Interview Date: June 14, 2017
Interviewer: Stewart Schley
Collection: Hauser Oral and Video History
SCHLEY: Hello there and welcome to The Cable Center’s Hauser Oral and Video History series. I’m Stewart Schley. We’re in Denver, Colorado, at The Cable Center studios on a lovely June morning in 2017 and privileged to be with a longtime friend and longtime colleague, Rob Stoddard.
STODDARD: Stewart, great to hang out with you, spend some time.
SCHLEY: Thanks for making the trek and the journey and conversing with us.
STODDARD: Happy to do it.
SCHLEY: I say longtime and I mean it because you and I have tracked a lot of the same career progression and the same tenure and history over the years and I think in many ways of you, and I think other people do too, as sort of the face of the cable industry. Prominent spokesperson.
STODDARD: Thank you. As they say, you have my condolences in that case. But thank you, it’s a high compliment.
SCHLEY: But Rob is presently, and has been for around 15 years, senior vice president of communications and public affairs at NCTA, the Internet and Television Association.
STODDARD: That’s right, very good.
SCHLEY: Long known as the National Cable Telecommunications Association. And we get a chance for about an hour to talk about your perspectives on the industry and your personal role over the years in it. And I’d like to start at the start sort of. You held a succession of radio broadcasting positions in the New England area before you joined the cable industry. And just talk a little bit about what that was about.
STODDARD: OK, so I was incredibly fortunate to go to journalism school in Washington, DC at the height of Watergate at American University, actually from ’72 to ’76 so this at the height of the Watergate era, and I still have fond memories. This is all pre-internet, pre-digital stuff, but bounding out of bed every morning, shuffling to the door of my dormitory room, opening the door and looking down at the Washington Post to snatch it up in both hands and to hungrily read what Woodward and Bernstein had just written about the President and his men on any given day. So it was a phenomenal time to be in journalism school and an amazing place to be. And during that era I was incredibly fortunate to learn under a professor, an amazing guy named Ed Bliss, Edward Bliss. And Ed had been the editor for the great Edward R. Murrow and then went on to be editor for Walter Cronkite when Cronkite did the evening news during the 1960s. And Bliss had semi-retired, had started teaching broadcast journalism at American University. So Ed, more than anyone, really first of all gave me the greatest gift, taught me how to write for the ear, how to write for broadcast, and then turned me on to radio. I would like to have done television, there weren’t many opportunities in those days, so through the great help of a mutual friend my first job out of school was in beautiful Keene, New Hampshire, which in that era, in the summer of 1976, was the sixth largest city in the state of New Hampshire with 20,000 people. It was the hub of the Monadnock region in southwestern New Hampshire, just north of Massachusetts and just east of Vermont. I had grown up in Philadelphia, gone to school in Washington, DC, this was truly God’s country and far away from anything I was remotely connected to.
SCHLEY: And you’re doing news? You’re doing daily breaking news.
STODDARD: Yes, there was a great little — still to this day it’s there, a great little AM/FM combination, WKNE and WNBX FM, in the Monadnock region. And I was one of two news people working at the station. So I had an air shift, I had to be in to work at 3:00 am every day and I had an air shift that would run through noontime. And then maybe, I mean the on-air stuff was fun, but the best of all things was I got to be a street reporter then. I would run around and I’d cover board of selectmen meetings and school committee meetings and really get my feet wet. In retrospect it was a fascinating time and I’d love to do it over again because I was a 21-year-old guy who was reporting to the people of this amazing town the news of the day. I wish I could go back all these years later with now a little bit of life experience and do it all over.
SCHLEY: We all would. So you had a progression of jobs in radio news and then you worked for UPI which was then a formidable competitor to the Associated Press as a newswire distributor.
STODDARD: Well, we thought so. Absolutely. I later moved on to Springfield, Massachusetts, did radio news there and I’d begun to — the term of art is become a stringer for UPI, the old United Press, owned and operated in those days by Scripps. And I mentioned Walter Cronkite in passing. I was so proud to nail a job with UPI, Cronkite’s old employer, as well because when I was finished with my radio shift every Saturday morning I would sit down and I would write news headlines for the UPI wire from Springfield, Massachusetts, send them into Boston, and they would be used in the New England feed for the day. So I managed to kind of bootstrap up from that job into a fulltime gig at UPI in Boston in the shadow of the beautiful State House in downtown Boston. So we picked up and moved there in 1979 and I was fortunate to be a general assignment reporter and editor for UPI. I worked the day shift for a while, I worked the godawful overnight shift for a while. In that era, as you’ll recall, there was still am and pm newspapers so you were writing for newspapers that hit first thing in the morning and others that came out at midafternoon. So there was plenty of work to go around. But I had the opportunity to kind of work around the bases in terms of coverage. I covered the penal system for a while, I covered the courts, I had one glorious night covering a Red Sox game when they played the Detroit Tigers and I got to literally see guys like Yastrzemski and Jim Rice and Fisk and all those great Boston players back during that era. And then finally they apparently liked the way so well that I answered the phone that it was literally suggested that I might be good in sales and marketing. So in one of the colossally stupid decisions of all time management chose to move me into sales and marketing for UPI. I worked the six-state region. I promoted and sold our wire service to newspaper publishers and to broadcast owners throughout the region and just had the time of my life. I was not great at sales. Great at soft sell, not good at getting people to sign on the dotted line.
SCHLEY: Closing the deal.
STODDARD: Closing. Not great at closing. But I could not believe that someone was paying me to travel around the six New England states. So that was a huge education and a wonderful experience.
SCHLEY: You enjoyed it?
STODDARD: Loved every minute of it.
SCHLEY: The segue then into the public policy and government arena, you were for several years press secretary for the three-term senator from Kansas, Nancy Kassebaum.
