Interview Date: December 13, 2017
Interview Location: Washington, D.C. USA
Interviewer: Seth Arenstein
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Program
Seth Arenstein: Hi, I’m Seth Arenstein. It’s December 13, 2017. We’re in Washington, DC, in C-SPAN’s studios. And we’re here for the oral history project of the Cable Center—the Hauser Oral History Project of the Cable Center—and we’re so happy to have Susan Swain, president and co-CEO of C-SPAN, with us today. This is her second interview, her second oral history, I should say. The first was done in 1999. Welcome, Susan.
Susan Swain: Thank you, Seth. It’s a good thing we are in our home turf here this morning, so I feel comfortable in my surroundings. I understand I’m interview number 39 for you on this project.
Swain: You can tell me the history of the cable industry.
Arenstein: Susan, it’s great to have you here. So from 1999, can you remember what was going on in this building? Were you in this building in 1999?
Swain: Oh, yes.
Arenstein: Was C-SPAN here?
Swain: We’re actually been in here growing over the years since I started, which was in 1982. We had a little tiny space and now we’re on three floors and we’ve got multiple studios. This has been our home for a long time. It’s right adjacent to Capitol Hill. So anytime we’ve thought about moving away, we start to think about how much distance Senators and Congressmen will have to travel to do the interviews, which is a disincentive, so we’ve stayed put and grown within our own space.
Arenstein: Right. Now the thing is of course, C-SPAN has really been growing, especially since 1999. You’ve added other networks, you have radio now, you have all kinds of things going on. You have this wonderful video library that’s available to anybody. And I know that was one of the things that you pushed for. That was one of your pet projects, let’s say. How did that all come about?
Swain: On the growth thing, actually let me just say a word about that. We’ve topped out at about 280 people and that’s been a while back, and we have not grown since then. The reason for that is that we have really tried, with our relationship with the cable industry, to stay within our means. To make sure that our service is always affordable to our affiliates, and that they won’t have an excuse, saying, “It just costs too much,” to not carry C-SPAN. So we have continued to grow, but we’ve also, like everyone else in the business, have been able to introduce new technology that means we can deploy people in other places. So we’ve added new projects, but our staff size has been stable for quite a while.
Now the video library: the video library is our entry point into the digital age. It started back in 1997 and I really had nothing to do with it. Brian Lamb is an alumnus of Purdue University. He went back in 1986 to his alma mater, spoke to the political science class and said, “You know, this network is so small, we keep having to erase our videotapes. And we’re losing all this history.” It had been started in 1979. And that’s a painful thing for us. But everyday we would look at what we covered and we put a little red dot on videotapes that needed to be saved for posterity and the rest of them got erased. That’s painful to think about, isn’t it? So one of the political science professors, Dr. Robert Browning, put his hand up and said, “I’m interested in technology. I think I can help you solve that.” And he started the first C-SPAN archives, which has been recording every moment of what we’ve done since September of 1987. The most significant thing that happened, the story that you’ll hear whenever you talk to C-SPAN people, is that it’s a story of our board of directors giving us direction, the cable industry support, and people inside the organization figuring out how to get it done. And the archives is truly an example of that. Dr. Browning built all the technology, but our board said to us at one point, because we actually gave the product for a long time to Purdue University, and it was run out of Purdue. And they said, “The digital age is coming. You need that product. Product is going to be everything. And you need to bring that back into the fold from Purdue.” Which we did—we basically bought back our archives. And then later on they said to us, “This is only going to be valuable if you digitize it.” So we digitized going forward, but we also started a multiyear project digitizing everything backward to 1987. So now we have 235,000 hours and growing every day of every single piece of American history that C-SPAN has covered, that you can sit at your computer or on your phone anywhere in the world and search and call up. It’s really a magnificent public service that was the brainchild of a lot of people, none of whom was me, Seth. But I’m so proud of it and I think it’s the most significant thing that happened, really, in our history, because otherwise we were ephemeral. We’d cover something and it would go away, and the archives has preserved this for the future and captured an important amount of American history.
Arenstein: And I’ll tell you, Susan, as a reporter, and as a C-SPAN viewer, and working as a reporter, I should say, you know, you watch something in the morning on C-SPAN, on Washington Journal, or a hearing, and then very quickly you go to your desk and there it is, available to you.
Arenstein: And you can go frontward, backward, find something right away. It’s very user friendly, and I’m sure that doesn’t happen by accident.
Swain: And then you see funny things along the way happen that makes things more useful. So government mandated closed-captioning, which was a big lift for a little organization like ours, but it meant that the video library could be completely searchable. So in the end, the merging of those two things created a product that’s eminently more useful over time.
Arenstein: It’s certainly useful.
We kind of jumped right into that, but I would like to really start with the culture of C-SPAN and what C-SPAN is. I mean, I think in my research—I’m looking back and about 1999 or somewhere in that timeframe, the idea of branding, I guess—we use this word today, I’m sure we didn’t use it back then. Branding C-SPAN as “cable’s gift to America.” Tell us about the culture, tell us about some of the rules about editing or not editing here at C-SPAN, and how you show both sides, or many sides of the political debate.
