Interview Date: Friday August 12, 2005
Interview Location: York, PA
Interviewer: Kristin Van Ormer
Collection: BCAP Collection
VAN ORMER: We’re here today with Larry Kisslinger, who’s an industry veteran. He’s been with Service Electric for years and we just want to get his perspectives today on where the industry’s been and where it’s going. So welcome Larry.
KISSLINGER: Thank you.
VAN ORMER: Why don’t you tell us first what your first experience was with the cable industry – how did you hear about it and how did you get involved?
KISSLINGER: Well, my first experience was as the youngest city council in the history of the city – from ’74-’82 – and I went to a conference in Atlanta and I’m seeing all these steam rollers and shovels and equipment, things they want to sell you, and then I see Julian Bond, the state representative at the time – now it’s John Lewis, a former Martin Luther King guy – but anyway, I’m walking around this thing and he’s sitting there almost like we are with this light shining on him and looking at notes and stuff by himself. I’m walking around trying to find out what he’s selling. Finally I ask him – what are you selling? He said, “Cable TV franchises.” I said, “What for?” He said, “Nobody has it.” I said, “We’ve got two in my town.” That was my first experience. And then it came to… it was before the act where franchise fees were paid as a councilman. The cable company comes in, my current boss comes in with his friend, my cohort, Al, and they’re asking permission to raise their rates. I said, “What are these people doing here?” They said, “They need our permission to raise their rates.” I said, “For what?” They said, “You don’t understand. You’re too young. How many trucks do you have?” I said, “What are you going to do with this information?” “How many employees do you have?” I said, “What are you going to do with this? This is crazy. Why don’t we get the grocer in here and charge them a fee for their meat. Tell them what the meat should be priced at.” They said, “You’re too young to understand.” Well, subsequent to that, of course you know the tradeoff was up to a 5% franchise fee you don’t need permission anymore. So I was ahead of my time, I think.
VAN ORMER: Right, you were questioning what was going on then.
KISSLINGER: I knew the answer to what they were doing there, but I didn’t think they should be there.
VAN ORMER: Right. Were you instrumental then, do you feel, in changing…?
KISSLINGER: No. I was just ahead of my time. What are they doing here? And Congress enacted the Act of ’84 where they no longer needed permission.
VAN ORMER: So you’re a councilman in Bethlehem?
VAN ORMER: And you came to Atlanta and you saw the cable franchises being sold. What was the next step in getting involved in cable for you?
KISSLINGER: Well, you know, I thought I’d like to do a talk show on TV, so I asked our competitor now if I could do a talk show. They said, “We have enough hosts.” I got a call one day, “The host can’t show up. Can you come up?” So I did. I was nervous, you know, and I enjoyed it. Then I started Twin County Talent at that time. We did four shows in a day and one each week they would show for a couple of years.
VAN ORMER: So you were working with some local origination then?
VAN ORMER: Who were you interviewing?
KISSLINGER: Musicians, ventriloquists…
VAN ORMER: Local talent.
VAN ORMER: Then what happened?
KISSLINGER: I was doing this and I overheard the boss man talking to somebody saying, “I wish I could get this guy to sign a contract for his apartments going on in downtown Bethlehem.” And I said, “I know that guy. I know him from JCs, give it to me.” So I took it down, got it signed, he said, “How did you do that so quick? I’ve been after this guy for six months.” So then they offered me a part-time job selling cable.
VAN ORMER: And that was with Service Electric?
KISSLINGER: Twin County.
VAN ORMER: Twin County.
KISSLINGER: And now it’s RCN, they were bought out. So I worked for them part-time and so on and so forth, and they really didn’t treat me fairly, I thought, and the other company saw how much business I was taking away from them. That was Service Electric and they hired me.
VAN ORMER: Okay. And what was your experience with that? Of course, the illustrious founder of Service Electric.