STODDARD: Nancy Landon Kasselbaum, absolutely. Or today as she’s known, Nancy Landon Kassebaum Baker. So she’s come a long way. And yes, not to get too deep, but predating all of that, fun fact, I was a teenage Republican in suburban Philadelphia, Montgomery county, Pennsylvania. And that’s important to me because I met my wife, my lovely wife Barbra. My wife now at this moment of 41 years, and we were leaders of our Montgomery county teenage Republicans together and that’s how we met. We came from neighboring towns so we were childhood sweethearts. So I’ve been very active in politics over the years and always had kind of a secondary interest in it going forward. So as I was traveling New England in 1982, and mentioning newspaper publishers, I came upon a terrific young man who had come from Kansas. His name was Emerson Lynn. He had come from a newspaper family and he had moved to godforsaken Saint Albans, Vermont, 12 miles from the Canadian border, and he had purchased the small newspaper there from the great William Loeb who owned the Manchester Union Leader. Emerson, in addition to being from a newspaper family, had been the initial press secretary for Nancy Landon Kassebaum from Kansas. So he and I over many long nights of very cold meetings in midwinter actually negotiated a contract for him to leave AP, the Associated Press, and to come over as a UPI client. We got to know each other pretty well during that era. As luck would have it, at about that moment in time Senator Kassebaum needed a new press secretary. The previous one had been departing and Emerson introduced us and I was then able to travel back to Washington, DC, in a brief period of time as her press secretary, which was fabulous.
SCHLEY: Was it hard to not abandon your journalistic career because you remain to this day engaged in the craft of journalism, but was it a difficult segue, sort of felt like a departure from what you had been doing?
STODDARD: Yes. Well, yes and no. What became a little more difficult later in my career, and maybe you can sympathize with this, was going full blown into public relations and corporate communications for commercial profit driven companies. We can talk more about that. That was a challenge. However, going to work on Capitol Hill it was a little different. Yes, I represented a United States senator and I certainly had to represent her point of view and be on point and on message and try to portray her in the best light possible, although with Nancy it did not take much. She was the real McCoy — daughter of Alf Landon who was the Republican nominee for president against FDR in 1936, a darling of the state of Kansas. Approval ratings that never fell below 75%, just the real McCoy, genuine article. So you didn’t have to do much to make her look good. But the important thing about that was, yes, it was in a way public relations, but it was government service as well, right? We told ourselves, and I firmly believed, that we were doing a service to the nation by representing these members of Congress and trying to convey their point of view to the Washington press corps. But yes, it was kind of my initial introduction to the whole milieu of public relations and corporate communications.
SCHLEY: I wanted to ask, we spoke earlier and you recounted a really interesting anecdote about what it used to take to get a sound bite from Senator Kasselbaum onto a radio station in Hayes, Kansas. Can you just kind of retell that?
STODDARD: Sure. We probably don’t have the 30 minutes that it took for me to tell you the story originally, but yes, it was and these are the kinds of stories that we like to regale our young friends with, in a time before the internet and before digital communications and even in that era largely before satellite communications had come in. So yes, it involved a handheld cassette recorder, and holding a microphone up to your United States Senator, and asking her to read a statement or to speak off the cuff. And then it involved running to an old landline telephone, and unscrewing the coupler at the bottom of the receiver, and taking the alligator clips that you had plugged into your cassette recorder, and plugging them into the alligator clips on the telephone handset. We then used a series of punch cards that we had, to dial radio stations in Kansas, largely rural Kansas, but Wichita and Topeka and other places as well., And one by one, we would call those stations, asking for the news director, asking them to roll a reel to reel tape recorder on their end to record the soundbite, and once they were ready, pressing the button and playing that 20 or 30 seconds of content from the senator. Once that process was completed, the news director would say, “Could you hold on for a minute? I need to check the tape and make sure we have it.” And you could hear it running backwards as they rewound it, they’d play it to make sure they had it and then they’d say, “OK, thank you very much, we’re good to go.” And then once you were done with, for instance, the radio station in Hays, you moved on to the radio stations in the other 25 or 30 markets in Kansas.
SCHLEY: Same process.
STODDARD: Yeah, so something that would take probably 10 minutes to post to the internet today honestly took almost a full day of activity to get that information.
SCHLEY: I ask because I think it’s such an interesting parable that sets the stage for this tremendous wave of innovation that you and your colleagues in cable have been part of. This was in, what, mid 1980s?
STODDARD: From 1982 to 1985, that’s right.
SCHLEY: And then comes along your cable career. How did you enter the business and what were the circumstances there?
STODDARD: Incredible good fortune is the best way I can think to describe it. I had a little bit of help. Nancy Landon Kasselbaum was a member of the Senate Commerce Committee which oversaw telecommunications law and policy. For those people who are watching who may have a long memory of history you will recall there was something called The Cable Act of 1984 that deregulated the cable industry and really turned loose the kind of investment that went all the way through and is fueling our broadband networks today. And as a member of the oversight committee in Congress Senator Kasselbaum was deeply involved in helping move that bill through the Senate. So I had some marginal knowledge of cable related issues. In 1985 when I decided it might be fun to go off and do something different I was lucky to come across a blind ad in the Washington Post actually for a reporter for a chain of trade publications called Cardiff Publishing which, as luck would have it, was based right here in beautiful and scenic Denver. And I applied for the job. I was fortunate to meet some incredible people, one named Judy Rudrud who was a publisher at Cardiff Publishing.
SCHLEY: I remember Judy.
