Interview Date: Friday August 12, 2005
Interview Location: York, PA
Interviewer: Kristin Van Ormer
Collection: BCAP Collection
VAN ORMER: We’re here today with Darlene Payne. Darlene’s been an instrumental force in Heritage Weekend through the years and we’re going to talk to Darlene about her involvement in the cable industry and about her involvement with Heritage Weekend here in Pennsylvania. So, Darlene, why don’t we start with how you first got involved in the cable industry?
PAYNE: Thank you, Kristin. Wow, it was way back in January of 1971. I was bored with the job I was doing and I wandered down the street in McKeesport, Pennsylvania and there was this little storefront that said cable television. I did not know what it was and I went in and asked and they said, “Oh, we’re going to be the industry of the future,” and I thought so what are you? “Are you accepting applications?” and they said “You can put yours in,” and I did. That’s when I started, in January of 1971 and I’ve been with the same company but it has had six name changes. I started with Techs Video, then Center Video, then Telecommunications, Inc (TCI of Pennsylvania), AT&T Cable Services, AT&T Broadband, and today I’m Comcast. I guess I’m a survivor because I do franchising and not everybody wants to do franchising. The communities that I serve now in western Pennsylvania are 360 municipalities with franchises and that keeps us hopping because there’s always one that’s going to be expired and needs renewed. I love the industry. I’ve loved working with the people that I’ve met across the state and in the United States, and I guess that’s how I got involved with Pennsylvania Cable Heritage because I got involved back in 1983 – then the name was the Pennsylvania Cable and Telecommunications Association – and I am still strong at heart for cable television. I get phone calls from the dish companies and I say “Sorry! I’m a cable subscriber.” Proudly I say that.
VAN ORMER: That’s great, Darlene. In 1971 when you went and put in your application, what was it for? What were you going to be doing?
PAYNE: Well, I didn’t know, but I got called to become the administrative secretary and office manager. I didn’t know what cable was. I had worked at U.S. Steel and at a radio station and I soon learnt what cable was. Boy, back in those days, when we took the payments, they had adding machines with those paper rolls on them and by the end of the day the roll would be all the way down the hall and the girls would have to roll it up. We had no computers, we had no cell phones – it was a different world back then, but we got through it and progressed with the industry and technology and it’s just been a wonderful education.
VAN ORMER: Darlene, I know that the people that you’ve worked with are near and dear to your heart. Not to pick favorites, but do you have any that are particularly memorable that you’ve had memorable experiences with?
PAYNE: Jeez, I could talk about J.C. Sparkman, who allowed me to call him “Sparky”. Back in those days, when we would do franchise renewals – “in those days” I mean back in the ’70s – they would come in from Denver to see how we were doing with council meetings and last year at the Hall of Fame I saw J.C. Sparkman and he said, “You can still call me ‘Sparky’.” I had a lot of people that were memorable to me – John Malone, Maryann Novak, who was head of our industry in the western Pennsylvania area. I now work with a gentleman named Richard Emenecker and Richard worked for 15 years for the City of Pittsburgh as the cable advisory manager, for 15 years. And then when the new regime came in to Pittsburgh they changed everybody and he was let go, and in 1994 Jim Masure hired Richard, so Richard’s on the other side of the table and I’ve really learned a lot from him. He’s been on both sides and he now is engulfed in cable television. He likes that side of the table better and he is very knowledgeable and I really feel that he’s been my prime supporter through these last few years.
VAN ORMER: So even though you work for Comcast, which is one of the top two MSOs in the country right now, you do work in the region of western Pennsylvania where the cable systems are small and I think you have a lot of one-on-one contact with your customers and with the city councils.
PAYNE: We do.
VAN ORMER: Do you feel your customer relations are better for that or how do you view your customer relations?
PAYNE: Well, I mainly deal with the local elected officials and I think that we have a good relationship with our local elected officials. I do know that if a local municipality has a complaint or a problem, they know me well enough that they call me and I can help them correct it and get the complaint taken care of. They sometimes go through me rather than our call centers because they have a personal contact, and that’s why I think it’s important to deal with our local elected officials, although I deal with state and federal, but it’s the local elected officials who sign the new franchise agreements when they are up for a renewal and I would hope that that never goes away. I know there are things going on in the country for a state franchise agreement, but I don’t know how that’ll settle down with the local officials because they get a franchise fee check, and they look forward to it and it comes on time. It’s like, “Oh, here’s a paycheck.” They don’t have to ask for it and they appreciate that, and I don’t know if that would go away when we have a state franchise agreement, how that would operate. I’m following it closely because of my friendships with the local elected officials.