KISSLINGER: They’re marvelous folks who really care about their employees. That’s what I found out. You never have to ask for a raise. I’ve been there 21 years; every year like clockwork everybody gets a raise.
VAN ORMER: So you started with them, and tell us about what you were doing when you first started.
KISSLINGER: Same thing I’m doing now – public affairs manager. I do franchise fees now. Now I go in front of councils and ask for permission to extend our franchises. I represent them lobbying in Harrisburg and Washington, and I also still deal with all the developers making sure they want to use our cable.
VAN ORMER: So you’ve been there 21 years. What was it like when you first started doing it and how has it changed over the years? I’m sure it’s a quite different job than it was.
KISSLINGER: Well, then it was plain old cable TV. You just sold cable, that’s it. It was very simple and representing the company as being the founders in the industry it was very easy. I was very proud to sell out of my wagon. With the other guy, I thought I was selling out of an empty wagon and they didn’t care about me.
VAN ORMER: So 21 years ago people probably didn’t really know what cable TV was, they didn’t understand it. What were some of the challenges you faced when you were doing franchise fees?
KISSLINGER: Well, since there are two cable companies in Lehigh Valley, of which Bethlehem is a part, where I was born and raised, everybody was aware of cable TV. You didn’t have to sell cable TV, you had to sell Service Electric to them instead of the other guy to apartment complexes and the like.
VAN ORMER: Why were there two cable companies there so early in the game? Geography?
KISSLINGER: No. Each radio and television appliance store in that time when TV came out, they used to sell irons and toasters. Mr. Walson founded the industry by putting an antenna on top of the mountain because his store was in a valley and people looked at this newfangled thing in the window and said, “What is it? All I see is snow.” So he bought Army surplus wire, twin-lead, took it from an aerial up on the mountain. He used to take the TVs up to the aerial and then he brought the wire down to the store, and the streets were barricaded and everything with all the people gawking at these TVs and he was selling them like hotcakes. They took them home and they got snow. So if they bought a TV, he agreed to hook them up. He got permission from PPL, our power company, to string along the poles to hook these people up so they could see what they just bought. In the beginning it was free, and then of course it started costing him amounts of money and he’d charge a dollar or two for three channels – 3,6, and 10 our of Philly. Then it went to five channels. He bought out all the other stores who had the same dream, community antenna. They put their antenna up and they said, “This works!” But they never had the fire in the belly that he did to keep going. He bought them all out subsequently. There was a Bark Lee Yee, a Taiwanese fellow, had one of these shops and had the idea to do the same thing. Well, he came to our owner and said, “I’ll wire this side of Airport Road, you wire that side.” He broke his word; he went to five channels before Mr. Walson, swept over the line, and it’s been the Hatfields and McCoys ever since.
VAN ORMER: Really?
KISSLINGER: Don’t ever let them get ahead of you, he told his son. If they had a channel, we had a channel. We have more channels then them, anything that happens they do, we do it better.
VAN ORMER: So was there ever any effort on John Walson’s part, or Service Electric’s part, to buy out Bark Lee Yee’s system?
KISSLINGER: Yeah, my understanding is that he had an agreement to buy it out, right of first refusal, and then STEC came along, the predecessor to now RCN and they bought out the system, and he said, “What happened?” He went to the attorney and they said “It was between John Walson and Bark Lee Yee and John Walson’s dead, so we didn’t have to come to Service Electric.” I wrote a note to our president – he was so downtrodden. His goal was to do what his dad wanted to do, buy them out, and he was so downtrodden, I said in my note, you have to understand, we won the contest. They had to quit. They had to sell it somebody. We’re doing much better then them. That cheered him up, I hope.
VAN ORMER: So you had this competition between the two cable companies. What were some of the specific challenges you had maybe in some of the franchising over the years? Because we all know that the franchising wars were crazy for awhile.
