Interview Date: Wednesday April 25, 2001
Interview Location: Philadelphia, PA
Interviewer: Marlowe Froke
Collection: Hauser Collection
FROKE: The date is the 25th of April, 2001, and we’re in Philadelphia, well, just east of Philadelphia to talk to Jacob Trobe. Hi, Jake. How are you?
TROBE: It’s good to see you, Marlowe. It’s an honor to have you as my interviewer. I’ll try to behave.
FROKE: We’re visiting in his living room at 3300 Darby Road, which is in one of those beautiful sections of Pennsylvania that people drive through both as tourists and then Jake and his wife have an opportunity to live here on a regular basis. Jake, you’ve lived a long time; you’re 90 years, right?
TROBE: I’m going to be 90 in October.
FROKE: Good lord! Excuse me.
TROBE: Excuse me. The cookie crumbled well for me.
FROKE: And you look better than I do.
TROBE: I don’t know. It isn’t that kind of a contest.
FROKE: This is another in the series of video histories for The National Cable Television Center and Museum, and it’s being produced in association with Comcast, and we’re grateful for Tony Small, who is the producer-director, and his assistant producer-director is Angelo Parker, and they’re here in the living room with Jacob as well as myself. Jake, you put together what undoubtedly is the most extensive audio and video history of people in the electronic communications field, and I think it probably even draws further than that. You began it probably about 15-20 years ago. You’ve got all of the great people from broadcasting, film, cable television, news magazines, the internet group that is there, the satellite and so on. How in the world did you get the idea to begin this very, very significant historical series and how did you go about getting it done?
TROBE: Well, let me say my wife doesn’t permit me to say anymore I’m the most surprised guy in the world – I am surprised, that’s honest. You’re talking to a shy kid from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, but remember now I’m going to be 90, I lived through the birth of radio. I didn’t have a crystal set but we were tuned in. That’s number one. Number two, I had always an interest in communication whether it be from the art of good conversation or high definition television, which I don’t have which I’ve seen a demonstration of. When I retired, very simply everybody said, “Jake, you’ll be a basket case. You don’t play golf, you don’t play anything, you don’t do anything.” I said, “No. Instead of reading New York Times an hour a day I’ll read it four hours a day.” “What are you going to do next?” “I’m going to read the magazines on stuff I know nothing about, read them, etc.” They’d say, “Oh, that’s good for six months, then what are you going to do?” I said, “Listen, if I can’t grow up to be mature,” this is when I’m 66, “then I’ll have one project – to make Jake Trobe mature.” I started this game, interesting, because my early interests, as a nine-year-old boy, or ten-year-old boy, used to in Presidential elections go to the local publisher in this small town and he had a big window, and the publisher himself would put up on chalk what he got on the ticker tape. I think it was the election of KDKA doing 1920, okay? I would have been nine. That started a lifetime interest. So when I retired, a journalist was running… we were at the New School, we were teaching each other, no outsiders permitted. So I sat around for about six months and he said, “Why don’t you write a paper.” I said, “Well, okay.” I did a program on the history of radio in America – the economic history, the cultural history, the bucks in it, who was in it, etc., etc. I’m legally blind so I can read notes but I don’t read from manuscript, but at 45 minutes he was pleased, I was pleased, and the next season he said, “This goes back 25 years.” He says to me, “How about another paper?” I said, “Yeah. I’ll do the same thing with television.” Well, I did that and that worked fine, and then I said to myself – we were beginning to go to Europe for vacation, we loved Europe, I had been in Europe for dealing with Holocaust survivors for years, the survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. So we had two children, went to Europe. I went alone at first. So very quickly I just said, “Listen, I’ll go with you wherever you want to go, dear, but I’ve got to be in a big city to interview the moguls.” So I interviewed the top moguls in London, BBC – off-camera, we’re talking about off-camera. One thing led to another, one day I read in preparing that second paper that the British government is going to go into the new age – this is about 1981-82 – they’re going to have passed out, which is going to be every town of 50,000 people will have a master computer and you’ll be able to… you know. That was their idea. And so I was then run by the post office, the British postal system. So I talked my way into the chief guy of this project. He didn’t know me from Adam, and I’ve done that a number of times, I get in there, and there are only three demo models of this machine in the whole town. He has one of them and he shows it to me. I’m