STODDARD: The ad had been placed by Jill Dickey Marks who was the editor of what used to be called Cable Television Business magazine, CTB, and I interviewed with them. I interviewed with a great editor that you still know, Chuck Moozakis, who was a cable editor. I met one of my favorite people of all time, Tom Kerver, who was, may he rest in peace, the great business reporter for that chain of publications at that time. So I spent a couple of days in Denver doing interviews, got hired for the job as the Washington bureau chief. So I was able to remain in Washington. I got to cover the Federal Communications Commission and Congress. We had a brief and glorious time where we acquired a defense publication called Defense Electronics, so I actually covered the Pentagon for a year, which is a hell of an overstatement, I have to tell you, but it was fun just to walk the halls of the Pentagon. And that was a huge boon to me because, as you know as an experienced journalist, I did a deep dive on telecommunications issues and spent virtually every day learning as much as humanly possible as I could.
SCHLEY: A mutual friend and colleague of ours, Paul Maxwell, told me once, he said, “There was no better way to learn an industry than to serve as a trade reporter.” Do you buy into that?
STODDARD: Absolutely. Totally agree. It was then just a pre-internet era, still pre-electronic era, so my daily work, which I loved passionately, involved physically going every day to the Federal Communications Commission and going to the press office there. People at the press office in the mid ’80s were tremendous. You had to be credentialed by the FCC so they had our list of names, they knew who we were, and you’d walk into the office every day and there would be a stack of paper work, usually two to three inches thick, waiting for each of us. And those were the reports and the orders and the notices of inquiry and anything that had official status at the FCC that day. So you literally then physically took the stack of paper, I would walk back to my bureau office on M Street in downtown Washington, DC, and generally I would spend at least an hour or two literally reading almost word for word through a lot of this stuff.
SCHLEY: Poring through these.
STODDARD: Yeah. Of course that was the easy part, right? As you know, the hard part was then trying to decide what to make of any of it and then what to report to people in our field, but it was a great education.
SCHLEY: And today those documents are available in a snap. FCC publishes this.
STODDARD: Nobody has to go anywhere. You could sit here in Denver, seriously and 24 by seven cover the Federal Communications Commission. You can download all of the — I don’t mean to diss the people who are actually doing it personally because that’s still important. That face-to-face contact with regulators is critical, but if you had to do it remotely you could download everything electronically, all FCC open meetings and news briefings are webcast live, and then these days you can exchange tweets with FCC commissioners, you can use social media and email to communicate with people that represent the FCC. So it’s a very different world than what it was 30 years ago.
SCHLEY: So somewhere in this phase of your life you met a cat called Steve Effros.
STODDARD: I did.
SCHLEY: Can you talk about Steve and his organization?
STODDARD: Beloved Steve Effros. Yes, absolutely. I will tell you and you’d probably agree with me, if you worked in the industry in the 1980s one could not avoid Steve Effros. He was the ubiquitous Steve Effros running a genuinely worthy little trade association that actually people thought was in Washington, DC, but actually resided outside of the city in the city of Fairfax, Virginia.
SCHLEY: That I did not know.
STODDARD: Yes, so it was about a 30-minute commute from downtown Fairfax, Virginia and Fairfax county into Washington, DC. The organization originally was the Community Antenna Television Association, CATA. Flash forwarding, in my time there we rebranded it. We began to call it the Cable Telecommunications Association. So we kept the acronym, CATA, changed the name in the early 1990s. But I met Steve when I was reporting for Cardiff Publishing. He was probably the favorite source of every journalist on the beat during that era and you know here in 2017 he actually still is. He hasn’t lost any of that. He was flagrant, he was outlandish, he spoke his mind, and probably most importantly, as opposed to NCTA which during that era represented the establishment of the cable industry, Steve represented small and independent cable operators. Now, we called them small and independent. Many of them were community-based operators in places like Oregon and Kansas and Missouri, but it went right up to companies that included Continental Cablevision, for instance, which was really more of a midsized or large company. And I got to know Steve really well during that period of five years. Now, the segue was that in late 1989 I was working on a story and I was just chatting with Steve on the phone and he said offhandedly, “By the way, Rob, I’ve decided that we need to have a fulltime communications executive at CATA.” He was not inviting me literally, purposefully, not inviting me to interview for the job. He was simply trying to find people that he might recruit and talk to. He said, “Do you know, have you come across anyone, are there any out of work journalists that might be interested?” And I went home that night and I thought about it, and I don’t know how you feel about this, but the temptation when you’re a trade writer is that, yes, you feel like you’re part of the industry but you are truly a half step removed, right?
STODDARD: If not a full step. And I think at least I personally dreamed that someday I too might take my place among colleagues who worked within the industry and in the companies that I was covering.
SCHLEY: Why so? What was intriguing?
STODDARD: Even then cable was exploding with opportunity, right? I started writing for Cardiff in 1985. I was among tens of thousands of baby boomers that essentially were part of an influx into an industry that most of us had never heard of before, right? But I was a consumer as well. I wanted my MTV, I wanted to watch C-SPAN, I was excited about Sports Center on ESPN. These are themes and this is content that still to this day heavily resonate with American consumers. They really hit you in the gut and it’s stuff that you love. Why would you not want to be associated with something like that? It was fun, it was information, entertainment, politics, the coverage of government, everything under the sun. So it was a huge magnet and it did pull me like a magnet into that kind of epicenter of excitement.
SCHLEY: What did you learn at CATA?
STODDARD: Oh, I learned a lot, an awful lot, at CATA. And I learned some of this on Capitol Hill, but even more so at CATA, I learned what it meant to be a spokesman for profit making companies. In some cases publicly reporting on profit making companies. I learned the benefits of that, I learned the strong disadvantages of it. So I learned, I guess, more than anything message discipline. I probably learned a lot about editing, almost as much as I had learned at the old UPI.
STODDARD: Yes, because I was editing for Steve Effros. And Steve is stream of consciousness. So Steve would write a monthly newsletter, CATA Cable, in fact, and it typically, boy, I don’t know, probably ran five or 6,000 words.
SCHLEY: I remember it. It was great actually. It was not puffery.