KISSLINGER: You have to go to some of these towns and God bless them, you’re in this old gymnasium and there are three commissioners and you’ve got 50 miles of cable plant and 600 customers and they want the moon, the sun and the stars before they let you go with a franchise and you’ve got to convince them, “Be reasonable here!” Now they’ve got professional attorneys that come in from Pittsburgh into our area from the western part of the state. They charge $10,000 to negotiate. We say, “What do you need them for?” We give them everything. We pay franchise fees to everybody that wants them on everything that they want – pay channels, home shopping, everything else – what else can they get? “Well, we want state of the art facilities.” Okay, we have them. What do you want? You just charged these people $10,000. The first time I met with the guy from Pittsburgh – he flew in at 9:30 in the morning with my attorney – he says, “Well, now where do we start?” He brought out a thick packet like this, and I said, “What are we doing? We should have ten pages of stuff here. Here’s what we usually use.” “No, we’re going to use what I use. First of all, you’re going to give us a closed circuit system for the township.” I said, “You ain’t getting that unless you pay for it. It’s going to cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars to block this off and make it just for your community and block out all the surrounding communities. You’re not getting that.” “Don’t tell me what I’m getting,” he says. I said, “Well, why string you along?” He said, “There’re remedies for this.” I said, “Go ahead. Knock yourself out.” Well, that township has got at least 3,200 subscribers. They have a public hearing – you have informal discussions first, if you can’t get together you go right to the public hearing. It’s advertised in the paper, Service Electric is coming to town, bring your complaints and things down. 3,200 hundred people. You know who showed up? Three. You know where they worked? For the township. You want to know who wrote their speeches? The lawyer. I was sitting in the back of the room, our attorney was up front, I said to my buddy, “The lawyer wrote this, I can tell by the lingo he’s using.” And then the next guy, he said, “The lawyer again. The lawyer again.” All three are township employees. And they all said, “We want our own emergency alert system for the township.” Now, we’re required by the Federal Government to have emergency alert but it’s for everybody. They wanted their own in addition to. All this language was coming out… we go outside after the hearing and I said, “I can’t believe there were three guys from the township, nobody else. So everything must be good here. State of the art, we know what we have.” So we never signed a deal. The stenographer comes out and knows our attorney, and she says, “Did you see those letters they were reading from? They were faxed from the lawyer’s office.” So we still don’t have an agreement there. Now he’s started with somebody else in a much smaller township. They’re going to get taken to the cleaners, going to get their money taken away from them for nothing.
VAN ORMER: Another cable company?
KISSLINGER: No, the attorney negotiating for the township, instead of the township using their own attorney.
VAN ORMER: Oh, I see.
KISSLINGER: These guys have a cottage industry now. “We can shake down the cable company and get you a lot more than you’ve been getting, they’ve been not taking good care of you”, when the fact is it’s the opposite. So I’m with this guy and I said, “Hey, it’s 10:00, I’ve got a 10:30 meeting. I don’t know how long this is going to take you.” We had done three pages out of these 100 pages there. He said, “I thought we’d be here all day.” I said, “What – are you crazy?” It used to take a half-hour to meet with the commissioners, they’d say you guys are doing a good job and they’d sign a paper. What are you causing problems for?
VAN ORMER: So is it only recently that it’s gotten like this with the competition?
KISSLINGER: No, it has nothing to do with competition, it has to do with franchise agreements.
VAN ORMER: Sure, but when cable was the only option to be getting signals, were people still pushing for things like this?
KISSLINGER: No, after the ’84 Act when I was out of council and they changed it where you didn’t have to get the communities approval, which I thought was crazy, the rates went up. We get accused wrongly, I think, because you have to realize that the rates were artificially depressed because the towns and townships, municipalities and burroughs would dictate the rate when they didn’t know what it cost. So your rates are not what you need, they’re holding you down, you know? So after the reins were taken off their approval, we added new channels, the rates went up. Well, of course they’re going to go up if you add a channel. So people get used to it. Now my mother explained to me… I said, “Why do people get so crazy when we raise our rates? I think it’s the best bargain going – 24 hours of entertainment and sports and everything, and history… It’s $43.99 for 100 channels. Give me a break!” I went to play basketball at the Y once and a guy said, “Your rates went up again.” I said, “Where do you work?” I knew where he worked. “Levi Strauss.” “Oh, for jeans you’re charging me what? 50 bucks?” So it’s a lot of fun, too. I like to have fun while I’m doing stuff, public service and everything.