intrigued. So he gives me a couple magazines. As I’m flying out of London I call Mr. Simon, I still have his card, I have two rolodexes, “How about getting me an issue of this magazine?” He said, I gave you the only copies that exist.” Then I started with BBC, I had three interviews with BBC, and then every place I went – France, I interviewed. Now as a result of this, you know, it’s nice as you get older to know that these are busy people, they can politely get rid of you, okay? So I would go into the BBC, the French, and I would go in with scribbled notes and say, “Gentlemen, I’ll be out of here in 40 minutes.” I don’t want them to feel they have to see me. “This is what I want to know. They’re not in order, I give notes, etc.” That worked. But one of the most interesting things was this. My first interview with BBC… Michael Botein, the head of our law school, communications and media center, of which I’m a senior fellow, says, “You’re going to Europe?” I said, “I want to interview. Michael, you’ve got to write them a letter.” “Write them a letter, Jake.” I write the letter to the head of BBC, the chairman, etc., and I said, “There’s a lot of literature in there,” – they don’t know who Trobe is, they don’t know where the law school is, but I decided to become so impressive that a secretary won’t dare not buck it up to her boss, which worked. So I said to Michael Botein, “It worked so many times in Britain and France, etc.” five of the regulators received me in France, I said, “You know, Michael, you write a hell of a good letter. The reason I know you write a good letter is I wrote it.” So I’m addicted to the field. You’re right, I’ve touched telephone… British telecomm, as a result of my visit there, decided it’s an important place to come so they asked me to arrange a luncheon for four top British telecomm moguls that had just come to AT&T to come to my associates at law school. Basically I’m a con man, the British call it conjurer, but it works. The wonderful thing is that these are generous people. They’re proud of the industry, Marlowe. You know them. I know the game for 25 years, you know it for 50 years, you started a PBS station, you worked with original mom-and-poppers. I don’t know how many of them are alive today. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing Bill Bresnan, the president of your museum, who I admire and I’ve learned… and we put together the program. You got me to Adelphia, John Rigas, and Alan Gerry – we’re talking about wonderful people who are proud of what they did and share it, and they’re not spoiled.
FROKE: Going back again, Jake, to the beginning, did your work with the establishment to the Algonquin Roundtable and the New York School of Law Media Center, did that play a part in it?
TROBE: No, let me tell you, in 1981…
FROKE: That was entirely different.
TROBE: I got there at the law school in about ’76, ’77 because I heard there was a professor there of communications and he had done the study about franchising in New York City that he had been commissioned to do by the chairman of the… whatever, and Carol Bellamy, who is now head of UNICEF. At any rate, I said to him, “I’ve been a member of the city club committee, the distinguished committee, I’m not on our communications committee, and I want to read this book.” So I call up Michael and he says “It’s still under wraps. I have no objection to you reading but you have to get Carol Bellamy’s permission,” which I did. They said, “You can’t take it out, we won’t make a copy for you, but come down and read it.” So I spent an afternoon there reading it, and then I said to Michael… at about the same time he said to me, he’d adopted me earlier and he invited me to… when we had Distinguished Lecture series he’d invite me for the pre-dinner with the guest and I would take a back row seat. Once he had a press conference so he said, “What do you think, Jake?” I said, “Ah, come on. Don’t waste your time on press conferences. They can get newspapermen in New York City, they can get a glass of French wine, dozens of them every day, they don’t need your French wine and cookies.” “Then what would you do, Jake?” “I wouldn’t even have a press conference. I’d invite 25 distinguished people in the field by invitation only. Tell them it’s going to be off the record, it’s going to discuss telecommunications, the developments of it, and go with that.” So he said, “Do it.” I arranged it, I come to him the morning of the luncheon – it’s a luncheon of faculty – here are your guests, Michael, how are you going to introduce them? You can put a label on them.
FROKE: So the Algonquin Roundtable was really a separate initiative.
TROBE: Separate. But by coincidence, it was on the same day that I had that afternoon my first production with the guy from the Christian Science Monitor. I didn’t expect to run the Roundtable, and I was telling Michael what he should do and he said, “What are you telling me that for? You’re going to run it.” I’ve run it ever since. I’m still running it. The next one’s going to be in September. They’re not related, but everything I do smacks of this addition.
