Interview Date: November 30, 2016
Interview Location: New York, NY
Interviewer: Seth Arenstein
Collection: Hauser Collection
SETH ARENSTEIN: Hi, I’m Seth Arenstein here for the Hauser Oral History Project, for The Cable Center. We’re here in New York City at the end of November 2016 and I’m joined by the co-CEO of C-SPAN, Rob Kennedy. Welcome.
ROB KENNEDY: Thank you, Seth.
SA: Good to see you. (laughs)
RK: (laughs) Good to see you. Great seeing you.
SA: (laughs) So Rob, tell me, where were you born? I’ll do some Brian Lamb on you here. (laughter) Where were you born and where were you educated, Rob?
RK: And what did my parents do, right? (laughter) That’s a classic Brian question.
SA: That is.
RK: I was born in Springfield, Illinois. Was raised there, went to high school there, Springfield High School, and then went to the University of Illinois.
SA: And you majored in?
RK: Electrical engineering.
RK: Yeah. I was kind of a math and science kid in high school and my mom went to the University of Illinois, so it was natural after going to all those football games as a high-schooler, to go to Champaign, and electrical engineering was just a natural for me.
SA: But then your graduate work was in business.
RK: That’s right. I noticed toward the end of my time in engineering that I wasn’t quite as into the circuits as a lot of my colleagues were and I’d been working summers at various businesses and had gotten more interested in the business side of things. So after I graduated I spent a short nine months working and then went on to Chicago to get my MBA.
SA: And your first job after Chicago, your first job with an MBA, where was it? What did you do?
RK: Well, in between the two years of Chicago, I interned at a company called Centel Corporation, which was just getting into the cable business. This was 1979. I really enjoyed my work there with them that summer and then when it came time to graduate from Chicago, they called me back and offered me a fulltime job. So it was really one of those times when an internship made all the difference.
SA: And that was in Aurora, wasn’t it? Or it covered Aurora.
RK: It did cover Aurora. I was at Centel for about four years and various jobs, first was corporate staff, but then they sent me out to manage cable systems in the Fox River Valley, first Elgin and then Aurora. These were systems that Centel had just purchased, so they were just bringing them into the fold. Centel was a phone company and they were deregulating and getting into deregulated businesses, so that’s where their cable systems came from. But we know why Aurora is famous, don’t we?
SA: Yes, well, weren’t you responsible for bringing Garth and Wayne onto television?
RK: I can’t take credit for that.
SA: No you can’t, all right.
RK: But I kind of remember their house, what it looked like back then, but yes, Wayne’s World, or maybe we’re dating ourselves.
SA: I think so.
RK: But Wayne’s World was set in Aurora, Illinois, according to the writers at Saturday Night Live.
SA: And it was local access television.
RK: It was local access television.
SA: There we go.
RK: And they did the Chicago suburbs really well, so.
SA: And that’s how you got into music, too, right? Didn’t you? No.
RK: Yeah. (laughs)
SA: No, because Rob, for those of you who don’t know, Rob is a very accomplished pianist, keyboardist and likes all kinds of different music and I know you play in a, what it says in the notes is a garage band. So does that mean you can only play in garages?
RK: I think the notes said “basement band” and I wondered what that meant, but yeah, basement band, garage band, cover band, just rock & roll bands.
SA: But you like classical music, too, I know that.
RK: All types of music. Yeah.
SA: Okay. And where did you learn to play piano and keyboards and when?
RK: When I was seven I had a babysitter who sat down and played “House of the Rising Sun” on the piano and I thought that was the coolest thing ever. So I started taking lessons. Always pop lessons and my mom then set me up with a classical teacher and he knew I was into pop, and rock, and jazz, so he gave me all this really weird 20th century stuff and my mom said, “Can’t you learn some Chopin? That’s why I’m paying for these lessons,” so I learned one Chopin piece and I’ve always played classical throughout the years. It’s been with me. It’s been fun.
SA: All right. So now the elephant in the room, we’re talking about music, we’re talking about classical music, we’re talking about C-SPAN, did you have any role in the selection of the music that they sometimes play on C-SPAN on the shows? I know they played Maurice André or they used to all the time.
RK: Do you know, I do. Yes. (laughs) Yes —
SA: You do have — you did? I didn’t know that.