STODDARD: I’ll take that as a compliment.
SCHLEY: It was good stuff.
STODDARD: It was, yes. And Steve himself is a great writer. He was one of the youngest ever employees of the New York Times before he came into the cable trade association business. He had worked at the FCC writing, helping establish copyright rules and regulations at the FCC. He was great at writing legal briefs. But he was a prolific writer so that meant you had to take a lot of this raw material and try to shoehorn it into —
SCHLEY: Exactly, I can imagine.
STODDARD: So a lot of sleepless nights making sure that I wasn’t changing Steve’s voice and maintaining his point of view. And then finally at that point, even though I had covered the industry for a long period of time, I was able to truly build some relationships with people who worked in the industry.
SCHLEY: Exactly, because I think at that — for me as a journalist your sort of public profile in cable elevated, as it should have, as a representative of an influential trade association. And I say that because you then jettisoned into the industry at a deeper level working for some of the influential and prominent companies, really on the operating side.
STODDARD: Thank you, yes. Absolutely a highlight of my career, if not the highlight of my career.
SCHLEY: This was early 1990s?
STODDARD: The span really started in about ’95 and ran through 2002. So it was a — so CATA was ’90 to ’95 and then from ’95 to ’02 I worked for a number of multiple system operators, MSOs. I still like to tell people that I really had the very same job for eight years, but it was for different companies because there was that wave of mergers and acquisitions going on. But I do want to pay homage really and a lot of deference to Effros personally for giving me that opportunity, and for teaching me everything he knew about the cable business. To a great and very dear friend, Jim Ewalt, who was executive VP. Jim had also been at the FCC. He was EVP at CATA and it was through Jim that I was introduced really to the public affairs community during that era. Amazing people like Lynn Yaeger at Warner Cable and then Time Warner and Dave Anderson at Cox Communications and Andy Holdgate and Tracy Hollingsworth at Jones Intercable and Peggy Keegan, a mutual friend, at Viacom during that era. Yes, absolutely. So to me it was a golden era. It was a really interesting time because as a discipline, as a profession, that is corporate and public communicators and public relations professionals, many of us felt as though we weren’t necessarily getting really fair shrift at many of the companies. It was unusual in that era for a corporate communications executive to sit in the C suite and to report directly to the chief executive. So there was a movement in the early ’90s among many of us, and most of it was through what used to be the Cable Television Public Affairs Association, CTPAA, or as my old friend Tory Clark of NCTA fame used to call it, “catpaw.” But a group that was fortunate to be chaired over the years by the likes of Alex Swan who’s now at ARRIS and Peggy Keegan and many other people including Jim Ewalt. So infiltrating that group, getting to know it really well, and kind of fighting for the discipline of public relations and making the case to particularly cable multiple system operators as well as programmers that this was a valuable and critical function that could help them stay out of jams and help them better tell their stories. That was just a wonderful initiative to be involved with.
SCHLEY: And I don’t think the lack of attention or investment in that side of the business reflected any ill will on the practice of public relations.
STODDARD: No, none whatsoever.
SCHLEY: It’s just this industry grew up in a different way.
STODDARD: It did. During those CATA years we — so I had mentioned a few moments ago that NCTA assumed the role of good cop in the public policy space, right? Amazing executives like Jim Mooney, Decker Anstrom, had to speak with panache and aplomb on behalf of an industry and maintain respect among members of Congress and FCC commissioners. I think my friend Steve Effros probably never felt that he had to maintain that level of respect.
SCHLEY: He had some license, yes.
STODDARD: So we were able to adopt, by hook or by crook really, the bad cop part of that equation and we were able to say things on behalf of the operating side of the business that NCTA could never say. So it was really, it was just a great place to be. During that era though we did have one amazing joint project with NCTA which was a public affairs training program. Now here’s why I mention that. During a period of three or four years working with a great training vendor in suburban Washington that at the time employed a wonderful woman named Anne Cowan who as we speak is the chief communications officer now for CTAM, great friend, a great practitioner herself. But we trained during that period of time in the early to mid ’90s, about 6,000 cable executives in the skills of corporate communications and public relations. It was a project that was funded by NCTA but contracted out to CATA to actually arrange and organize the training. And we literally sent professional trainers to markets around the country for two-day training sessions. Now the reason I mention that in this context is we weren’t training PR executives, we weren’t training corporate communications professionals, we were training system managers, we were training people that had come up through the business literally climbing poles, hanging wires.
SCHLEY: That’s what I was alluding to earlier.
STODDARD: Digging ditches, right? And building the infrastructure of the industry, many of whom were rewarded for that investment by becoming general managers in their local systems. And for the industry at that point in time that was the obvious way to go, but many, many of those people simply did not have experience and training in communications and we provided that to a lot of them.
SCHLEY: What was happening in the industry that made that important at that time? And I just want to mention the succession of companies that you worked for included Continental Cablevision, Media One, AT&T broadband, I’m missing one in the mix?
STODDARD: Well, US West Media Group in a way preceded Media One.
SCHLEY: But in terms of cable’s public posture and profile, what brought on the need for that elevated attention to public persona?
STODDARD: Well, nothing good is the answer to that question unfortunately. And this was still, I would say, in the era before I went to work for MSOs and largely during the CATA years, but in 1984 the industry was deregulated and kind of set free. That resulted, as you know, in the most amazing infusion of capital into the creation of content. What that also resulted in was spiraling prices for cable consumers. By the late 1980s that had begun to snap back on us. Something else happened in the late 1980s. The people who communicated signals to cable head ends scrambled those signals and essentially created a mechanism to stop piracy and to stop people who were watching them for free.
SCHLEY: Yanking the signals out of the sky.
STODDARD: It was known as “the year when the skies went dark” was the terminology. Remember that?