VAN ORMER: So in 1983, you mentioned you got involved with Heritage Weekend or with PCTA or both?
PAYNE: Actually both. In 1983 I got involved with the Pennsylvania Cable Association doing grassroots lobbying and from there I grew into then it was called Cable Pioneers. Cable started in Mahanoy City in 1948 thanks to Walson and Bob Tarlton and so I went to the Cable Pioneers Weekend and it was just very encouraging to meet the people who had started this industry in the great state of Pennsylvania and I somehow got on the committee and in 1990 they said, “We need a committee to organize this every year,” and I was the only female and I guess that’s how I got to be chairperson, but my committee consists of many founders and pioneers and now we have a few new people coming on that want to learn more about this weekend. I think it was in 1996 that we changed the name thinking that if we changed to Cable Heritage that we would attract more of the younger executives so that they would become more familiar with how it all started, and that does happen, especially if we’re giving out the awards they will come to the function and learn what’s going on but they don’t always come back. We can’t draw them back; we’re trying to figure out a way to do that. So in ’96, that’s when we changed the name to Cable Heritage Weekend.
VAN ORMER: And that was changed from what?
PAYNE: Cable Pioneers. Because actually we have been honoring the founders and then there’s the pioneers, and then we had the Pride Award. The Pride Award is something we started probably in 1992, and it’s for those employees who have worked with their CEOs or founders all the years, 25 years or more, but never got recognition. We have several people who have received that award. Cable Heritage, we every year have the Operator of the Year and the Associate Member of the Year, and we have a long list of Founders that have received their Founders Award. The Operator of the Year originally was selected by all the members of the State Association and we found that we were not getting all the surveys or replies back in a timely fashion, so it was decided that the committee would vote on who the Operator and the Associate Member was and we select from bios the three top companies that we think have progressed the most both as an operator and associate and then the committee decides on who that person will be to get the award for that current year. So it’s pretty cut and dry that we watch how these – not just the big MSOs, and we don’t have that many left in Pennsylvania and we won’t have that many left in Pennsylvania, but it’s the smaller operators, the independent operators. We have a lot of them in the state of Pennsylvania that have progressed right along with the big MSOs and that’s important. I’m impressed with them. We have small operators whose fathers founded the companies and their families are continuing to grow and to go along with the technology.
VAN ORMER: Why do you think that’s been so prevalent here in Pennsylvania? There are still so many family-run operators.
PAYNE: I think there’s more in Pennsylvania, Kristin, than there are in any other state. I think it’s because of the heritage. They started back in ’48, the early ’50s – there are several magazines and books out about cable pioneers in Pennsylvania that are really, really interesting, and we’ve had many, many college students come in to do essays on the state of Pennsylvania and the progress of cable in this state. Fortunately, their families have learned to follow their pattern of their families and I’m sure you’re going to interview some of them later today or tomorrow that’ll tell you how it all happened. I just think that it’s an amazing thing for this state, and I know when I go to Denver I hear that cable started out on the West Coast. Well, there’s a plaque in Mahanoy City that says it started in the state of Pennsylvania and I would like the Cable Heritage Weekend to continue. I would hope that it does. I would like to see more interest and as long as I have those founders that are still on that committee I think it will continue because I have some great committee members.
VAN ORMER: How did the event look back in 1983 when you were first involved? How was it then and how has it differed?
PAYNE: Well, you know, back in 1983 we had a lot more founders that we recognized, a lot more history. No, it wasn’t videotaped back then because we weren’t that sharp back then; we just did the awards. We didn’t do Pride Awards then, or Associates. After we thought we had accomplished our goal of recognizing all founders, then we went on to recognize pioneers and then that’s how the Pride Award was developed, and then the Associate Member. The Associate Member is based on the three top associate members who are programmers or vendors, suppliers, who have supported the Association through that year, and then we do a background on what they’ve done and how they’ve supported us. The committee, the Heritage committee, votes on who they think is deserving of the award. Usually the person that gets it is deserving of that award. The committee thought that they had found all the founders that needed to be recognized but this year we came up with one that hadn’t been recognized and hopefully you’ll interview him because his background is pretty interesting. We also have a pioneer that we had missed, so these things happen but people need to bring them to our attention so that we can recognize them for what they’ve done. The industry’s phenomenal. It’s grown and it’s going to continue to grow. I hope the dish people can hear this because there’s nothing better than cable. It’s in my heart, it’s in my blood, and I love the people that are around me and I love the people that I honor and I hope that this industry continues to progress the way it has been.
VAN ORMER: What do you think is the single biggest contribution the Pennsylvania cable industry has made to the overall business?