RK: See, this is a little known fact. A few years ago, well, let me back up and set that up. There are times during the coverage of the House and the Senate when there’s really no audio, or just ambient audio and we learned early on at C-SPAN that if we didn’t want people thinking their televisions were broke or calling in and saying “where’s my audio?” we needed to put something on during these pauses. It’s votes in the House and it’s Quorum Calls in the Senate, which is basically a pause. And we developed the idea of using classical music because we wanted to be neutral, so you can’t put a song on with lyrics, you can’t put popular music on. The great masters are perfect music for these pauses and we developed a playlist over the years, people just bringing in CDs basically from home, and a few years ago my colleague Susan Swain said, “You’re into classical music. We need fresher music, so will you really spend some time on this?” and I did. I don’t pick what gets played at any particular time; we just have a selection of maybe 60 files and the operator in the control room decides which one to pull up.
SA: See, that is a major question I always have. But let’s get back (laughs) to your oral history.
RK: No Mahler, though.
SA: No Mahler.
RK: It’s a little dramatic.
SA: Yeah, that’s true. No, it’s interesting that you say no Mahler because, you know, that really displeases me but, but no, on a serious note, I remember talking I think with Peter Kiley, who was a lifer at C-SPAN and I want to get to the lifers, by the way, too. I think that’s very important to talk about with C-SPAN. But I remember Peter saying, I think maybe I asked him a question about, do you get more, do you get complaints in terms of being neutral? And he said, “Seth, we get complaints from the Right, we get complaints from the Left and you know, that’s just part of the game.” What’s the philosophy? Is it when you’re getting complaints from both sides, you’re pretty balanced?
RK: Well, when we get complaints from both sides we know we are balanced, we’re staying balanced. C-SPAN’s always been dedicated to showing both sides, carrying the House of Representatives or the Senate whenever they’re in session, entire congressional committees, not just the majority or the minority. So that balance is very much in our DNA.
And back to the music, you can make errors with music, believe it or not, during quorum calls. We had in our playlist Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony; the second movement is a famous funeral march. You can’t play a funeral march when there’s a vote on the Senate floor, because somebody thinks you’re saying that’s going down. So even things as small as music we pay a lot of attention to.
SA: And do you get comments and letters about the music?
RK: Believe it or not, yes. That’s what — one of the things of many that Twitter has been good for, is we can see in real time what people are saying, not just about the music, but about our programming and we look at those Tweets and if we make a mistake or need to make a correction, we’ll follow through.
SA: So again, let’s get back to your oral history.
RK: No more music.
SA: There’s so much interesting trivia about C-SPAN and it’s good to talk about it, but let’s get back. In the materials I noticed that you helped craft the, sort of the mission statement or the strategic plan, if you will, for C-SPAN.
RK: It was in the early ’80s and I was working at Centel. My boss at the time, the head of the cable division at Centel was named Jack Frazee and if you’ve ever met Jack, he’s the guy who’s just full of personality, very lively, very encouraging, enthusiastic. Jack was on the C-SPAN board. The C-SPAN board is composed of CEOs of cable companies; that’s the way it’s always been, even dating back to 1980 and Jack on the board felt that it was really important for C-SPAN to have a sound financial structure. C-SPAN started in ’79 with a very modest license fee and essentially donations of seed money from cable companies. And Jack and the other board members at the time wanted to look at how the license fee could grow, how carriage could grow, and how that money could support C-SPAN covering the ’84 conventions — the ’84 campaign, for example.
So Jack, who was always big about throwing people, his staff, into unusual situations and seeing how they performed, including managing cable systems at a very young age, he had me meet with Brian Lamb in Chicago and then lent me to C-SPAN to come to Washington to meet Brian and other early staff members including Susan Swain, (we’ll talk about Susan), Bruce Collins, Brian Lockman, and Jana Fay and help write a five-year plan that took C-SPAN from about 1980 to 1985 and that was really my first exposure to C-SPAN and to the staff.
SA: And what was it like when you walked in the door? Can you recreate what C-SPAN was like in terms of number of employees? Carriage? What was on its air?
RK: This would have been the fall of 1983 and C-SPAN was located then, as it is now, at 400 North Capitol Street in Washington, but it was a much smaller office. I think there were maybe around two-dozen employees. C-SPAN had recently gone to 24 hours. There was only one network at the time.
SA: There was only C-SPAN.
RK: There was only C-SPAN. It was the Congress, whenever it was in session, the committees, House of Representatives when it was in session. The Senate had not gone on television yet. Congressional committees, a lot of viewer call-in programs, morning, mid-day and night. A lot of the staff doubled as moderators for our call-in programs. Yes, Susan did it, Bruce did it, obviously Brian did it and it was, I don’t know the exact carriage number then, but I’m guessing maybe in the low double digits of carriage and C-SPAN, the story is that C-SPAN started on a shoestring, so much so that people used to bring extension cords from home if they were needed in the office. I don’t remember seeing any extension cords, but it was definitely a bare bones operation.