SCHLEY: I remember.
STODDARD: And one of the people that was mobilized by that was a then senator from Tennessee, Al Gore, and a Congressman from Massachusetts named Ed Markey and there were a number of people who were concerned that the elimination of those signals was a disadvantage to rural America because many people had been putting up three-meter satellite dishes to take down these open signals and watch them on their TV sets. Well, we worked through that as an industry, but that was the first hint from the public policy community perhaps of some ill will. At the same time our prices continued to spiral and we did have an era, I will say it was a sad era, when investors began to buy cable properties, cable systems, with the sole and express purpose of flipping them just to make money. So it was not unusual in a small community for an absentee landlord to come in, to buy a cable system, to hold it for maybe 18 months, probably not make much in the way of investment or enhancement, and then sell it off at a huge profit. Some of that, I believe, helped contribute to what became the Cable Act of 1992. So when we were deregulated in ’84, within eight years we were heavily reregulated. Literally price reregulated by the United States Congress. And cable, we had gone from I want my MTV, we had gone from an era that you will recall where people chased trucks down the street in their neighborhood so that they could sign up and get wired for cable, within that eight-year period we had kind of become the bad guys, right? The guys in the black hats. And it was really a very tough time. So public image turned against us.
What frustrated many of us representing the industry then was, yes, we understood all of those dynamics and I think if any of us could do it over again you would try to avoid those mistakes. Yet we were still, in huge leaps, we were wiring America. We were bringing this immense funnel of information and entertainment, we were going from 25 to 35 channels and then up to 70 and the sky was the limit. We were beginning to build the foundation for the hybrid fiber/coax infrastructure that brought us broadband. And unfortunately during that era most of that was overlooked because people were focused on these other issues that I mentioned. And then perhaps the cable horror stories that we all recall of installers who were sloppy and tracking mud into living rooms and knocking holes through walls. So it was a tough time. So all we were saying as a community of corporate communications professionals was, “Let’s deal with this head on, let’s put some positive messaging behind our efforts, let’s mobilize what we have going on at the local and national level and tell people about it. Let’s try to do a better job telling our story.”
SCHLEY: And did you? I mean is your impression that you made a difference, that you made a positive impact industrywide?
STODDARD: Yes and no. At that moment in time, man, was it frustrating. It was like banging your head against a wall. We just couldn’t fight our way out of a paper bag. And I don’t mean to be at all disrespectful of all the people running those companies, really good quality people, many of them, hundreds of them, good friends of ours now, but there were a lot of things working against us. So I felt as though for several years we were really stuck in concrete. But what helped us probably more than anything else, at the end of the day it’s never just a public relations problem. It’s never just a — much as many of us think it might be, it is never just PR, it’s never just a communications problem. In 1994, 1995, people like Dave Fellows from Continental Cablevision and Jim Chiddix from Time Warner and others were building the first ever broadband infrastructure and they gave us the ability in mid-1996 to introduce commercially high-speed internet access service. And for the first time in several decades we were no longer just a TV business anymore, we weren’t just entertainment, we were broadband. And that was a clean slate. Number one, people didn’t understand it, but once they saw it they knew they loved it, they knew they had to have it. And even in that era, it’s always hard to predict the future, but I think people, consumers, the American public, began to understand that the world was on the precipice of major change because of this new communications platform. So that is going to heaven if you’re a corporate communications executive.
SCHLEY: Finally you have substance and positive —
STODDARD: Write your own script, you could begin to put the messaging behind it and it was a very long slog to pull ourselves out of the hole, but we were aided and abetted by that broadband technology. Of course, not to stop your questions, but from there it was high speed internet access, it was high definition and advanced video, it was cable digital phone service. Amazing here in 2017 that we still serve 25 million households with landline telephone service as of today. So we were the first competitor to the old Bell companies and then of course that built the foundation for on-demand video, any time anywhere access, mobile platforms —
SCHLEY: Ever faster broadband speeds.
STODDARD: It truly was the foundation.
SCHLEY: You talked about that period of your career when all this is beginning to blossom as being exhilarating but sort of exhausting.
SCHLEY: There was a lot going on.
STODDARD: Sure, there was a lot going on. And that’s when I — absolutely the height of my career. So fortunate to have met Robert Sachs who — so there are two parts of that story. The first round Robert was on the board of directors of CATA, he was the lead lawyer for Amos Hostetter and the people at Continental Cablevision. And Robert and I got to know each other during those board sessions and round about late 1994 Robert needed to make a change in the communications structure at Continental and invited me to move back to New England, my family back to New England, return to Boston, and to put together a very modest but very significant corporate communications unit for Continental Cablevision. Little did I know how the world was going to change in the next few years because by that period of time Continental, which really was, and I don’t think this is blowing smoke, but among those of us in the industry it was kind of everybody’s favorite company.
SCHLEY: It’s like this revered cable company.
STODDARD: Totally revered because of the character of Amos Hostetter and people like Tim Neher and Ron Cooper and Bill Schleyer and people that had built the company from the ground up since the mid-1960s, too many people to mention. It was not the largest of the cable companies, TCI was in those days, but it was genuinely well-respected for its customer care, for what today we would call customer experience, which was pretty good. It did employ a David Fellows, to this day one of the best engineers and technical minds in the cable business. So Dave and his team started building this broadband infrastructure. So at the time that I joined, Amos was doing cartwheels trying to find an infusion of cash and capital to keep this broadband build going and eventually — I cannot tell his story, only he can tell that, but my understanding of it at the time was he was looking for new ways to fund that build. So literally within a year of the time I was at Continental we were looking at either doing an IPO to raise money — we came to the cusp of that. We came within 24 hours of announcing an IPO.
SCHLEY: Oh, my gosh.