PAYNE: Their contribution has been really legislation. We monitor the legislation statewide so that things don’t happen that we’re not aware of. I think the Pennsylvania Association has been a leader of all the other associations, whether it’s because the industry started here or whatever, but through my years with the association, I have seen other state associations follow our lead in many, many ways. I hope that we can continue that and we have good relationships with the other associations, but the big thing is legislation and regulatory issues. If we don’t stay on top of them we’re going to be smothered and we’re going to take away all our rights. Cable is not a necessity, it’s a luxury. It’s just cable television, and enjoy it.
VAN ORMER: You had mentioned you got involved in 1983 by doing, you were involved in some grassroots lobbying – what were you working on specifically then?
PAYNE: The Cable Act of 1984, that’s what we really worked on and we had busloads of us going to the capitol. I’ve never seen so many cable folk of all ages come into the Harrisburg area and go to Washington D.C., and you know, when I first started to lobby I thought how can I sit in these offices and talk to these elected officials? At that time I thought they were very special, and I thought I’ve got to tell them my side of the story and of my goodness, that’s my elected Congressman or that’s my State Senator – well guess what? You soon learn that they’re just another human being one-on-one and you’d better talk to them and let them hear your side of the story, and we did.
VAN ORMER: So it really mobilized the community here?
PAYNE: Yes it did.
VAN ORMER: Darlene, what would you say your most rewarding career moment has been?
PAYNE: Wow! I would have to say, first of all, that I was lucky enough to get employed in the cable industry, to learn all about the cable industry, and to have the privilege of lobbying, being involved with the state association and the networking. I will always treasure the people I’ve met, the people I’ve worked with, and what the association has done for me. The association and my involvement in the cable industry with my employment has meant a lot to me. When the day of that big “R” retirement comes, I don’t know how I’m going to separate myself, but I will always, always, always cherish the cable industry.
VAN ORMER: Well, I’m sure you will remain involved through Heritage Weekend and some of the cable events and your many friends in the industry.
PAYNE: Yeah, I think so, Kristin.
VAN ORMER: Is there anything else that we haven’t talked about that you’d like to discuss?
PAYNE: I’ve seen my employees evolve so much. It’s so valuable from when I started in ’71. I mean it’s an ongoing process of training. Not just the technicians or the CSSRs, but it’s also the supervisors, the managers, the directors – it’s endless and it has to be because of so many changes that are going on in the company. The technicians amaze me because they have to know everything. They have to know about the cable, the telephony, the voice over IP, or whatever else. They have to come in and be able to service a customer and answer all the questions. I’ve always said the two most important people in the cable industry are the CSSR, who answers the phone and makes the appointment and says, “Oh, okay, our tech will be there in 24 hours, or what’s convenient for you?” That’s the voice that the new customer, or the old customer, hears. That person is so important, but then when the knock or the doorbell rings and the customer answers the door, it’s our technician who has to answer those questions because the customer is usually there and asking questions. That’s the face and the voice, and the CSSR is the voice. They don’t always see me or our vice-presidents or the general managers, but those two people, those people in those positions play a very important part in our industry and they are well-trained these days. They weren’t years ago, but they are well-trained these days and I value their personalities and their intelligence and their answers to some of the questions. It’s an important step. They are the front.
VAN ORMER: As the competition becomes more intense with the Dish Network becoming an increasing competitor, and perhaps the phone companies getting back in the game, what do you think that the cable industry has to offer that will differentiate themselves from their competitors and allow them to be competitive and relevant?
PAYNE: When I started doing franchise renewals, etc., we didn’t have any competition. It was just us, and as a state association we would never overbuild each other. Many times I had phone calls, “We want your cable company and not that cable company,” and we would tell them “You have a reputable cable company, you need to deal with them and work this problem out. We are not going to come in and overbuild.” It’s costly to overbuild. Once you overbuild there are two companies and then they get 50% of the subscribers and we get 50% and nobody makes any money. We’re in a business – we’re not a necessity, we’re a luxury and we are in a business. So that’s why our state association’s been so successful because we protect each other. Well, along comes the dish and the satellite and now we do have competition. It’s a different ballgame because the satellite dishes and the dish networks and what have you, they don’t pay franchise fees, so when we negotiate we have to tell them, “You know, everybody we lose to the dish isn’t going to give you any revenue back in your municipality because they don’t have to pay franchise fees. They’re up there in the sky.” Well, then the elected officials perk up and they want to hear about that, and it’s been pretty successful. Let me sidetrack a little. We have a dish buy-back at our company and I know some of the others do where we have telemarketers that drive around and see the dishes on the house and they give the house address and where it’s located and what municipality and then the CSSR will call, or the salesperson will call and say, “Can I give you this offer?” And they give them an offer and guess what? We have a warehouse full of dishes that we don’t know what to do with because they’ve come back to cable. There are many things we can offer on cable that a dish can’t – on-demand and what have you – but the big competitor is going to be Verizon and it’s there. The thing with Verizon is they’re cherry-picking. They’re only picking the municipalities that are affluent. They are not going in to every municipality, for example, in the City of Pittsburgh. They’re cherry-picking a section of our Pittsburgh area called North Hills, which is pretty affluent. They haven’t gone in to some of the other cities where we had steel mills where things are down. They want to do it without a franchise agreement. They want to go in there and say, “Okay, we are really a telephone company. We don’t want a franchise agreement.” Well, guess what? They have to have a franchise agreement and they’re balking about that, but that’s going to be our biggest competitor, is Verizon. It’s there, we’re working with it, and let’s see if we get through it. We’re a strong industry; we’ll do it.