FROKE: But both provide historical background to the communications field?
TROBE: You can see the change in characters that appear. It’s just amazing, just amazing. That’s true of both. I do have crossover. One day, the top media analyst for JP Morgan comes to the Roundtable. He comes in and he says, “You know what this is all about? This Roundtable is about Jake Trobe getting himself guests. But let me tell you something, I was on the last two weeks on CNN and on C-SPAN and on Jake Trobe. I got more calls on my show with Jake Trobe than the others.” I love this story! I hope it’s not apocryphal.
FROKE: You had an expression in communications when you were at Fordham University as well, when you were studying law at Fordham. You drifted over into communications at that time, too.
TROBE: Yeah. I took every offering… First of all, I was a freebie student and they let me be… you know, tuition to law school is very expensive and if they’re going to give freebies a professor can invite a friend… I was in a very important constitutional case, there’s a book written on it after 25 years, and I was in this and in that case, our side had a lawyer, a professor at law school was a specialist in constitutional law. So I said to him, “You know, Manning, I wanted to be a lawyer. I became a human service guy only because the Depression knocked me off and I couldn’t go to law school. I don’t want to go to law for the layman, I’d love to sit while you’re making real lawyers. Could you let me sit in your class? If you do, I’ll do something, I’ll make a concession, I won’t open my mouth.” He said, “Sure.” But do you know what happened to me? They gave me the run of the school. I took everything, and I took copyright law there, but I took not legal writing, I took all the things… intellectually I’m a nosy guy, so I took whatever they… New School, I started a course on authorities like us and said you don’t know about television but there are wonderful books that do this. You deal with the history of NBC, you deal with the history of copyright, etc.
FROKE: What was your specialty in the practice of law?
TROBE: In the practice of law I have no specialty because I’m really not a lawyer. Everybody says to me…
FROKE: You make the assumption.
TROBE: My love is I’m an absolute First Amendment purist. I love constitutional law, and I love copyright. I’ve taken constitutional law, I took a seminar on constitutional law, which was study one whole term. I’ve studied intellectual property, copyright twice by the seminar, good people.
FROKE: Well, Jake, then how did you earn a living?
TROBE: Well, I learned a living… when I got out of college… I had to switch right away because I saw the Depression was hit, etc., I couldn’t even afford a ticket to go to Pittsburgh to go to law school. I certainly had to try to find a job. I found no job so I got to the local college, I got some credits for teaching, so I became certified in Pennsylvania to teach history, civics, commercial law, okay? So, no jobs. There were no jobs. Many years later I’m visiting my mother at home and she says, “You know, Jake, the school district called up and wanted you to teach as a substitute for one day.” I said, “Mother, that only proves you have to have patience in life.” I never got a job… I still have some of the pictures… in those days you had to put pictures on your application. So I then got a fellowship to a graduate school in New York in social work. The one thing that social work did at that point was you could get a job. You couldn’t just say you want to go to New York or Washington like young people do today, but you surely could get a job. You didn’t get handsomely paid, I think at that point you got $1,500 bucks a year or something like that. That was it. And I did that, and then I became, I have to say, a leader in the field. That’s before I did the Holocaust thing. So before I got to Europe I’m doing that, and after Europe I’m doing that. I also had… the European experience gave me a lot of exposure to the press. Every three weeks I was quoted about the refugee situation, the survivors, in the Herald-Tribune, the New York Times, etc. because this was before the state of Israel. So I followed that through. I have a nose for the press. I don’t push them, but when I was testifying… after I got back I was testifying on cable television… they were franchising the four boroughs other than Manhattan. Manhattan, Dolan did that early, early with Sterling. So I’m on a distinguished committee, but the chairman of the committee, he liked me very much but he wants to write what I say, and I said, “You’re a great guy,” he was a J. Walter Thompson guy, a very bright guy, “I’m going to do my own testimony. I’ll be a member of the committee, but I won’t represent the committee. I’ll just be Jake Trobe.” Four years, Marlowe, I went before the board that was granting franchises every time, and I’d go to the press room first with a press release that I had my wife type up and they’d put it in all the pigeon holes, etc., and by the time I got in there they knew it. Now, also, I moved later to a community, a condominium community in Westchester, New York, and they had a master antenna system and I said, “Oh, that’s for the birds. I want a cable franchise operation,” which had been franchised by Adams Russell at that point, but the developer didn’t want Adams Russell and the cable commission had been my guest. I said to them, “I think they’re an illegal operation because they need a franchise even though there’s only one road and they’ve got to wire under that county road of ten feet.” He said, “You’re right, Jake.” “Can’t you guys do with my being… I don’t want to have a fight with them. I may live here the rest of my life.” They came down there and they tell the developer – a big developer, he’s got 2,000 homes – you need a franchise. He says, “No, no, when we filed building plans with the town we showed that wire.” “That’s all right, but you need a franchise. You’re under a county road.” So he’s not happy about me, but at any rate, then I’m chairman of the cable committee in town.