STODDARD: But instead went the other way and Amos cut a successful deal with US West which was a Bell company based here in Denver in fact and sold Continental lock, stock, and barrel to US West. And while that, in the range of the next few years, had some negative ramifications for the people that grew up through that cable company, it probably kept the dream alive because it was then the funding that US West brought to the table that continued that broadband buildout. So that was an amazing period of time.
SCHLEY: The move then to NCTA occurred after this succession of MSOs that you worked for?
SCHLEY: How did you get brought in to that organization?
STODDARD: Thank you for getting me back on track.
SCHLEY: Thank you.
STODDARD: That was the second half of the Robert Sachs story.
SCHLEY: That’s what I thought.
STODDARD: I was so pleased, many of us were, that in 1999 after Decker Anstrom had had his phenomenal run atop NCTA and with people like Leo Hindery of TCI and AT&T Broadband and Amos and others leading the NCTA board of directors, that Robert Sachs was recruited to come and run NCTA. Which at that point in time had stopped being called the National Cable Television Association —
SCHLEY: I wanted to ask about that.
STODDARD: — and had rebranded itself as the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. Same acronym. So Robert found himself at the helm of a staff of about 130, 140 people, one of, I’d say with some humility, the most revered and well-respected trade associations in Washington, and felt as though he needed to make some changes at that point in time in his communications operation. He was looking for someone to take a great little communications unit and a somewhat larger public affairs team and to combine them and put them together and kind of take the best of all worlds. And he mercifully and thankfully thought of me and recruited me to return from Denver where at the time I was then — it was US West Media Group, Media One, and then AT&T Broadband. After a great run with all those companies I returned to Washington to lead communications and public affairs for NCTA. And no mean feat, I will tell you, because my not distant, almost immediate, predecessor was a woman I mentioned earlier, the great Tory Clark, Victoria Clark, who had been the press secretary for George H. W. Bush during his campaign in ’92, had been a staffer for John McCain. Tory was a political animal in every good sense of the term and worked arm in arm with Decker during the period in the ’90s when we successfully rebuilt the image of the cable industry. And I always felt, to this day I feel, as though I’m still trying to fill Tory’s shoes because of the amazing job that she did.
SCHLEY: You’ve had a remarkably sort of consistent run. You’ve been in this position for 15 years and in that 15 years you have seen the continuation of this not only wave of consolidation but this remarkable progress of the cable industry to become this essential conduit for everything. Bits and video signals and I wanted to ask you some of the impressions you’ve gleaned during your tenure at NCTA about the industry and how it’s changed and how it will continue to change. And one of them, you just mentioned it, you guys recently rebranded NCTA as the Internet and TV Assortation. Is the word cable passé?
STODDARD: Yes and no. There’s huge — that was hedging, wasn’t it?
SCHLEY: No, it’s a tough issue.
STODDARD: There’s huge debate over that. No, it is absolutely not passé, if for nothing else the fact that when you and I talk to our friends, when we go to cocktail parties, when we go to neighborhood gatherings, people will say, “I want to tell you about the new cable channel I’m watching.” Because cable shows are just amazing.
SCHLEY: We still talk about cable news, for instance.
STODDARD: We talk about cable news ad nauseum. Cable news is all over the park in terms of its impact on American society. So it’s almost the word that can’t be killed. Now, I will tell you ironically that working under some amazing CEOs after Robert Sachs, my dear friend Kyle McSlarrow, who now is employed helping manage customer experience for Comcast, and then six years so far of the incredible Michael Powell, a motivational, inspirational guy. We spent many, many years trying to come up with a successor word to cable. Now, the reason being two reasons. First and foremost, sadly, on the negative side, in some ways cable had become a pejorative as in, oh, those cable monopolists, or those lousy cable guys, right? And it’s a problem in modern marketing and modern branding that once you acquire these attributes it’s very hard to shake them. But there’s something that I believe is more salient than that and really far more important, and that is that as much as I admire and love and grew up as a cable guy, and love the word cable, as a two syllable word it no longer strictly defines what we do. It really, in my mind at least and in many others, it’s still that coaxial cable with an F connector at the end of it that screws into your wall and the other end into your television set and we certainly have transcended all of that now. So we have been all over the block at NCTA on this. In 2005 we did an exercise where we said do we still want to be called the cable association? So let’s think about alternatives. We hired some very high-priced talent to study this for us. We did coast to coast research, focus groups, everything under the sun, and the decision we made in that year was nah, it’s cable so let’s embrace it. Let’s try to breathe new life into it, let’s build some new attributes around it, and let’s use it to tell the story. So we then started living large more than ever as the cable association. In fact, our logo at NCTA became the red, blue, and green swirl with the word cable next to it. So that had a good run, but after 10 years we kind of found ourselves kind of back in the same territory. We’d only marginally succeeded at improving, I think, the image of the industry and we had a long ways to go. And at that moment in time with all of the new technologies that we’ve been discussing the simple word cable just didn’t cut it anymore. So then the alternative exercises, what is it that describes who we are and what we actually do? And that’s how we landed on internet and television.
SCHLEY: But you kept the acronym because it was brand equity.
STODDARD: We kept the acronym. I will tell you, like a lot of other companies, the acronym no longer means anything. It is not formally defined and our formal legal name is NCTA, the Internet and Television Association. We kept the acronym because we knew and we were told by members of our own board, we were told by constituents in public policy, we were told by a lot of friends over the years that they believed there was some equity in the acronym and that we could still take that to the bank, particularly in the public policy space. So what we did, I think, was, and I have to defer to the leadership of Michael Powell because really Michael drove this from day one on the job at NCTA, and finally after years of study we decided to put our heads down and move ahead. And we’re not only comfortable, we’re incredibly enthused by this brand today.
SCHLEY: I want to ask you, as one who would know, perhaps as the person who would know, what is your personal assessment of the image of the cable industry today and where is it going?