But the thing that I noticed was how dedicated they all were to the mission. Brian did an excellent job in selecting people early on who wanted to work at C-SPAN for the right reasons. They didn’t want to be in sports, they didn’t want to be in spot news, but they were very dedicated to the mission of public affairs television and they welcomed me. I really appreciated that because here’s this guy coming from a board member company and they welcomed me, opened up the books and we sat down and drafted up this plan, which I still have a copy of on my shelf.
SA: Wow. And did you know Brian Lamb before that or?
RK: I hadn’t met Brian, except when he came through Chicago and Jack invited him to our Centel offices. This was a little earlier in ’83, I think, and Jack introduced me to him and Brian described the mission of C-SPAN and I kind of got it. I came to appreciate it more; we’ll probably talk about that. But Brian was a great salesperson for the concept then and he knew he needed the industry support, so he spent a lot of time with the early board members.
SA: You know, one thing I didn’t ask you about walking in the door that first day; what was Rob Kennedy feeling? Were you sure that this was going to work? Were you sure this was a good move for your career? Or were you saying, hmm, I don’t know that much about C-SPAN. I wonder if Jack Frazee is throwing me into the water and I won’t be able to swim in it. What did you think?
RK: Well, it was — I guess — I’ve never been asked that question. I had become sort of a business planner in my early days at Centel. I’d worked on the Mergers and Acquisition staff, so I was kind of a spreadsheet guy, although back then we did them by hand. And so for me I think it was initially an intellectual challenge for the business plan. This was new. This was a programmer. I’d never seen a revenue stream based on license fees. We didn’t have production facilities at Centel, so that kind of forecasting was new to me, so I guess it started as an intellectual challenge. The emotional connection would come later.
SA: Did you know Susan at that point, Susan Swain? Had you met her before?
RK: This is the first time I had met any of the staff people, yes.
SA: Wow. Had you watched C-SPAN before you even got there?
RK: I had. C-SPAN went through some trying times leading up to 1983. A lot of it had to do with the satellite transponder that C-SPAN was on. C-SPAN started on a part time transponder, shared with Madison Square Garden. C-SPAN eventually moved to a fulltime transponder, but in doing that, they moved to a different location in the sky and cable operators had to either reorient their dish or buy another receiver. Brian and the early staff, and this is in the ’81-’82 time frame, knew that they could lose a lot of subscribers if the cable operators didn’t move the dish and make room for C-SPAN as it went fulltime.
So Brian and a few board members went on air and did a 24-hour — I would call it a telethon. He did take phone calls, but he was explaining this whole move and what cable operators had to do to carry C-SPAN. And if you’re a cable operator and he’s saying to your viewers, “If your cable operator hasn’t said they’re going to keep us on, call them,” well, I’m sitting out in Aurora as a general manager of a cable system and I’m thinking, what is this? There’s a guy telling my customers to call me. I don’t know if we’re going to carry C-SPAN or move it to its fulltime place.
It was — Brian and I have joked about this over the years– It’s not a great first impression. I completely understand it and support it now, but that sort of direct communication to customers that early in the cable industry was nothing if not unusual. I’m not sure if it had ever been done before. I saw him as sort of a tough character and then when we met in the conference room in Chicago I thought, oh, I can probably work with this guy. He’s from Indiana, that’s good. State next door.
SA: Right. Today we take C-SPAN for granted in that if we want to know what’s going on in the House or the Senate, we put on C-SPAN 1, C-SPAN 2. But I can remember when Senate coverage began and that was a little controversial. Can you tell us about House coverage? Was that an automatic thing? Or were there hurdles there, too?
RK: Oh, there were hurdles in both bodies. The House had experimented before 1979 with cameras and there were members in the House who were very interested in cameras. One of the main concerns was, will anybody see it? Another concern was, will television networks edit this and embarrass us? It’s the old issue — what if you just take a clip and don’t get the entire context. So while the House was debating this, Brian, who had worked in the cable industry for several years with a trade publication and had made contacts within the industry, Brian had the idea to kind of marry the industry’s need for programming with the House’s desire for their feed to go out on a full-time basis. So he worked with both sides. He said to the cable industry, “Hey, we can do this as public service; this would be really good programming.” Now the House decides, I think we can do this in a way that satisfies your concerns. Now the House still controls the cameras, so while some of their concerns were addressed, they kept other items close to the vest, but it really was Brian bringing those two things together, in addition to satellite technology, which was new at the time, that got C-SPAN launched and we were the sixth cable network to launch. It’s a trivia that surprises many people.
SA: And it’s the House Majority that controls the cameras. Is that right?
RK: Right. The Majority controls the cameras and they have been responsible over the years for those incidents where something happens with the cameras.
SA: Yes. We saw one relatively recently.
RK: That’s right.