Swain: I think it’s an interesting concept, especially now, because we are living in an age with a president whose favorite expression is “Fake News.” And what we end up having created—by what I mean, the royal we—the cable industry, people who work here and the many other constituencies that helped build this place over the years—is a place where you can go to get the whole story about Washington. So if someone is saying, “I didn’t say that,” or “That’s not how it was cast,” anyone who’s interested and particularly journalists—it’s really been a boon to journalists—can go back and say, “I can watch the whole thing.” But what we really love is that any American, any person, any interested citizen can go back and say, “You know, they’re accusing the other side of this not happening. Let me watch it for myself.” The idea from the get-go here was “show the whole thing.” So we started with the House of Representatives, then added the Congressional hearings and the press conferences, conventions and then the think tanks and the things that influence Washington. But from the get-go, the mandate was always do it without editing so that the whole story is available. Now in an age when we’re all watching three seconds of Facebook video, it’s not the most exciting thing, but it is an important niche and an important public service, and our challenge is going to be preserving it in an age when people have less patience.
But I think the thing that we have done to grow our usability over time is that we look at ourselves as trying to be everywhere where people are today. So we’re on cell phones, we do podcasts. And all that excerpts portions of programming, but we do it under the C-SPAN mission, of which you alluded to, which is that we never manipulate someone’s point of view. So if we’re going to edit, we take the whole thought so that we’re true to what someone’s expression was. And then we show both sides. And that means that the D’s and the R’s and if it’s a larger case, the Greens and the Independents, get their shot at it. The importance of that, I guess, is just having a place in our political culture where people don’t just hear the majority point of view or whoever’s yelling the loudest. And I think that’s what we all ascribe to here.
Arenstein: Let us in behind the scenes. It looks very orderly when we watch it on television. People on the Right, the Left, as you said, maybe Independents and Greens. But what’s going on behind the scenes? I mean, are there calls from either side saying, “You’re too to this side, you’re too to that side.” What happens? And is that good for you, when you’re getting calls, does that mean, “We’re doing our job?”
Swain: Every one of our units, whether it’s the Washington Journal or the people who select the shoots during the day, all of our Communicators programs, Newsmakers, all of those folks keep records of who they have on. And we make sure we check against them. Our video library is also a really good honesty-maker because anybody can go back and check that we’ve been fair to all parties when we cover things. So everybody understands that the goal is to, if one week you have a D and maybe have two D’s in a row, well, the next couple of times you’re going to see some R’s there. The nature of what we do is we’re covering individual events. They are by their nature, they’re going to generally have a point of view. But we always look for alternative points of view. So there are discussions that go on at the editorial table, which meets everyday to decide where we allocate our camera resources. Then social media—the calls have always been part of our network. So from the get-go we’ve always opened ourselves up to praise and criticism right there live on the air. And every host has always experienced someone calling up and saying, “You’re biased.” But then two calls later, you’ll get somebody that will say, “I watch you too and I don’t see that.” So I do experience this as a journalist. If you feel that you can defend your editorial decision, then you are on the right path. There will always be people who disagree.
Social media has been a game-changer in this because people are screaming at you all the time. It’s really the nature of the beast on Twitter. And you can find all kinds of people who are yelling about this decision or that. But our defense is always to them: you’re looking at it through the lens of one decision on one day. And we’ve got twenty-four hours times three going on here. So if we can’t stand the test across that broader spectrum, then we are in trouble.
Arenstein: So in 1999—you just mentioned the times three. In 1999, what did C-SPAN look like in terms of numbers of networks, do you remember—you’ll have to look at your timeline.
Swain: I do have to look things up because I’m remembering when we launched things. In 1986, the Senate went live on C-SPAN 2 so we had that—C-SPAN 3 was a little evolutionary. And C-SPAN 3 is a great testament to our board of directors because the board said to us, “You need to be in the digital space. It’s evolving. So start that network and over time, we will add it as we can.” So C-SPAN 3 came along—if I can find it here—it’s somewhere in that vicinity, 1999-2000 that we launched it. It started as a part-time service and we called it “C-SPAN Extra” in 1997, and as C-SPAN Extra. And then we moved it to C-SPAN 3. Don’t you love our naming system here? You know, it comes from Lafayette, Indiana. Which we always laugh because if you go visit Lafayette, which is where Brian Lamb was born and raised, if you’re on the street by the river, it’s called River Road. If you’re on the street where the markets used to be, it’s Market Street. So he brought that naming sensibility to this place and we name everything exactly what it is. C-SPAN 1, C-SPAN 2, C-SPAN 3, Washington Journal, Call-In Program—I mean, call it as you see it. But any other fancy name for the network probably wouldn’t have flown anyway. It made things simple for us.
Arenstein: What about things like BookTV? Tell us what BookTV is.