STODDARD: So I happen to be an eternal optimist for one thing. I sense so many dynamics at work, but the short answer to your question is I feel good about the image of the cable industry today and I’m honestly not just — you know, one gets defensive all of a sudden — I’m not blowing smoke. Because I know that consumers have a visceral and positive reaction to what we’re providing them. And there are some things that are starting to put us over the top and one thing that I would — this is common knowledge but the Comcast X1 box is a great example. Revolutionized the way people receive entertainment, interact with entertainment, navigate entertainment and information, voice controlled remote, you can ask it any question under the sun and get answers, the ability to use it to instantly access content that you like. I’m so fortunate, so blessed at this moment to have a four-year-old granddaughter who loves — and a two-year-old grandson, but then they love children’s programming. And you know, five years ago I would be hunting through, I’d be scrolling through the cable menu trying to find the programming that I’m looking for. Now I just pick up the remote, I speak the two or three magic words and boom, I’ve got a program.
SCHLEY: It’s a very different experience.
STODDARD: Totally different experience. And that in many ways is kind of in the vanguard of changing the image and the reputation of the cable industry. Now, having said that, at this moment, this snapshot in time, if people are watching this two, three, 10 years down the line it’ll feel like ancient history probably, but at this moment in time we are still dealing with issues around how to regulate the internet, whether the internet should be regulated. The term of art is network neutrality. We refer to it mostly as open internet. And we are now working incredibly hard to try to reposition ourselves to help consumers understand that we are in favor of an open internet. We like network neutrality. We simply don’t like the regulatory regimen that has been used in recent years to regulate the industry.
SCHLEY: It’s tough though. You have a lot of vocal people on the other side who don’t regard you as the friend of open internet.
STODDARD: They don’t and in fact, in true 2017 political tactical calculation, their approach is to demonize our industry and to once again return us to the early 1990s in terms of how they see us. And you know, I have to say, a lot of us have respect for this point of view. People who look at our industry as a gatekeeper. So it’s incumbent on us to help people understand that we are not the gatekeeper, we are the gate opener. We are opening these opportunities to them and by the way, who brought you the internet? Who gave you broadband? And which of us would be crazy enough to close the internet? That will simply never, ever happen. But we fully agree that it would be great if Congress acted and set some rules of the road that would be long term and solid going forward. So that’s all by way of saying that’s been a little bit of drag on our image, trying to work through that and overcome it, but I have great confidence that within the next few years we’ll make that happen.
SCHLEY: You described yourself as an eternal optimist moments ago, and others have described you — I can’t get away without talking about this — as the nicest guy in cable. In fact, there’s a song called “Rob Stoddard is the Nicest Guy in Cable.”
SCHLEY: Which is maybe the highest form of praise you can get from your industry colleagues. But talk about the song and why it came to be.
STODDARD: I haven’t memorized the song. I don’t know it. To the extent that it’s at all close to my heart it’s because it was written for an initiative many years ago called the Cable Follies that was staged by the phenomenal organization that many of us were active in called Cable Positive. And the Cable Follies was a fundraiser staged right here at The Cable Center in Denver every year written by, very much by a great gal named Erica Stull who’s had a long career in corporate communications and a number of other people. Some unfortunately have passed. Paul Braun from the old Time Warner. Amazing, amazing man. So I am forever in their debt, not for writing the song but for using it to raise money for AIDS research and AIDS intervention. It was critical during that era. So that was the song. The creation of the phrase — so I do truly roll my eyes because my point of view has always been I work in business, I really don’t want to be the nicest guy. I’d like to be the most effective guy. I’d like to be successful. But you know, at the end of the day I’ve embraced it. It’s a terrific brand to have. I just briefly have to tell you the story. It originated in about 1995. There were a number of us off at an annual public affairs forum of the Cable Television Public Affairs Association and there was an awards ceremony, the Beacon Awards ceremony, that typically conveyed to 50 or 60 recipients these great Beacon Awards for success in public affairs and communications. And I was incredibly lucky one evening at that ceremony to be paired at the podium in about 1995 with the great Meredith Wagner who ran communications for Lifetime during the era when it was run by Carole Black and just some amazing people. Lifetime, still great brand today, but it was really breaking through during that era initially. And Meredith and I were paired together and Meredith had been president of CTPAA, I was the incoming president of CTPAA, and we were paired together at the podium. And you know how it is when you do these awards, you create a little banter. So Meredith looked over at me at her elbow and said, “Hello, Rob, nice to see you” and I looked over and I said, “Meredith, great to see you too and may I say you look fabulous tonight.” And she paused and she chuckled and she said, “Here I am at the podium with the nicest guy in cable.” Now, that probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere except for our mutual friend, Mark Osgood Smith, who was in the audience for Cablefax who made note of the comment and reported it in a story the next day. Thus began, sadly, regrettably, thus began the legend, exactly.
SCHLEY: I want to run two more questions by you and then offer just some open-ended commentary for you. But this is a hard question because you’re always going to exclude someone, but you’ve talked about some of the more influential figures in your career. Is there anyone missing that we haven’t mentioned or someone who’s been particularly meaningful in your professional life?
STODDARD: As you point out, way, way too many to mention. I have mentioned Steve Effros. It just goes back and back and back. Judy Rudrud helped me get into the industry. Steve Effros gave me a foothold in the industry and helped me learn corporate communications, taught me a lot of life lessons as well. Robert Sachs helped me establish myself in the business part of the industry with the MSOs. Now that was an introduction to Amos Hostetter and I don’t think anyone who has ever met Amos came away thinking that he hadn’t somehow influenced them or had an impact on them for his ethics, for his integrity, for the way he looked at the world, and the fact that he is a cable entrepreneur and essentially one of the founders of the modern-day industry. And just having the confidence of Amos can do more for you than anything else in the world.