SA: And you all improvised pretty well. You picked up somebody’s Periscope feed eventually and that was fabulous. So okay, I guess the other thing coming off of that, coming off hurdles and I’m sure Brian would love us to talk about it is, and you know where I’m going, the Supreme Court. Will we ever have C-SPAN cameras in the Supreme Court?
RK: I think it’s a long shot in the next several years.
SA: Really? Huh, wow.
RK: Yes. As we understand it, it must be unanimous among the justices. And even though many justices during their nomination process say, I’ve had a good experience with cameras, I think we can do that in Supreme Court, once they get on the Court there’s some sort of force, (laughs) I guess, that we never hear more about cameras in the Court. I’ve read all their arguments. I don’t buy them. I think that if we as citizens can go sit in the Supreme Court, which I think everyone should do if they get a chance and listen to an argument, I think it should be available on television. In fairness to the Court, they now release audio of the oral arguments the same week, later in the week. So we’re getting access we’ve never had before and we put that audio on C-SPAN, but with stills, with the pictures of the justices or the attorneys.
SA: Right. Thinking beyond the Supreme Court, are there other places in politics, in economics, that you would like to put your cameras? I’m thinking maybe, I don’t know, does the Federal Reserve Committees; do they have cameras in those meetings? I would think not.
RK: They do not.
SA: They do not. Is that something on the agenda?
RK: Well, there are press briefings afterwards, they are on the agenda and on camera and there are some committees in Congress that cameras aren’t allowed in, intelligence committees and —
SA: Oh well, that’s fair enough.
RK: I would think occasionally there are closed hearings for various reasons. But especially with the use of technology, we’ve been able to get access in many, many places around Washington and for that matter, on the road, with small, portable cameras or wireless cameras. We can get up close to candidates on the trail and so I think overall our access is good, not only based on the institutions, but also based on the technology.
SA: Now, what about the philosophy at C-SPAN? There must be tremendous pressure to once in a while edit something. Hey, we just — well, I could just see some pressures to edit something down. I know that’s anathema to your philosophy, but how do you keep that philosophy, which in many ways people would say is sort of — terribly against the grain of modern press. How do you keep that philosophy vibrant in the halls of C-SPAN?
RK: It’s the core to what we do is we want to be the primary source for these events. We want them to be available in their entirety. Now, times have changed and I think our attention spans are shorter, so we’ve certainly adapted over the years, in a couple of ways. One is our video library, which is online, everything we’ve aired since 1987. Those events can be streamed in their entirety or you can make your own clip, share it on your social media platforms and get a discussion started around it. But when you see that video of C-SPAN you know that the whole thing —
SA: Is available.
RK: Was on our air and is available in the video library. And yes, sometimes we take clips to illustrate a point, maybe during a call-in program or in one of our radio programs.
SA: You said, you said. Yeah, and I guess we can’t, we certainly have to talk about technology and I believe, correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe you’re one of the forces there at C-SPAN for adapting or adopting new technology and certainly the video library is one thing, but streaming and the use of Twitter on the air and Facebook and things like that, you’re really right there and how does that all come about? Because again, C-SPAN — were other networks were much slower than you, to adapt, to adopt some of these technologies?
RK: Yeah, thanks. We’ve been thinking about this lately and I think that being efficient with technology is deep in our DNA. And we have a great team, many of whom have been at C-SPAN longer than I have. I started in ’87 and a lot of our technical and editorial folks joined in the early ’80s and I know I joked earlier about the extension cords, but we were different from the broadcast television networks at the time. Public affairs television will never get the ratings. Well, we didn’t even take ratings.
RK: Or the license fees of for-profit networks, so we literally had to invent ways to cover events with smaller cameras, portable racks, robotic cameras around town, portable lights, portable audio gear, wireless gear. Our team is always looking for ways to improve what we do and keep our operations efficient. Just one example, we have many, but when witnesses testify at a congressional hearing, the tradition was the camera’s set up in the back, which would cover the members of Congress and another camera would be on the side, shooting the witnesses or the witness table. Well, that’s not a very fair picture of the witnesses, because you’re shooting them from their side. But no one wanted people down in the well of the committee room where they could face them. So our team invented a robotic camera that sits in the well and shoots at the witness with a medium shot, just the same as we’re shooting the members of Congress. So just one way, not another person, adds perspective to the event we carry and a more complete and accurate picture of what’s going on in the room.
SA: And what about the C-SPAN Bus? Did you have a hand in that? Did you ever drive?