Swain: BookTV was an evolution. It started actually with Booknotes, which was Brian’s interview program. We got into the book space as a way to talk about politics and history with a different lens. And there are all these books and now you see every presidential candidate: how did they launch their candidacy? They write a book, they write their biography, or they write their story about their world view. And this was obvious to us twenty years ago. So Brian began now thirty years ago with Booknotes interviews. And one author a week, for one hour, and a set just like this with a black background, and the rule that he had was you could only go on one time. Well, it’s kind of limiting isn’t it because there are some fabulous writers out there who write multiple books, right? So we realized that there was more to cover there. So we started it as a small block on the weekends called About Books, and it was on Saturday nights, maybe three hours, and just to see if there was enough out there to cover. And we quickly found, yeah, there’s a lot going on. So we launched it as a 48-hour block on the weekends. And its 20th anniversary is coming up next year
I think we’re all really happy about the book space because I think for awhile people were predicting the demise of books and I’m not suggesting we had anything to do with helping to preserve the medium. But we certainly created a place where people who care about books could congregate in the media. And then we started covering book festivals, and the nice thing is, there are more and more book festivals popping up around the country that we can go to. It is a different audience by and large than probably watches political and public affairs programming. They may only watch BookTV. And it’s an intellectual feast. So if you spend fifteen minutes listening to an author interview and you’re going to a dinner party with your friends, you can sound like you’re informed on the latest thing coming out from your favorite author. So it’s a way to stay connected. I think we continue to try and figure out how we can grow that space a little. The book festivals connect us with people. Now that writers are in social media, we’re trying to expand our reach in social media through that. Since this is going for posterity, I’m going to tell you that we’re going to do a special project next year that we’re going to take our InDepth program and violate the mission just a little by doing a non-fiction writer—excuse me, fiction writers. But they’re all fiction writers who do the kind of research, I mean historical fiction.
Arenstein: Historical fiction.
Swain: But these guys often, guys and women, often have huge readerships. And so what we’re trying to do is bring more people into the BookTV fold. So that will be a fun project to work on.
Arenstein: So we’ve talked about the fact it’s not just C-SPAN, there are a couple of different networks going on. So there’s something called “History TV,” or American History TV, Susan. I know you wanted to talk about that. And we mentioned during our talk about books, we talked a lot about books, and you’ve actually written a book and you’ve been a co-author of a book. Talk about some of that.
Swain: Well, the books came directly out of Brian’s Booknotes program. So we work with a publisher now, Perseus Books in New York City. Peter Osnos, who was a Washington Post reporter, was the publisher and came to us and said, “I think there’s a book in those interviews.” It ended up being five books of Brian’s Booknotes interviews. We also did one specialized on Abraham Lincoln, because he had done so many interviews about Abraham Lincoln. And we also did one that was called Sundays at Eight, which was Brian’s best interviews from both Booknotes and his successor program called Q & A. My job in all of those was to be the editor. Brian did the interviews, so he produced the original content. My job was to form it into book form and then I would have a small team, two other people who would work with me that would make transcripts of all of these things and edit them into chapters and decide how the book would go. It was really fun to work on. It’s really a neat thing. Here I am working in television so every day we see the product we create. But it’s a really neat thing to walk into a bookstore and see a book on the shelf that you’ve helped to produce. There’s a permanence about that that is really special. You go into the Library of Congress for all time. So we have done all of the Booknotes books and the ones that I’ve mentioned, and then I got to do one out of a project that I was involved in. We did a yearlong biography series of the First Ladies. And the First Ladies have really interesting stories. There’s a whole group of them in the middle that nobody knows anything about, and there’s no records of them, which is a statement on women’s worth in society that these women at the pinnacle of society had no records. That’s another point. But we did manage to do a program about each one of the 45 women who by then had occupied the White House in some capacity, either as Thomas Jefferson’s niece or some of the daughters of First Ladies—of Presidents, rather—who served. We produced a book out of that a year after. And then I got to go on a book tour, which was really lots of fun. So books have been one of our ways to be everywhere where people are. So it’s been another great marketing tool. We’ve tried to do this also with the C-SPAN traveling bus. This is a place with a very small marketing budget and any way that we can get in front of people that’s unique and different, and books have certainly been a part of that. I don’t know if we have—we’ve got another one up our sleeve. We’re doing a history book of the U.S. Senate that’s going to complement our next history program. It’s a beautiful photographic coffee table book. And then we do small books, like with our Landmark Cases project. We’re doing a complementary book that has in written form the summaries of each one of those cases. And we’ve sold 4,000 of those. The last series, we’ve actually only had permission from the publisher to do 4,000. So we sold them all out and I’m sure we’ll do it again because people want to learn. The people that watch this network really want to learn.
Swain: So that’s been great.