VAN ORMER: Right. We talked a little bit last night, Larry, about some of the competition with the Dish Network and you had told me an interesting story about how you feel cable has had some influence over how they’ve had to operate. Why don’t you talk a little bit about what you’ve seen as cable’s had more competitors come into the arena.
KISSLINGER: Well, when the dish first came out and I learned at Cable Academy – which the state association runs every year, annually, since I’ve been around – I learned from the main speaker here about ten or fifteen years ago, when Bell Atlantic was threatening through Ray Smith to eat cable’s lunch – this is over ten years ago – he said, “Somebody’s going to take your business. This new-fangled dish is coming out,” – this good speaker, a young man, he said, “Somebody’s going to take your business. Maybe 5%, 10%, 15%, 20%. Bell Atlantic’s doing this, this new-fangled dish is coming out, so you have to be prepared. Now your business loses a couple hundred customers and 1%, oh, so what? At some point it goes right to 100%. Maybe if you lose 20% of your business you can’t pay the bank, you can’t get loans, you’re done. What you have to do,” and he showed a bar chart of the telcos revenues and profits, and ours is this teeny little bar and the telcos are there, “They take 25% of your business and you take ½ of 1% of theirs, it’s a wash.” You understand that?
VAN ORMER: Well, go into a little more detail about that.
KISSLINGER: Well, for example, we did for a long distance carrier, one of the first big contracts I got was one of the big long distance carriers. They said, “We understand you have fiber optics. Can you carry our long distance traffic in Allentown?” I talked to our technician and he said, “Yeah.” $30,000 for two switches, three guys to install it in two days, we’ll waive the installation fee, you give us a five year contract at $6,000 a month. They said, “Where do we sign?” You know what Bell Atlantic was charging them? $25,000 a month. We make $6,000 a month and we haven’t touched it since. It’s been there about 6-8 years. So you know how many people can go on a dish for the profit to exceed the $6,000? So if a couple people use the dish, it’s their choice. Fine. Don’t worry about it. When we started our internet service, our general manager sent me up to meet with Blue Ridge Cable, Fred Reinhart and Don Reinhart, the founder’s son up there, and they’re very close families because Mr. Walson was friends with their father and they started a couple years after us up in Palmerton, Pennsylvania, so he said, “I can’t go to the meeting, you go to the meeting.” What is it? Twin County’s there; Blue Ridge; Palmerton Telephone; which the Reinhart’s also own; another cable company from up north, CATV, and he said, “We want to start a network, join our things with fiber optics and offer this newfangled thing, the internet.” I said, “What is that? A cigarette or what?” I had a little bit of experience because I was already using one of the old, it was called Prodigy, for paying my bills, my banking. My son-in-law’s a computer expert. He started me out. I started out with what they called a Commodore, you had to put the disks in and out. So I had some experience and then I said, “Should I do Windows or Mac?” He said, “Well, you’re not an artist, an artist likes Mac because it does more graphics and stuff. Windows is fine.” So that’s what I still use today. So he said, “We’re going to start this network and do this thing.” So I came back and told my boss, “They want to start a network and I think we should do it.” He said, “What’s it all about?” I said, “We need a million dollars by next week so we can get off the ground.” He said, “What are you? Crazy?” I said, “No! We have to do this from the speech I heard with the young man to take some of the telephone companies’ business. Pretty soon we’ll have broadband capability after we network and stuff.” You know, this is the end game, in my opinion, in my lifetime. Mr. Walson started with the twin-lead wire and they had 750 customers in Mahanoy City when the coaxial cable came along, which, okay, you have to go back to square one and rewire the whole town, and every time a fancier, more sheathed coax came along, you’ve got to go back to square one and start over again. Then you have ½ inch cable which carries 80 channels or something; to carry more channels you need ¾ inch cable – you go back and start at square one all over. Telephone companies never had to do that. They wired a twisted pair, they called it, in the home since Alexander Graham Bell, so they never have to rewire anything to keep up. Now that fiber optics is here, that to me is the end game. We don’t have to go back to square one again. This time when we’re finished rewiring we’ll be done. We can deliver internet, we can deliver all the video channels, and we do telephone. Service Electric telephone goes through the coaxial cable. Some of these people that are doing the telephone, all they’re doing is reselling the twisted pair, you just change the bill. You still have to give today Verizon a chunk of your money – a big chunk because they argue for more and more all the time with the FCC. We don’t have to give them anything because we’re called facilities based because of the leadership of our founder’s son, John Walson, Jr. And John Walson III will be here tomorrow because John Walson regrettably had a long-standing vacation in Hawaii, so his son is coming to get the award for Cable Operator of the Year this August 13, 2005.