RK: (laughs) I’ve never driven them. Don’t believe anything to the contrary. The C-SPAN Bus, C-SPAN Bus launched in 1993. It grew out of a book called The Majic Bus by Douglas Brinkley. Brian did a Sunday night program called Booknotes, author interviews. It survives now in the form of a program he hosts called Q&A also on Sunday nights. In The Majic Bus, Doug Brinkley took his college students from Hofstra University on a bus trip that was to sites of American history and pop culture. It was several weeks long. I think there were 20 students. They outfitted this bus so the students even lived on the bus. And the book, which is still a great read, is just about their experiences. The city kids from Long Island coming to places like Graceland or a blues club in Chicago.
And Brian literally came off the set from that interview of Booknotes and came upstairs and said to Susan and me, “We have got to do a bus. We’ve got to do this, get C-SPAN on the road, get C-SPAN out there,” and then we all did a lot of homework on big diesel engines and 40- and 45-foot coaches; we knew more about buses than we should. But the basic idea and forgive the pun, is it’s a promotion and production vehicle for C-SPAN. It’s varied in its appearance over the years. The idea is to go to schools; colleges, high schools, middle schools, bring students and the general public on and really demonstrate what C-SPAN is and how they can use it in their studies.
SA: You mentioned Brian Lamb, you mentioned Susan Swain. Talk about your co-CEO. First of all, I know both you and Susan and — well, there are problems when you have co anything. Sometimes people say if you have two people running the show, a lot of things fall through the cracks. I don’t think that’s the case here, but — and then of course, the other, the other problem is you have two people running things, they butt heads; that’s not the case here either. And I know you’ve been with Susan for years. Talk about your co-CEO, whom — we’ll go right on record now, we want her here next year. (laughter) So please don’t say anything bad about her, because she’ll have equal opportunity next year. But seriously, talk about working with Susan all these years and then maybe segue into what is Brian Lamb like to work with? What is he like as a person? What’s his role at C-SPAN today? So that’s a lot to digest, yeah.
RK: Yeah, that’s a lot. Well, let’s start with Susan.
SA: Start with Susan, yep.
RK: As I mentioned, I met Susan during my first visit to C-SPAN in 1983, working on the five-year plan. She’s very helpful and Susan’s specialty has been, at least initially was the communications and content side of the business. So Susan and Brian Lockman, who was our VP of Production back in the ’80s, were very helpful to me in putting together that part of the five-year plan. Susan and I stayed in touch. We — I moved from Centel to Rochester, New York, where I worked for ATC. It became part of Time Warner, Charter, but the Rochester system there and I always kept in touch with the C-SPAN folks including one time when Susan was doing educational outreach to various communities and working with cable systems and she came to Rochester and we had a meeting with some of the college professors to talk about C-SPAN resources for the classroom and Susan and I did a call-in radio program that night on WHAM, I think it’s 1180 on the dial.
We both tell this story; we tell it in different ways. So we have an hour live radio talk program from Rochester, New York; I think it started at 10:00pm and it had been a long day and the announcer kind of introduces us and says, “We have Rob Kennedy from Greater Rochester Cablevision and Susan Swain from C-SPAN. Phone lines are open for your questions.” No calls.
RK: Crickets. Susan and I had a lot of time that night to talk (laughs) about cable and C-SPAN and education, and a year later is when Brian called and needed a businessperson and then I started at C-SPAN. Susan and I, Brian talks about this; I think it’s sometimes hard to talk about yourself in this regard, but we have very complementary skill sets or strengths. I’m a math and science person, I’m a business person, I’m an engineering person. Susan is communications, content, and early on in our days at C-SPAN we saw this as very complementary and we had offices right next to each other. And Brian then made us senior vice presidents in 1989 with joint operating responsibility and we’ve been doing it ever since.
We had one rule from day one, which we still have, which is the “no fast ones” rule, so if there’s a big decision or something we think the other one needs to know, we talk to each other about that. We don’t make all the decisions together. We each have our areas of emphasis, but we make the big decisions together. I’ll go with Brian on this one, that we have very complementary strengths and the other thing is real dedication to the mission. C-SPAN’s bigger than any of us. So we’ve worked together over the years to try and make it better and more relevant.
SA: And Brian Lamb, who a lot of people just see him on camera. We’ve seen him off camera — on camera to me, frankly, I think he’s — I’ve never seen him do a bad interview. He’s such a good interviewer. I’ve seen him interview Shaquille O’Neal one time. (laughter) I thought, how is he going to do that? And he did it so well. And what is he like to work with and what is he like personally and what is he doing at C-SPAN now?
RK: He is absolutely great to work with. He, at his core, is extremely curious and he loves information. You put the two things together in someone who grew up in Lafayette, Indiana, and only had the three television newscasts for all television news, that’s 20 minutes a night on three networks. He comes to Washington. He sees so much more is going on in the city. He wants to find a way to bring that into living rooms in the Midwest. So it all kind of starts with his Midwest values and just trying to get more information and then to relay that information and that’s how he is to work with — he’s curious about what’s going on. He trusts people with a lot of responsibility.