American History TV: So it’s logical, when you are in a place that covers politics, to say, “Has this ever happened before?” And the great comfort of history is knowing that things have happened before and the republic has stood. You know, really, the republic still stands. And so, history has always been of great interest to us, and we did it sporadically. But back in 2011, we decided to make a commitment to 48 hours every weekend on C-SPAN 3. It also gave us another story to tell about C-SPAN 3, which has always lagged behind in subscribers. So we have two messages to carry to affiliates about why you should put it on your system. But it’s also given us a home for constant exploration of the American story. One of the most popular things we do on it—and it’s also our most popular podcast—is Lectures in History. And it’s a very simple concept. We’ve identified history professors all across the United States and say, “Give us your master class. And we’ll bring cameras in.” So anybody that follows that, it’s just this constant education from the finest universities in the country of a historian’s master class. And I’m not surprised that it’s popular. But we also go to museums and to archives. One of the really neat things, we have a producer that works all the time on diving into the government’s archives, and finding interesting audio and video from the archives—that there’s been thousands of people involved in preserving, but really doesn’t see the light of day. And we’re putting it on television as timepieces of the American story: how it looked through the lens in 1945 or something. They’re fascinating to watch.
Arenstein: Talking about all of this, the First Ladies, American History. Two silly questions, but I want to ask them. Who’s your favorite or most interesting First Lady? And what period of American history is your favorite?
Swain: Well, you’d have to really compliment Dolly Madison, and I’d also say, it’s hard for me between her and Abigail Adams, who’s so important.
Arenstein: Yes, I would have said that, too.
Swain: So important. The one thing that she did, which we understood the full scope of, is the letters that she wrote to John Adams, all preserved in Boston, in their archives. As we talked about it, there are a whole raft of First Ladies that’s there’s no history preserved. Some of them ripped up the letters that they wrote to their husbands. Abigail and John preserved every one of them and they become the only real written record of what life was like in Revolutionary American time, especially for women. So such an important thing she did in preserving that. Plus she was pretty feisty in making her opinion known, and really carried the home fort while John was off doing government service all the time.
Arenstein: Exactly. Putting together the country.
Swain: I mean, there was war raging around their homestead in Boston, and she managed to keep the Adams home together. And Dolly Madison was just, you know, a character. She lived through many decades. She was an important point in diplomacy. We all know what she did in preserving the White House when the British burned it. But also she was flamboyant. And she got women involved in politics and allowed them to talk about it in salons in ways that wasn’t possible before.
So I guess that period of time is so interesting and important because it’s the founding period. But I do like some of the First Ladies who were in the early 1920s. So, Grace Coolidge, interesting story that she has. Florence Harding. Florence Harding was really ahead of her time. She had been a newspaper publisher, really interesting. The Hardings made the first connection between Hollywood and Washington, which has been an ongoing story since then. She showed movies in the White House, brought stars in on the campaign trail, so very modern in her own way, and unfortunately didn’t live out the full term. But a real big personality, and was really responsible for her husband getting into the White House in the first place by pushing his career along. So, you could get me started on First Ladies and I can go for too long. But I think what’s wonderful about them is that they are a reflection of women’s changing roles in American society through the years. And that’s been a fun story to be able to tell through the prism of their lives.
Arenstein: Right. And is there a particular historical period that you like?
Swain: I’ve actually been doing more of a deep dive right now into very recent history. I’ve been interested in Vietnam history. I just finished reading the Richard Nixon biography that John Farrell wrote. And that was an early, but very formative period of my own life, but I wasn’t enough interested in politics that I understood all the pieces in play. I’ve really appreciated going back. I have a family member who is a Vietnam veteran, and was actually a prisoner of war. So it’s a family story for us that I was a little too young to appreciate. Now that I have the chance to go back and look at it through slightly older eyes, and learn about the cross-currents that were going on around the country when I was young—I mean, I’m of the age where the guys I knew had draft numbers every year. So it affected all of our lives. And understanding a little bit more about the power plays going on at the national and international levels is interesting to learn about.
Arenstein: You know, you talk about the people here and you talk about books. But tell us about the people who work here. I recall, oh, maybe five or ten years ago, you had a party for people who had started in the early years of C-SPAN, and are still here.
Swain: What we actually do, Seth, is every couple of years we have a 25th anniversary party for staff. So we started in 1979, so our 40th is coming up. But Brian Lamb and Jana Fay have been here since the very beginning. But we’ve got a sizable percentage, we probably have 18, 20 people who’ve been here almost since day one. Myself included. Kathy Murphy, Terry Murphy, Roxane Kerr, Peter Kiley, Bruce Collins, Richard Fleeson our fabulous chief engineer, and I’m starting to name names and that’s always dangerous. But there’s a group of us who have kind of been here and helped to grow the place. But there’s a large majority of our staff who’ve been here at least ten years and longer, and I think that—
Arenstein: That’s got to be a point of pride for you.
Swain: Oh, sure. First of all, it’s a great place to work. When people come to visit, when you’re walking them out the door, they always say to you, “You know, this place just feels healthy, happy. Like people enjoy being here.” We work long days and there’s always stress in producing television and we’ve got deadlines like everybody else, but I think we’ve managed to create an atmosphere in the organization where people are here because they believe they’re doing something—you know, it’s a “white hat” organization, you’re doing something to help society as a whole and we get to do it in a really interesting space: television, radio, podcasts and the like. So I think that’s what contributes to the longevity. Here on the edge of technology, in the capital city, watching national and world events going on in front of you and yet doing it in an environment where people aren’t cutting each other’s heads off in the control room while it happens. And that’s a good thing.