VAN ORMER: That’s great, all these years later, Cable Operator of the Year. Do you see some changes coming down the pike with public policy as these emerging technologies come through and more competitors?
KISSLINGER: Well, you know the politicians, and I’m one so I can’t complain too much about them, but what’s the old saying? If it moves, tax it; if it makes money, tax it – or whatever. So they’re always looking for new revenue and we’re another one of the whipping boys. I think it’s unfair in some cases; I think it’s necessary in some cases, too. But like the people looking for franchises, don’t overdo it. Congress passed a Cable Telecommunications Act of ’96 and we said, “Okay, we’ve got these new rules,” and one of the things was they limited how much profit you could make. They said if you had channels you can add all the channels you want but you can’t charge for them. Hello?? What does that mean? Do you know how many channels were added in the next two years until they came to their senses and took that away? None. Who’s going to add channels when you’ve got to pay for them and you can’t charge the customer for them? You’ve got a business. So those are the types of idiotic things that some of these politicians think are smart. “We’re saving you taxpayers money. We’re not going to let them make a lot and we’re not going to let them charge you for extra channels.” A little too far.
VAN ORMER: Well, what do you think the cable industry’s going to have to do in the next couple of years to stay relevant, stay competitive, and when you have Dish Network that doesn’t have to pay franchise fees – how’s that going to pan out?
KISSLINGER: How about municipalities going into the business? Kutztown is in our service area, our sister company’s service area, they went in their own cable TV business, cross-subsidization – they have their own power company, they use the money from there and then they don’t have to pay a 5% franchise fee, they don’t have to pay pole rentals because they own their own poles, they start their own business. I think they’re going to go out of business because they don’t know what it takes. So, I guess they got about 300 customers from our sister company in the last four years, several years, I should say.
VAN ORMER: A drop in the bucket?
VAN ORMER: Well, from your perspective – you know, Pennsylvania is so unique in that there are so many small operators still in existence. Service Electric, after all these years, has remained independent, hasn’t merged with larger companies, and you see that all through Pennsylvania. Still very family-based, small independent operators. What do you think it is about Pennsylvania that has cultivated that?