Over the years he was very, I think, structured and deliberate in moving from the CEO role to let — and not just Susan and me, yes, we have the titles of co-CEOs, but our entire executive team of vice presidents, have been growing in terms of their responsibilities over the years and Brian has shepherded this. What does he do now? He still comes in at, I don’t know, 5:00am every morning, before I get there. He walks around. He just asks people how things are going. Occasionally he weighs in, but people gravitate towards him. He’s very interested in them personally. And is just great fun to work with. He’s got a wicked sense of humor, too.
SA: Yes, I know. I know. I’ve had the honor, many times, to talk with him. Had lunch with him one time. Yeah, no, he’s fabulous. And I think one thing that you left out that I’d like to add is that he’s kind of selfless. He doesn’t like the spotlight. He doesn’t like to be honored or tributes and he pushes the spotlight on other people.
RK: He set the network up that way and I think that reflects his personal values. Anyone who’s hosted a program on C-SPAN, who’s on our staff, also has another job at C-SPAN. They might be executive producer of our book programming or one of the producers on the Washington Journal. We rarely show their names in graphics. He expects our hosts to be facilitators, not stars. He saw how the stars kind of consumed nightly news; that takes away from the information content. So he set the example by doing call-in programs for years and years and has continued interviews and the rest we followed.
SA: That what you’re just talking about, makes me think of a — I believe an event that you had a number of years ago, not too long ago, where you had a party for originals, C-SPAN originals and lifers. Am I getting that right? Or is it maybe 20 years of service or something and it was a huge number of people, from a modest network and I want to also talk about the modesty of the network and the financial controls and the wisdom that you’ve imparted there, because I know that that’s your area. But tell me about this event where you had a — I believe a party or a weekend celebration for C-SPAN lifers.
RK: It might have been the 25th anniversary.
SA: Twenty-fifth anniversary, yes.
RK: Twenty-fifth anniversary we marked by not only a board meeting where we invited back all of the people who had served on the board for the first 25 years, but we did do a big dinner at one of the Washington hotels and invited everyone and had videos and some kind of fun awards. And a lot of people came for that and we have some great alumni who we’ve stayed in touch with. We’ve had people leave and come back two, even three times, and there’s this — especially from the early days, but all periods of C-SPAN, this feeling that we were in something, dare I say special and together we can see people we haven’t seen for years and instantly remember that trip on the bus or the Lincoln-Douglas debates or the 2000 conventions, things like that.
SA: Hmm. So now I do want to actually bring this up because I talked to Peter Kiley —
RK: Oh, oh.
SA: Who is a — I don’t know if he’s a lifer at C-SPAN, but he’s certainly been there decades.
RK: He pre-dates me.
SA: Yeah, okay. So Peter said, “Make sure to talk to Rob about the financial and managerial efficiencies, which are a huge part of our success and are a huge part of our ability to stay in business, to be innovative and grow.” Where do you want to start there?
RK: Well, we touched on this (laughs) a little bit.
SA: Yeah, we did.
RK: It’s — we’ve always felt, from the earliest days, I suppose it dates to that five-year plan, but early on, Brian has wanted to do this in a cost-efficient way for the industry. We couldn’t do it and I’m understating it here; C-SPAN would not exist without the support of the cable industry. We don’t have ad revenue. We don’t take ratings. There’s no government money in C-SPAN. It’s all the license fees we get from affiliates. We know it’s important to keep that license fee reasonable, compared to what other programming networks charge and we’re very fortunate to have a board of directors drawn from the cable industry, who can approve our budgets and advise us on what that fee is.
But being maybe low cost among programming networks, if you’re efficient, that doesn’t mean you have to be cheap or second rate and we’ve always stressed the use of technology to innovate — we talked about the Robocam, other small cameras, to make the production side of the business very efficient. We don’t spend a lot of money on advertising or marketing. That’s another piece of it. It’s hard to sell C-SPAN or explain the concept of C-SPAN in a full-page ad in a paper. I know I’m dating myself, but that used to be the metric. We tried. Spent a lot of money on those ads and we were always, oh, but we didn’t say this, we didn’t say this. They were text-heavy ads.
So we went for what I call “high touch advertising.” It’s the bus. It’s talking to people one-on-one. It’s our Student Cam Documentary Contest, where we introduce students to C-SPAN video and they put it in documentaries. So we just — we couldn’t follow the same road of the other networks. We didn’t want to get our costs out of line. We respect that we now have three channels on our cable systems and on our affiliates, so we’ve got to reflect upon that and keep our costs reasonable. And we’re pretty tough.