Arenstein: Now what about the future? If you look on most of the channels around, you know, you would flip around, you would see people cutting each other’s heads off. I mean, they live for that it would seem. And maybe to the detriment of really reporting good news. Not good news, but important news. Important stories—it’s more of the hole, not enough of the donut.
Arenstein: What’s the future for, as you say, people who like books and even historical fiction, and people who want to watch an entire House Armed Services Committee hearing on base closures or something like that. Where do you see C-SPAN and serious kinds of journalism fitting in down the road?
Swain: Right. Well, the best thing our board of directors did at the very, very beginning was decide to make this a not-for-profit organization. So we never had to deliver eyeballs to advertisers. Now in the digital age, while we don’t know who’s watching our television networks, we certainly can follow and do track how many people are on our website, how many people are listening to podcasts. So that has put a little healthy dose of awareness and competition into a nonprofit organization that’s good for us. There are many, many people in our space in a place where you look back at 1999, our threshold year for this conversation, people thought, long-form public affairs, who’s doing that? Now every single news website you go to—Washington Post, Politico—they’re carrying the big hearings for people who want them. And ironically, using our pool coverage that we provide on Capitol Hill, which is probably a story for another day. So there’s a lot of competition in that space. Competition is healthy and good for an organization. The fact that we’re a nonprofit means that we can for the most part keep on producing long-form public affairs programming, but we want to do a service that’s useful and we also have to get paid for it. So I think the longer challenge to us is what’s happening with the cable television industry. Right now our board tells us and we can see trends where cord-cutters and cord-nevers are impacting the industry in the low single digits. If that plateaus, we’ll all be fine. If it’s a huge trend that gets to a really low number and most viewing is done on individual choice basis, that’s a big challenge for us because our funding model is all linear television carriage. And we don’t know the answer to that, I have to tell you. But we have been guided for such a long time by people who believe in this organization and believe that what it does is important that I have ultimate faith that we’ll all figure it out together. In the interim, we’re building the infrastructure that we are where everybody wants to be. Now we’re not going to go direct-to-consumer because that breaks the funding model with the cable industry. We would never want to do that. But we can be in the consumer space. We are on cell phones, but we’re in the so-called walled garden of the cable companies and their “TV Everywhere” offerings. But we’re also available a bit on Facebook, a bit on YouTube with our political coverage that’s ubiquitous. So we want to be important to people in order to preserve the franchise and provide a useful public service and do that in a thoughtful way and we can because we’re not facing that competitive pressure every day.
Arenstein: OK. You just mentioned all the different kinds of coverage. There’s a story, there’s a particular story I know we wanted to talk about. In 2016, when the cameras were turned off in the well of, across the street, tell us about that.
Swain: Sure. One sort of backstory to that is over our history, every time we’ve had the opportunity to ask for access on behalf of the American public with our cameras, we have done that. So every time there’s been a new Speaker, we’ve written a letter to the new Speaker asking, can we put our own cameras in the chamber? The House and Senate chamber are the last two places really on Capitol Hill where the cameras are still government-run. The answer has always been “no” to that by every Speaker. They want to preserve that government view and not have any of their members perhaps have shots that they’re not happy with. So that’s a non-productive conversation, but one that we are going to keep having.
Likewise, we’ve written to every incoming Chief Justice, asking for cameras in the Supreme Court. We’ve petitioned—during the Obama Administration, to cover the healthcare hearings, which he talked about on the campaign trail. So our history has been one of trying to knock down doors for access. The particular incident that happened was the protest on the House floor by House Democrats. And what the Speaker, Paul Ryan, did was shut down the cameras. And the Democrats, duly elected representatives of the people, continued on the floor of the House. And the lights were on, by the way. (And that becomes an important sidebar.) So what happened is our producers were watching all this—we track a lot of Members’ social media feeds—and we began to see that some of the Members were putting it on Facebook, or putting it on Twitter. And so we had a discussion here, the producers—Terry Murphy, our vice-president of programming, and myself—“Shall we do this? Because if we do, we’re going to be with it till the sit-in is over. You can’t start this process and not carry it through.” And we decided that when duly elected representatives were on the floor of the House of Representatives, it’s well within our responsibility as journalists to let people see that. So we had to work with our technology folks here to figure out how to get that signal from Twitter and Facebook onto our networks and you know their bandwidth would always get interrupted, so we’d have to switch between feeds all the time. But we did it all overnight until the next morning until the sit-in ended. And there was a great big rally on the Capitol on grounds—I don’t know if you went to that. But I walked down about 11:00 at night to watch all the people out there.
The Speaker was not happy. There was some suggestion that credentials to cover Congress would be reviewed. And I understand that he would be a bit peeved with us about that. We heard from their press spokesperson that what we did was outside the rules of coverage. But I would do it again and frankly, here’s the part I wanted to tell you. Two years earlier, there had been a similar thing with the Democrats in charge, and Nancy Pelosi turned off the cameras, but she also turned off the lights. It was also earlier in bandwidth transmission of cellphone pictures, but there were some Republican members who were transmitting from within the chamber and we picked that up then, too. So equal opportunity coverage is the point I wanted to make.