KISSLINGER: Well, it was founded in Pennsylvania. You know, when we go to Washington and lobby for something we would like or would like to see not happen, National Cable Television Association, everybody from around the country comes, usually about 100 people there – about 50 of them are from Pennsylvania because our founders – Mr. Walson, the Reinharts from Blue Ridge, the Barcos – they all understood the value of joining together and fighting for something because you saw the government coming at you as soon as they saw you starting to succeed. So I’m very proud to be a member of the board of directors at BCAP we call it now – the Broadband Cable Association of Pennsylvania. The predecessor was the Pennsylvania Cable Television Association and was founded in 1957, one of the first and I think best in the nation. And as I said, we have the Cable Academy where we train new people coming into the business, they’ll have seminars on different things, how the cable modem works for technicians, all kinds of things. But it enables us to keep up. The other thing that helps us, I think, Mr. Walson never went public, number one; number two, he never bought a system, like all the public companies would buy 3,000 subscribers 30 miles from their regular geographical footprint. He never did that. He just went to the next community line where the franchise was. He didn’t have to go seek a franchise. They said, “You’ve got cable right next to our town, come on down here. We want to give you a franchise!” And that’s how we got as big as we are. We’re at 300,000 when you put all three companies which we own together, and we’re the largest independently owned in the country. When I first started over 20 years ago in the industry, I think Service Electric when I got there was 45th largest in the country. I think we’re 13th now. We didn’t do a thing. We just keep working our… now everybody else is swapping and trading and merging and trying to make a footprint because they know they have to connect the dots with this newfangled fiber optics and we never did anything like that. People would buy a system here, buy one there, now they’re trying to figure out how can I sell them and get this thing together here. One of the best in the industry, I think, I give them credit, is Comcast. They’re very foresighted. We’re independently owned. We spent – no trade secret, I guess – over 100 million dollars in the last ten years upgrading our plant and we’re still not done and we have a manageable geographic footprint. We’re working hard at it every day, still. So you say how do you stay… you’ve got to keep up. In my opinion, if he didn’t take my advice and start with the internet, we’d probably be out of business by now. My opinion – humbly.
VAN ORMER: It’s maybe a bigger challenge for the smaller companies to keep up with the programming and the technology.
KISSLINGER: Well, to be honest with you, Marty Brophy – his father was one of the founders, too, along with Mr. Walson of the 1957 association – I give him a lot of credit. He’s in Shenandoah with 3,000 subscribers. He was president of our association two years ago, one of the smaller operators. So we treat everybody the same through the association. We try to get somebody from each company on the board. We’ve got about 20 members.
VAN ORMER: So does the association, then, also play an advocacy role with the small operators?
VAN ORMER: Can you talk at all about the specifics of that?
KISSLINGER: Well, for example, the association just paid an outfit called Ryno Productions to create some commercials positive about cable TV as opposed to bashing the dish, like the dish folks bash us, I think unfairly, but that’s what they call these days guerilla marketing. I don’t think it’s good to do that, but they like doing it I guess. I think there we don’t get any credit. Like I told you, we took a $25,000 prize away from Bell Atlantic down to $6,000. Well, they start realizing that. Their prices are now way down for things they do that we also do. They had to do it. We don’t get any credit for them bringing their prices down even though they’re still high. We don’t get any credit for it. Dish – I have to tell you a funny story – my wife, I dragged her into… I’ll be married 40 years August 14th right after the banquet tonight, but anyway… She hates doing things like this with me, going to newfangled dishes at Sears because I want to do my homework. So I said, “Oh, here’s a dish, where’s a salesperson?” The guy comes over and I say, “What’s this?” “This is a dish.” I said, “What is it?” He said, “You know, it competes with cable TV.” I said, “Oh, I hate that cable company.” My wife’s standing there like this. I say, “How much is it?” He said, “Only a thousand dollars. $999.99.” I start adding my cable and I said, “That’s it? You install it or what?” “Oh, no, it’s $200 to install it. It’s $75 if you buy the video and do it yourself.” I said, “Oh, okay. It’s $1,200. I can’t do it myself, I’ve got two left thumbs. That’s it?” He said, “No, you’ve got to buy a receiver. They’re $200.” I said, “Well, I have four TVs in my house.” “Well, that’s $800,” he said. That’s $2,000. I looked at my wife and said, “You know, $2,000 I can get rid of that stupid cable bill and pay it off in a couple years.” He said, “Oh, no, you’ve got to pay a monthly fee.” I said, “We do?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “Oh. Beverly, let’s go.” What do they charge now, today, August 13, 2005? Nothing. Why? Because they couldn’t get any subscribers away from cable except if they give it away because we do free installations, most cable companies do, a lot of times. They couldn’t get away with charging somebody $1,200, $1,600 to sign up and then still have a monthly bill. So, I’m not afraid of them.