STODDARD: Yes, absolutely. And that was a huge factor. I worked for some amazing CEOs that had major influence on me, names that are now forgotten, in some circles names that are not very well thought of. Chuck Lillis who ran US West, US West Media Group, and who did the acquisition of Continental and during that sequence of events, which we won’t talk about now, but created some hard feelings, some very hard feelings among Amos and other executives over the years, yet rolled out the red carpet for me and gave me the opportunity to practice my craft in a new and enlarged company. And then to go on and to be embraced at AT&T Broadband which was phenomenal to have the chance to run public relations for that company. At MediaOne I had worked for a great female chief executive named Jan Peters who was my first great opportunity to work for a female telecommunications executive and to begin to become sensitive to and to understand many of the diversity issues in our business, for women, for people of color. And then at AT&T Broadband, again a name quickly forgotten, Dan Somers who was chief executive who had come from legacy AT&T, yet spending a year and a half working for Dan for me was like getting an MBA which I’ve never achieved, but the business education there was phenomenal. So Dan helped me understand the business and of course Mike Armstrong was running the parent company at that time, and say what you will about the foibles of Mike Armstrong, he clearly was a man with a vision that was ahead of its time. I think Mike Armstrong in 1998 foresaw what we’re living through today in 2017, but unfortunately due to the rigors of the market he was not able to achieve that vision.
SCHLEY: He understood what was coming in terms of this convergence of mediums and services?
STODDARD: Well, he was trying to create that convergence, yes, and create all these products and services that we enjoy today. And then there are other stalwarts of the industry I have to pay homage to. The great John Evans who has been kind of out of the business of running cable systems for many years, but partnered with Gus Hauser, a man who built the cable systems in Montgomery county, Maryland and Arlington, Virginia, who helped found C-SPAN along with Paul Maxwell and other — and great cable executives during that era. John over the years gave his heart and his soul to the fight against AIDS, to the work in Cable Positive, and now is the longest, as we speak anyway, the longest tenured member of the NCTA board of directors.
SCHLEY: I didn’t know that.
STODDARD: And is still incredibly active in industry affairs even though he’s essentially out of the business of cable operators. But I learned humanity from John. I was introduced to many fine people in the mid-Atlantic by him and he’s had a major influence on my career as well.
SCHLEY: Someday you’re going to hang up the cleats. I don’t know when. Hopefully it’s not soon. What will your successor be consumed with or concerned with or what do you see — just a couple of big picture issues in the future for cable.
STODDARD: So please don’t put me out to pasture right away.
SCHLEY: I’m not going there.
STODDARD: I’m having the time of my life, don’t want to turn back.
SCHLEY: OK, good, stick with it.
STODDARD: Absolutely. It’s a little hard to project five years down the line, but I think for the intermediate term my successor and others are really going to continue to struggle with how we define ourselves as an industry. It’s cliché to point out that we are undergoing another wave of consolidation, certainly on the distribution side, potentially more so in the future on the programming and content side as well. A lot of changes that are coming, a lot of changes in the works. By the types of services that we offer now and the portfolio of things that we’re doing for the American public it’s very hard to think of us as a well-defined industry right now. So I’ll say something that sounds heretical but it’s not intended to be. You know, the cable industry as we know it is ceasing to exist. The question will be, will there be a cohesive industry that we’ll think of as the cable industry in the future? And if not, what will it be? How will we describe it? Who will comprise it? And for how many more years can all of these companies work and collaborate together while they are competing against each other at the same time?
SCHLEY: Because this has been a hallmark heretofore, but in 2017 it’s impossible to know what those relationships will look like. Very different perhaps.
STODDARD: Yes, absolutely. Thus the frenemy principle, right?
SCHLEY: Motif. What is and what has been fun about your work at large?
STODDARD: So kind of left brain/right brain I guess to some extent. Intellectually, honestly, not false humility, I don’t think of myself as a real smart guy. I’ll spend a lot of time making sure I understand things so I try to make up for it that way, but in the intellectual sense it is the most gripping and compelling set of issues that I think anybody in the United States can deal with and particularly in a time of explosive growth. And it’s because we are transforming the way that people live. We are changing the way that they communicate. We had, you may recall, a few years back an advertising campaign for NCTA that proclaimed, “Cable — More than TV, it’s how we connect.” And in truth that is still happening. What we are doing is getting harder to define, but it’s clearly how people connect. So the intellectual construct, trying to get your arms around that, trying to pull it down, trying to put words around it, trying to explain it to people, that’s just pure unadulterated joy.
SCHLEY: For a communicator it’s what you want to do.
STODDARD: For a communicator or for a policy wonk or for anybody interested in global and US business. You can just get buried in that stuff. It’s great. On more of the left-brain side I would say, I hope this is right, left brain/right brain, the relationships. Again, something of a cliché in the business but time and time again so it must be true, time and time again I talk to people who say, “There’s just nothing else like it.” There are very few, if any, American industries that operate through this web of relationships and particularly, honestly, through people like you and I and tens of thousands of others that have grown up and matured and come of age through the industry. And I love the fact that I can go into any major market in the United States and I have cable friends there. I don’t have to buy friends, I don’t have to look for them, I know where they are and most of them know where I am too. So it is a godsend to have those kinds of relationships, I think.
SCHLEY: We could go on, but it has been our privilege —
STODDARD: I’ve got all day.
SCHLEY: It’s been our privilege at The Cable Center to talk to you.
STODDARD: Thank you.
SCHLEY: And it’s high time we got you behind the camera to tell a bit of your story given that you are, you have to accept this with great humility, one of the seminal figures in terms of the public posture of the cable industry in its modern era. So thank you very much, Rob Stoddard of NCTA, and for The Cable Center I’m Stewart Schley.
END OF INTERVIEW