Arenstein: Let’s get a little personal. If you were able to put a camera somewhere in the political process, and let’s open it up to dinners at Congresspeople’s homes when they’re talking to lobbyists, they’re talking to potential funders. The cloakroom of the House or the Senate. Conferences between the Supreme Court Justices. Where would you, Susan Swain, want to put a camera?
Swain: Well, I do believe that people need to have some space to be able to discuss things. And it’s important to the political process. So I really wouldn’t want to be in the cloakroom, I wouldn’t want to be in their dinner parties. I also think the conference of the Supreme Court understandably, where the real arguments happen, would be very different if there was a camera in there. But the easy answer is, I think all of us here fundamentally believe and continue to argue that those 75 Supreme Court oral arguments every year should be open to the public. People can sit in the courtroom and listen to them. They put them on the Internet in audio form at the end of the week. We should be able to let the public see those, and we still cannot. I don’t see a time in the immediate future when it’s going to change. So that’s the most important answer because look at how many instances that we’ve seen of how the Supreme Court impacts our lives on a daily basis. The importance of that institution has become so clear in the past maybe ten years or so with the big cases in front of the Court. And we should be able to hear those arguments.
So we do the best thing we can. Only C-SPAN would do this, but we put the whole hour oral argument audio on air on Friday afternoon when the Court makes it available. So it’s several days old in that case, already been reported upon. We put still pictures [with the audio]—it’s terrible television, but it gets the job done.
Arenstein: Speaking about audio only, I live here in the DC area and I’ve been a longtime listener of C-SPAN radio. Now you can get it on Sirius-XM, I believe. You can get it all across the country. But when I talk to a lot of people from out of DC, and I say, “I listen to it on C-SPAN radio,” they don’t really know what I’m talking about, all of them. But some of the things that you put on there, like conversations that LBJ had with people on—just listening to it on the radio, not great audio. Of course on the radio there are no pictures. They’re fascinating.
Swain: C-SPAN Radio is something that stands apart from C-SPAN television because the medium is so different. I took a lot of communications classes in college and Marshall McLuhan was a big theorist in the 1970s and 80s, and he always used to say “the medium is the message,” and television was a cool medium and radio was a hot medium. Well, what does that mean? We learned what it means here when we were thinking about doing the radio station. So as we were preparing for it, we were trying to experiment with how would we I.D. people, how do we do it without interrupting? We made some sample tapes and we were all going to get together and listen to different styles of I.D.ing, and I realized that hot medium thing when we all sat around the table and the first thing that came up was, “Wait a minute. How did that event end?” Because it was really interesting and we cut it off. Because we were just doing a sample. People were into it and they’re into it because when you listen with your ears and your eyes are not engaged, your brain works. Television, you could have it on in the background and never do anything, but radio is an involving medium. So a lot of the events we cover translate very differently when you’re listening on radio. For me, I listen—it takes forever to get here in the morning and get home at night—I listen to C-SPAN Radio and things that I’ve had on at my desk on television, I’m suddenly realizing I can really understand somebody’s point of view or see how passionate somebody is about something by their tone of voice. So radio is really important. By the way, all of your friends that live around the country can get it because it’s an audio app, a free audio app. And we have C-SPAN Radio and the audio from all three of our channels plus podcasts so there’s lots of information. And it makes Washington portable. And there are times that you really want to know. So for example, we’re talking at a time when they’re redoing the whole tax code. It’s going to affect absolutely everybody. And if you care about that and you want to listen, you can be at work or if you have a weekend house, or you’re away, you can listen to the debate on your phone. So you don’t have to miss it if you don’t want to now because of technology even if you’re far away from the television set.
Arenstein: You’ve interviewed so many people, and I’m thinking about—you know, you’re talking about the Supreme Court. I remember a program you did. I don’t know if it was at the Supreme Court—it might have been—that you hosted. It was fab—you had a lot of the Justices.
Swain: We had all of them. That was one of the wonderful things we’ve done. Mark Farkas is our executive producer for our special programs. We’ve done so many of them. We’ve done American presidents, we did the First Ladies series, we did landmark Supreme Court cases which we’re about to do a second season of. And we did the Capitol, the White House and the Supreme Court. The program you’re thinking of, is we did a history of the Supreme Court building, which was our entrée, because the Justices themselves will never sit down for interviews to talk about cases. They don’t want to be quoted on case law because they think it might suggest a point of view when they argue. But we could engage them in the history of the Supreme Court, the creation of the building, and so we managed with Mark’s perseverance to get every living justice, current and retired, there were eleven at the time—everybody but Gorsuch—and they all sat down for interviews. I did six of those, and if you want to ask of all those thousands of interviews, I’d say that experience was the most compelling. To sit down with the Chief Justice for 45 minutes, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas—they’re all so very different, but they’re all so smart. And their awareness and knowledge of history, really impressive. That was really—not many people have had an experience like that. I feel very fortunate to have done it.