VAN ORMER: Do you have any stories you want to tell about John Walson?
KISSLINGER: I can only tell one because I only met him once. He became very sickly right after I started, but he came into the shop once, I was sitting right inside the front door where the customers come in, my office. He said, “Who are you?” I told him. He said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “Well, they hired me to work here for you.” He said, “Well, I’ll se about that.” My cohort comes over who had been fired 20 times by Mr. Walson, seriously. He said, “What are you doing at home? I need you here. You told me you fired me last week.” He got about $2.00 an hour when he started out, he’s there almost 40 years, Harry, Harry Haws, good guy. Our general manager, I should mention, is Jack Caparal. They both have been there… all of our people have been there for decades. Nobody leaves, they treat you so good. So Harry comes over, Harry said, “How are you doing John?” He said, “Are you still here stealing my money? You’re not working for it, I know you!” But I can tell you third-hand stories. Two Greek fellows had south Bethlehem wired with cable because they had the radio and TV sales shop, and they were arguing each day about who’s going to climb the pole to make a repair. So Mr. Walson offered to buy them out. They tell me here’s how it goes – he takes the secretary with him to the attorney, and a typewriter, opens the trunk, $60,000 cash, gives it to the two guys, sign here. It’s the old school, you know. It’s how they did business. He would buy those things left and right like hotcakes. I’ll tell you another story – a guy named Jimmy Frank is in my town, he’s an insurance owner. I have my real estate insurance with him, and the like, and I play basketball with him at the Y, and we’re sitting on the sideline and he had to tell me one day waiting to go in the next game, he said, “I never told you about Service Electric, my experience.” I said, “No. What is it”? He says, “I was a young adjuster for insurance and I was sent to Mahanoy City to make a claim adjustment. I fender was bumped on this one company truck and I had to go up there. I told my wife what time I’d be back because it was drive up, sign the check and leave, so she could make supper.” He said, “This guy had me pinned down for two hours telling me about how he was going to wire people’s homes and charge them money,” and this was Mr. Walson. He tied him down for two hours explaining how he was going to do this thing. He said, “I’m driving home – first of all, my wife is very upset when I get there, but I’m driving home thinking I was just with the biggest nitwit in my whole life. Two hours wasting my time with this baloney that he’s going to conquer the world. Now they’ve got hundreds of trucks on the road. Every time I see one of your trucks I get a flashback. Who’s the nut?” He’s good, too. He’s the owner of the insurance company. Those kinds of stories.
VAN ORMER: It’s pretty amazing what ended up happening just from stringing some cable in Mahanoy City.
KISSLINGER: Then our president… we were a sponsor at a thing in Allentown called Tech Fest. It lasted one year – Microsoft was there and everything, it was a big to do – and he was the speaker at the breakfast. I was sitting there with him and he said, “I had a meeting yesterday with a large cable company.” You can probably guess who it is. We used to share programming with them. They let us carry one of their minor league baseball team games on our local origination by putting fiber optics down there and just showing it on our local origination for nothing, just to let you do it. So he thought they were meeting about sharing some more sports. I said, “Well, what was the meeting about?” He said, “They want to buy our company for half a billion dollars,” this was ten years ago. I said, “What did you say?” He said, “Not for sale. What would my employees do?” I said, “Good answer.” He really cares about the community and the employees, and people say, “Well, don’t you think it will get bought out?” I don’t think he will ever sell because it’s his father’s brainchild. It’s like selling one of your children, I would think he and his family would think. Margaret and John Walson – Margaret is still alive – they’re marvelous folks and they taught their kids well, to treat everybody with respect and you meet John Walson and you would never know he’s in charge of all he’s in charge of. He’s just a down to earth guy.