SA: You’re pretty lean, I would say. I want to bring out that point.
RK: Yeah. We’re kind of — I suppose Susan would agree. We’re kind of tough budgeters. We — Susan and I sit in budget meetings with every department. We review staff additions and changes. We look to see if programs are still working or should they be changed? We try to not get in the habit of just doing something because we’ve done it. We used to have two buses. Now we have one, just because we thought we’d saturated the country and we can do well with one. But then in its place, we launched a project. Its formal name is the C-SPAN Cities Tour, but it’s six small vehicles that go out and blanket a community, three vehicles at a time. And over the course of a week we’ll shoot over a dozen pieces on history and books with a staff of three and then those short pieces are on C-SPAN 2 and C-SPAN 3. Very efficient. A lot of content, not a lot of money.
SA: One thing you didn’t mention and I’m going to bring it up because it’s a favorite of mine, living in the DC area and that is C-SPAN Radio. Because I get it on just regular radio, not satellite radio and it’s basically a lot of the audio from C-SPAN programs and it’s a completely different feel from C-SPAN because on C-SPAN you’re used to seeing people talking and see them, but again, with the radio it’s your mind’s eye, creating, who are these people? What do they look like? If you don’t know who they are. And I find it very enjoyable.
RK: Well, thank you. C-SPAN Radio is one of the kind of great long shots, I think, of C-SPAN history. Brian got his start in radio; he’ll tell you that. He worked — I think it’s WASK in Lafayette and that’s where he learned some interviewing techniques and promotional techniques. He always loved radio. We knew C-SPAN would work pretty well as radio station. But there just weren’t good ones in Washington to acquire. So in 1997 the University of the District of Columbia and the District itself got in financial trouble and long story short, they decided to put up for sale their radio station, WDCU and we were approached by the broker, “Would you guys be interested in bidding for this?” and we’d done a little research about radio stations and we thought, yeah, maybe we can get it for like three or four million dollars, which was a lot of money for us, but we thought, maybe we could talk to the board and we’d done some experimentation in audio.
Well, we went through several rounds of bidding. We had several meetings with our board of directors who were all very enthusiastic. I remember Leo Hindery was involved, Tom Baxter was involved and we bid I think around seven million dollars, and we lost. And we were just crestfallen, because we’d worked so hard. We’d got that price up and we lost and we lost to a company called Salem Broadcasting, who is a religious broadcaster. They also own some stations in Washington and they ran into some resistance in the press and potentially the FCC and they didn’t want to kind of jeopardize their standing in Washington, so they called. They knew us from the bidding process and said, “Our bid was over 10 million dollars. Would you be interested in stepping in, in our place?” and I put my game face on and said, “I think so, I think so. Let me make some calls,” so we quickly went the board and said, “They’ve offered us to step in. It’s over 10 million dollars. Should we do it?” and the board said, “Let’s do it,” so we got the radio station, 90.1, 50,000-watt channel and we’ve — here’s more efficiency –. We’ve leveraged that over the years. We now do podcasts. You can hear the audio from the radio station via our app, both iPhone and android. So that one, at the time, big investment in the radio station has really launched us down the road of audio programming in all different forms.
SA: If I had to ask you what you really love about being at C-SPAN, in terms of the programming, the service that you provide to the country, what is it? Is it introducing people to government? Is it getting people more involved in civic activities? What is it? What turns you on about what C-SPAN does? Most.
RK: I have two answers to that. One is nowadays I love our callers. On our call-in programs. We have, our primary call-in program is the Washington Journal, 7:00 to 10:00am eastern time, seven days a week. We try to take 60 calls a day, works out to 20,000 a year. So a lot of American voices. Especially with this most recent election, I think the callers represent a way for all of us to get out of our bubbles and hear what’s on people’s mind, why they’re supporting the candidate they’re supporting and how passionate they are. That, for me, helped put this recent election into a framework where you can say, okay, the supporters believe this; these supporters believe that. You can listen to them every day.
But there’s another part of C-SPAN, which is, it’s a little bit like, Susan says, it’s a little bit like church, it’s good to have in town. You may not go there every weekend, but every once in a while you’re glad you can go. Or the public library, if you want a more secular analogy. And there’s usually something important to someone personally that will get coverage on C-SPAN.