VAN ORMER: Well, is there anything else, Darlene?
PAYNE: I don’t know, Kristin, if I’ve said enough or if…
VAN ORMER: Well, I think you could keep talking for the rest of the afternoon about all you know. Do you want to get more into Verizon? How involved have you been in the legislation?
PAYNE: Now I haven’t been involved with Verizon but they are in some of the communities that I do franchise renewals with. Some of the renewals that I’ve already done, the municipality wants to go back and review it and it’s a signed agreement. Our cable industry, Comcast, requests ten years. Years ago do you know that we had 30 year agreements? They’re just coming up for renewal. 25 year agreements! The paper is so old it’s crinkly. But you don’t get them that long anymore and ten years is sufficient.
VAN ORMER: Was there anything more you wanted to address about the history of Heritage Weekend or do you think we’ve covered that pretty well?
PAYNE: I think I’ve talked with you, Kristin, about four years ago when we did the taping of several founders who were still with us and some of them aren’t any more. I think if people go to Denver, Colorado, if they don’t tour The Cable Center and they have cable television they’re missing a lot because it’s an awesome building, it has a lot to offer, they can go into the Barco Library and read and see whatever they want. I encourage anybody when they go to the City of Denver to visit The Cable Center because that’s our history and it’s important.
VAN ORMER: How do you think that having an institutional memory of an industry like this benefits everybody? What do you think the importance of that is?
PAYNE: I think it’s very important for those that want to make their career in cable television. At some point in their lives, they should make a point of going to The Cable Center. I don’t think they did when it was at a small place that it was in State College, but there’s so much history here and if they’re going to stay in the industry and climb that ladder, they’d better know how it all started and how it all got to be where it is and how the technology has progressed because it’s phenomenal. Every day there’s a change. There’s something every day that you sit back and say, “Oh my goodness! That’s going to happen?” And it is happening. It’s happening! And it’s not going to stop. It’s going to continue.
VAN ORMER: Well, you’ve seen so many changes. How have you stayed so current and so on top of all the evolving trends in the industry and stayed excited about it? You’re still so enthusiastic and passionate about it.
PAYNE: I am. Thank you. First of all, I read the trade magazines. I go to as many meetings as I can. We have emails flying in and out, which we didn’t have years ago. We didn’t have computers. But our department of government affairs and public affairs keeps us updated on all kinds of issues – federal, state, and not so much local, I do the local stuff, but you just have to keep them informed. You know the other thing is, Kristin, all through the years when I started going to council meetings for franchising, the elected officials didn’t understand cable television and it was easy to get a franchise renewed because “Oh, okay, we want that picture on our television. Oh, okay, where do we sign?” I’m in my 35th year in this industry and the elected officials are much more intelligent now, much more. You have lawyers and doctors and what have you as elected officials for something to do outside of their profession and they ask far more questions. They study those franchise agreements. They know far more than what they knew 35 years ago. It’s hard, sometimes, to talk to them. When they feel that they’re not getting through they hire a consultant and pay extra money for that consultant, which sometimes they don’t have to do because they aren’t going to get anything more out of the consultant than they get out of my company. But that, truly, besides the technology, the education of the elected officials just boggles my mind to see how they’ve changed. It’s a different world with these elected officials. The local ones, anyhow. But you deal with it.
VAN ORMER: Well, I think we’ve covered a lot of ground, Darlene, and it’s very interesting. We appreciate being here at Heritage Weekend. We always enjoy seeing the founders and also the newer people that are involved in keeping the industry going.
PAYNE: Thank you, Kristin, for this interview. It’s been my pleasure and you know the industry means a lot to me and so does The Cable Center in Denver.
VAN ORMER: Thank you, Darlene.