises. We have renewed recently most of our franchises, so that has been somewhat of a challenge but we have prevailed and I think that we will continue to.

BURKE: Is there a strong interrelationship between community involvement of your companies and the ability to get franchises and work with the people that you serve?

CHAMBERS: I think it is. I try to tell all my employees to keep contact with the city authorities all the time so we’re not going to them just when we want something.

BURKE: Other than your employees, do you have other ways of connecting with your customers and finding out who they are and finding out what they want?

CHAMBERS: Well, we use our own billing system and we’re online from Eugene, and so we talk to the customers a lot. They can call and inquire about their bills or whatever it is they want to do, so we hear what they have to say and we keep very close track of that.

BURKE: How long have you had your own billing system?

CHAMBERS: Since the beginning of the operation.

BURKE: Are there any operations that you don’t perform in-house?

CHAMBERS: No, I don’t think so. I think we do just about everything in-house.

BURKE: One-stop shopping?

CHAMBERS: One-stop.

BURKE: Well, we have about ten minutes. I could ask some more questions or there might be things that you have thought up that you think are really important regarding the cable museum or other aspects of cable.

CHAMBERS: Well, I think it’s really nice that the museum’s going to be in Denver. I think that makes a big difference because that has been the headquarters kind of historically for a lot of cable companies and it makes it more central in the United States, too. I’m really pleased to see that.

BURKE: Well, I just want to say it’s really been a pleasure to talk to you. This interview is going to be part of the Gustave Hauser Oral History collection with a view towards having multimedia and recording people who have been involved in many stages of cable. I look forward to talking to you again.

CHAMBERS: All right. Thank you. It’s been good talking to you.

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