I told you that back in the early ’80s I wasn’t really thrilled when Brian went on the air and kind of got our viewers all excited. But then in the mid ’80s when cable was first talking about scrambling the satellite signals, C-SPAN covered the entire hearing, it was a great hearing, I think it was 1986, with the members of Congress and the leaders of the industry explaining why we would take this step of scrambling satellite signals, which had heretofore been free. And of course, people had huge dishes to pick them up and to see that whole thing and to see the industry’s arguments and also the members of Congress. Their arguments were very valuable for me, and we’ve always had a fair amount of coverage of telecommunications policy. Brian thinks that our viewers are benefiting from it, so they should know more about it and that’s what kind of launched us down that path. But that was an example where it became very personal for me.
SA: Rob, I know that Brian Lamb would want us to ask this question or certainly discuss it and that is, will we see cameras in the Supreme Court?
RK: I’m not optimistic, at least anytime soon. I think that the justices enjoy being relatively anonymous. They have various arguments for not allowing cameras. Interestingly when they’re nominated and they go before Congress, many of them say, “We’ve had good experiences with television; it’s something we’d consider on the Court.” But once they get in there, we never hear about it again and I think we should have cameras in the Court, because as a citizen you can go in and watch any oral argument. And I think if it’s a public building and a public event, cameras should be in there just like are with the Congress and the Executive Branch. In fairness, the Court does release audio transcripts later that week and we’ve put those on air with still graphics of the justices, but it’s not the same as being in the room.
SA: No, no, of course not. And it’s a tiny, tiny room to get people in, so I mean, it would be a great service. (laughs) I mean, the congressional galleries are gigantic by comparison; certainly the House is. Rob, some legacy questions. We talked about Susan. We talked about Brian. Are there other people who mentored you, who influenced you during your career that you’d like to mention?
RK: I had great bosses early in my career and I mentioned Jack Frazee from Centel who took a lot of us who were fresh out of school at 24 or 25, 26, and put us in operating positions of pretty good size responsibility, Aurora, Illinois, Elgin, Illinois. A lot of my colleagues were sent to run state operations for Centel and Jack, Jack would say, “Don’t worry, you can’t sink the company. Go out and make decisions.” I know, we were like, well, really? He said, “No, no, you really, you can be yourself. Make decisions. Tackle tough problems. Check in with us but you do it and you’ll be fine. That’s how you learn.” And it was my experience at Centel that then allowed me to go to Rochester, New York, work for ATC and our division president there was Frank [Chiaino?], who came from Manhattan Cable and Frank was very much the same way.
He relied on our expertise. There were a group of six vice presidents there and Frank was great in sort of letting you run with things, again, at a fairly young age and I just think that’s so important, if you can get that kind of experience early on.
And then obviously the C-SPAN team, too many names to mention; we’ve mentioned Brian, Susan, Bruce Collins, our long-serving general counsel and all of our vice presidents who just really work so hard to learn the business and keep us innovative and keep us relevant.
SA: Now, we’re here at the end of November 2016. We will have a new administration in Washington in a couple of months and at least at the moment the president-elect and during the campaign was not, I couldn’t really call him press-friendly. He doesn’t seem to like big media. He uses social media a lot, which I guess is good, in some respects. But he bypasses the press, somewhat intentionally. Does this, what does this mean for C-SPAN and does it maybe even make C-SPAN more relevant and more important than even it was several weeks ago?
RK: Well, I think it certainly helps us in terms of relevancy. The idea of, whether it’s the president or politicians going directly to the public with social media has been building now for some time and clearly President-elect Trump’s campaign, he did that to a degree never before seen. But there is still official Washington. There are still many, many steps before legislation is enacted, before policies are set. There are press briefings almost every day at the White House and in Congress, obviously congressional hearings and we are also members of the presidential pool that we’ll follow the president around to the extent he allows. But these events taken together and then of course, they’re all in our video library, will paint a really full picture, I think, of what is going on. So as long as the institutions in Washington remain open and accessible in the same spirit that the House from ’79 and the Senate from ’86, I think we’ll be in good shape and I think C-SPAN will be in great shape.
SA: Rob, another legacy question. C-SPAN’s legacy, what do you think it will be or what would you like it to be?
RK: I would like it to be understood and I think it is, as one of the great things that the cable industry did. Here’s a service started in 1979 at the very earliest days of cable, where the leaders of the industry said, “Yeah, Brian, that’s a pretty good idea; let’s give it a shot. We’re going to do it as non-commercial, nonprofit, a public service, no advertising, no ratings, we’ll support it, we’ll carry it,” and that’s allowed us to grow and remain relevant, and to make all of these changes over the years to either add programming and distribution. The cable industry has done a lot of great things and I hope C-SPAN’s always going to be listed as one of those things.
SA: Great. Rob, thanks so much. This was —
RK: Thanks, Seth.
SA: It was a blast. I really enjoyed it.
RK: See you at the Battle of the Bands.
SA: Yes. (laughter)
RK: Perennial second place. (laughter)