VAN ORMER: Do you think that maybe that’s one of the ways that cable is going to continue to differentiate itself – from phone companies, from dish networks – is the community ties that they have?
KISSLINGER: Well, yeah, in other words, I think the biggest advantage we have – when the dish first came out they said at meetings, “You’ve got to start local origination programming.” I said, “We’ve been doing that since 1960,” but a lot of these cable companies didn’t have LOs. They had the channel but they didn’t dedicate time to doing local programming because they didn’t have competition, and then they saw competition coming and they cranked up local origination programming. We’ve been doing it since the ’60s. We have big state of the art trucks that just go out and cover football games and wrestling at Lehigh, and we have football in Moravia and Mullenburg. Every parade and festival… have you ever heard of Music Fest? We were there at the beginning and know the founder of Music Fest. He came to city council when I was there representing a Little League team that needed some approval, that’s how I first met him. But then he came to the city and wanted us to start a visitor’s bureau from the Chamber of Commerce. I said, “Jeff, we don’t need any more bureaus at City Hall, trust me.” That was my position. You’re with the Chamber of Commerce, you guys want to do this, go knock yourself out, but what we’ll do is give you community development block grant funds – I was chairman – I’ll give you ten thousand dollars to go find something. Sent him over to Europe, he came back after Oktoberfest and all that stuff over there and had the idea of Music Fest. He came to me and asked if Service Electric would dig the trenches because they had to put electrical, phone wires – would we cover the event? We didn’t know if there were going to be ten people there; that’s 22 years ago. We’re the official media sponsor and no other cable company can cover anything at Music Fest. We have exclusive rights just like HBO gets a prize fight and any other pay service doesn’t get it because they bid for it. Well, we pay all these people exclusive rights – don’t let them near it. We have no way to measure how many people use our service or stay with it because it has local programming, but I think it’s probably a lot. If I get a dish I don’t get TV 2 anymore, or 2 Sports, we call it now.
VAN ORMER: So having that community oriented programming is powerful.
KISSLINGER: Yeah, there was talk about some, not our president, until he got the message, you know this is costing us an awful lot of money to run TV 2 – this is before the dish – and said, “Why don’t we ditch it?” He said, “No way. I don’t care what it costs. It’s for the community.” Every decision is made like that.
VAN ORMER: That’s great. Larry, what’s the most rewarding moment that you’ve had in your career?
KISSLINGER: Probably cutting the ribbon, we call it cutting the cable – I have a plaque on my wall because I was one of the people that cut the cable for our new facility, our association building. I was a fundraising chairman who made a million dollars and we made it a green building, all in recycled materials and stuff. We get awards from the city, we’re right down steps from the capital in Pennsylvania – 127 State Street. But cutting that ribbon and then seeing the glossy booklet, the inside page had a cover letter with my signature on it explaining what this was all about, pictures of all the founders and stuff, that’s probably the most rewarding.
VAN ORMER: This was the building for BCAP?
VAN ORMER: Great. Well, is there anything you’d like to talk about we haven’t discussed?
KISSLINGER: Myself. (LAUGHTER)
VAN ORMER: Do you want to give your website?
KISSLINGER: Yeah – my website is Kisslinger.com. K-I-S-S-L-I-N-G-E-R dot com.
VAN ORMER: Well, great – you can visit Larry on his website – Kisslinger.com.
KISSLINGER: You also see the history of John Walson there from your good Cable Center – a 15-pager – and it’s right below the things I want to talk about, a little newsletter for the community and stuff, and if you click on our logo there you’ll go to Service Electric, but if you click on his picture you’ll go to that history. I don’t want to chase them from The Cable Center, but… What’s your website, Cablecenter.org?
VAN ORMER: Cablecenter.org. Well, Larry, thank you very much. We appreciate hearing your perspectives on the history of cable.
KISSLINGER: Happy to do it. Thank you.