Arenstein: Another question that I’ve always wanted to ask you about: being on-camera, but also being off-camera. How do you mesh those two?
Swain: Well, I think it’s the thing that’s kept me so interested in my job. The fact that from the very beginning, probably six weeks after I started here, I was doing on-air television. But as my management responsibilities grew, sometimes it was harder. In fact, I stopped doing the morning Washington Journal because I was doing it two times a week and getting up at 3:30 in the morning and it was killing my circadian rhythms, I’ve got to tell you. I did it for ten years and then it’s just, a) I was getting older, and b) I was tired a lot during the week and I just couldn’t afford that any longer. So now I’m do special projects and I do a weekly Newsmakers program. I miss those callers in the morning, but my sleep patterns are much better.
So I think it’s what’s kept me interested because I’m always having to stay abreast of what’s going on. I wish everybody who ran television networks could actually work in television. Because often you find when you move in management, you get away from the things that brought you into the business in the first place. So I still get to make television, do television. I love that. But at the same point, I’m working with all the folks here in a very different role. The producers are my boss when I’m doing it. I take direction from the technical people when my mike’s in the wrong place, or I’m not looking at my camera as I forget that all the time. So I get to interact with people as they’re doing their daily jobs. It makes me a better manager. I can have conversations that are different from sitting in my office. So it’s worked on so many different levels and it’s been the very best thing about my job over the years.
Arenstein: I would also have to say getting up at 3:30 in the morning, I’ve noticed about your interviewing style in the way you run a program, both on television but also live. You’re so well-prepared. You’re so well-prepared.
Swain: I think it’s “always prepared.” I think that’s the thing—we stay ready all the time because we have all this content coming in. So if anything, I never shut it off. I think maybe that’s the bigger problem in my life. Put the phone down, stop reading the Twitter feed.
Arenstein: All right. This is sort of a segue to talk about two people I know you wanted to talk about. We mentioned Brian Lamb, we’ll also mention Rob Kennedy. For my money, I’ve seen Brian Lamb interview obviously politicians but I’ve also seen him interview Shaquille O’Neal. And he’s such a good interviewer. Did you learn a lot from him?
Swain: Oh, absolutely. But we also translate that to all the people who work on the air here. There’s a C-SPAN style that it’s important to note. I mean, we’re not doing the “gotcha” interviews. We go in saying, “What can we learn from this person and how can we have the conversation in such a way that they’ll reveal it.” So that they’re not feeling like they’re about to get attacked. And I think really letting them tell their stories, not interrupting. Brian’s got a classic one that I think went on for one answer, 18 minutes. You’ve got to have patience, both to sit as an interviewer and listen to that as a viewer. But that tells you a lot about that person’s mind, how it works, connecting one thought to another. And it’s not for everybody what we do here. But it is a distinct C-SPAN approach to interviewing.
I think the other thing that really guides Brian’s and mine and I hope the other people here: we’re really interested in people and what makes them tick, how they think, why they got involved in the subjects and a great thing to do is always to find members of Congress who have sponsored legislation about something that they’re really passionate about, that gets them away from the party line. And bring them in to talk about that. And then you can get to the other things, but find what animates them as a human being. Because most of them are here for a purpose. There’s something that brought them into politics in the first place.
Arenstein: And I know you wanted to talk about your partner for many, many years here at C-SPAN, Rob Kennedy, who we’ve done an oral history with.
Swain: I know. So we can invite anybody who gets this far in this conversation to go find Rob’s interview in the Hauser Oral History Project.
Arenstein: It’s a good one.
Swain: And Brian’s also.
Rob and I have a great partnership. We’ve been working together for such a long time, thirty years, my goodness, thirty-plus years. And in different capacities over the years. But we’ve been essentially running the day-to-day operations now for quite a long time. But our interests are different, our personalities are very different, but we really respect each other so much. I think it’s—I hope he feels the same way—but I think it’s really been a great blessing to have a partner who you respect enormously, whose big mantra is, “I’m never going to undercut you, I’m never going to surprise you. So I’ll tell you things you need to know, I’m not going to bother you with a lot of details on things that I’m working on that aren’t in your wheelhouse, and I’ll make sure you have the information that you need to do your job well.” Plus, we like each other. Our offices have been right next to each other for a really long time. We’re old enough to remember that old commercial with the medicine cabinet where people are in their side-by-side apartments and they would open them and talk to each other. Well, Rob and I can just talk in a little louder voice. And the nice thing is, they put us in a hallway all the way by ourselves, so we can do that. So if you happen to be wandering down there at 4:00 in the afternoon like yesterday, I’m like, “Rob, have the results from Alabama started coming in yet?” You know, Rob is watching them at his desk and answers me back. Or, “Gosh, what’s the name of the hotel we used for such-and-such project?” So, you know, we’ve been working together for such a long time, we’ve got that great relationship, but we also bring different things to the table.
We’re not social friends; we don’t see each other on the weekends, but, gosh, we’ve spent a lot of time together over the years and we rarely have disagreements that I can even think of on the direction of this place, and we both care so much about preserving it for the future. That’s the important thing.
Arenstein: Let’s talk about the future and what the cable industry looks like in the future. What does it look like in the future, do you think?
Swain: Well, I’m certainly not wise enough to know what’s going to happen with the big MSOs as they move more and more towards broadband subscriptions. And we move more towards IPTV. I don’t know, our board members, the ones who run the biggest MSOs, have told us the video package model is going to be around for a long time. I gotta hope that, right, with the kind of place that we work at here. But clearly, people are interested in watching what they want to watch when they want to watch it. We all kind of want to do that; not be beholden to program executives who are deciding what goes on when. And we want to access them on the devices we want to watch. The industry is filling that niche with a lot of competition, frankly. I think the biggest challenges really are less in the infrastructure part because the players are going to figure that out and deliver. And the programmers have the huge challenge. You might know that I’ve been privileged to serve on the Discovery board, and as a commercial company, they’re facing the same kind of challenges that everybody is, from Amazon, from Netflix, from Facebook, Apple, and those are really deep-pocketed organizations. And the competition for talent and also the competition for programming is fierce. So I’m fairly comfortable in my little niche here where there is not a lot of people who are trying to undercut us in long-form coverage of Congress.
So the world is going to be really different, I think, and re-align itself over the next decade on the content front. But what an age of content! Nobody can ever even find all this stuff that’s out there, let alone think about—anything you can think of to watch—to let alone all the individuals who are producing things and putting it on platforms like YouTube. So, it’s a real golden age for content, isn’t it? But you can only guess that in the big producers, the chess pieces are going to be aligning differently over the next decade.
Arenstein: What’s cable’s legacy, do you think?
Swain: Well, it democratized the access to content and it also democratized the content production through technology. In the initial age, that was getting all of the channels up on satellite. It broke the monopoly that the Hollywood studios, that New York City had on Americans’ tastes, on what people could watch and when they could watch it. And began to produce so much content so that it allowed people who could never have access to those fiefdoms before to create content and make it available. The next wave, of course, is now the digital age, and the age of IP, and that has further democratized it because anybody with a cellphone can create content and things can go viral. So we’re on a whole new age, but once again, it’s the broadband that the cable industry created that’s allowed that to happen. It has been globally, but particularly in this country, a great democratizer and it has fundamentally changed society.
Arenstein: OK. You told us what one of the great experiences for you was talking to the Justices. What do you feel your personal legacy, or what do you hope your personal legacy is?
Swain: Not something I much think about. I would say that all of us here—I haven’t mentioned the other constituencies and I want to say a word about them because it has been a real story, and it’s kind of a little Horatio Alger story in a way. A guy from Indiana has that idea to televise the House, and a group of capitalists, frankly, who are wanting to build a big infrastructure say, “I’m going to help you do that.” So we’ve got people like John Evans, who helped us get the signal out of here for the first time. Frank Drendel, he helped us with fiber and gave us the first equipment to do live hearings. Bob Rosencrans, who brought other people to the table. John Saeman, who helped us with creating a business infrastructure, as did Jack Frazee. I mean, I could go on with all these founding fathers of our network who were the first wave. But it’s also the story of journalists, and it’s a really important story. A lot of journalists care a lot about this place, and over the years, they have contributed their intellectual capacity by coming and doing our interviews for free. All these years, you know, you get a coffee mug when you’re on C-SPAN. And that’s it. But that’s been enormously important. Writing stories about us. Keeping us in the mix is so important because there’s too much information, and unless we’re in front of people, we’ll be out of their frame of reference. And journalists have been really important. There have been many people in the cable television industry besides our founding fathers and board chairs and board members. The heads of the NCTA over the years who make a point, every year when there was a convention, to talk about us. Barbara York, who would get us prime convention space on the floor when there were thousands of dollars competing for that, so we could be there. Jadz Janucik would get us on panels in front of state legislators. There’s a whole team of people, you know, from the early days of the Cable TV Public Affairs Association. They were the people doing press relations at the MSOs who cared about us as a concept and helped us in our organizations. And then also viewers, because they have been passionate about keeping us on and if somebody messed with the signal, they would be loud enough to have, you know, help us get restored in those cases. Have participated in our call-in programs. Have been part of our contests over the years—all that sort of thing. So it’s been each of these constituencies working together because they really honor the fact that this place has brought the political process to the public. And the public can decide if they want to watch it or not. And probably only small numbers really do, but you know, my great metaphor for this place, stolen from a cable trade reporter, is that it is like church. There are some people that are going to go religiously, and some people who are only going to go when things are a mess. And so the infrastructure is here with C-SPAN, so that if you really are worried about something happening in Washington, you know it’s here for you to watch. And all of those constituencies have helped build it. And one last one: the people in the control room behind us, that are working on it, and all the folks working in our place around here—it’s been a real story of building together, figuring out the technology that’s contributed to what C-SPAN is.
Arenstein: Sort of a microcosm for the whole industry, isn’t it?
Swain: Yes, absolutely.
Arenstein: Susan, it’s been a pleasure.
END OF INTERVIEW