FROKE: This is Somers, New York.
TROBE: Somers, New York. So the town board asked me… I went to the town board when I first got there and I said, “Hey, what are you doing with your public access channel?” The town manager was a nice guy, a former principal, he didn’t know anything. He said, “Oh, Jake, what do you think?” So they’d never used it, so I called up the cable company that then had the franchise and I said, “Listen, you guys are supposed to provide equipment.” One of the guys I had a good relationship with said, “Jake, they don’t use this stuff.” I said, “Listen, we’ll use it.” So I organized every civic group to come up and be videographers, not as good as these guys, but got the thing, and then the tapes that were done on public access, I arranged with the public library, would circulate just like if you wanted a book. And then I said, “Hey, the town board proceedings should be on the tube, and the planning commission should be on the tube, and the zoning commission should be on the tube,” not edited, absolutely unscripted, etc.
FROKE: And this was in the early 1980s?
TROBE: This was in the early 1980s. So I had two friends going – the guy I knocked off in terms of having to get a franchise had three choices. He could put another headend on the other side of the road and not cross that little road, or he could sell out, or he could apply for a franchise. I told him to come before me, you’ll get fair treatment, and instead they sold out. They sold out and I told him, “Boy, you sold out! I didn’t even get a finder’s fee. You guys got 2 billion subs for your little rinky dink system.” Now there’s a new authorized cable operator. Now what happens?
FROKE: Now I’m going to carry you back again…
TROBE: Go ahead, take me back.
FROKE: If I can take you back just a minute here. You mentioned your professional work in social fields. Were you employed by the individual cities then?
TROBE: No, no. I’ve never worked for government. I was employed by the American Joint Distribution Committee, which you can briefly describe at that point was a not-for-profit, big important Jewish agency for going back to the days of the Russian Famine in World War I, okay? They’re distinguished, they’re in history, and they employed me to direct a mission of their mission in the Balkans. I never got to the Balkans, I got to a lot of other places. Go ahead.
FROKE: Let me then speculate and say things that you’ve not said, but from what you have said I can make these interpretations. Your strong interest in the social welfare of the people of the country, and in fact on a worldwide basis, led you to the communications field as a means by which then some of the goals in your social philosophy could be brought about.
TROBE: Yeah. I have a strong feeling, although I don’t use my programs as a soapbox, I have two feelings that drive me. First of all, I’m a son of immigrant parents that didn’t have much money, came here, and I’m blessed that they didn’t stay in Russia, I’m lucky. A lot of my rich friends said to me, “Jake, why do you give all your stuff away? Why don’t you sell it?” And I finally say to them, “You know, this land has been good to the Trobes and I want to give something back.” And then I also have a feeling, I’ve seen the magnificent technology, I wanted to do the best. So I enjoyed most when I was using that for social purposes even though I was not doing opinion thing, etc., except in exchange. So for example, I’m very high on… Larry Grossman, who was former president of NBC and who’s president of PBS, and he’s just recently with Newton Minow issued a report on digital age, and I’m high on those guys. I don’t know if they’ll carry it off, but they say it should be a gift to the nation. Larry Grossman wrote a wonderful paper called the best seat in the house. His idea is that all you guys in universities have a lot of wonderful lectures, if you record them, mostly the people at the universities see it, or maybe the town thinks they should be on-the-air. So when you go from, because I saw 12 channels to 36 to 200, I’m a little bit disappointed – I’m always hopeful though, I’m not critical, I always believed. I got off the city committee because I figured what they were asking the cable company to do you couldn’t make a buck. So I kept telling the guy that’s not the way to do it. You’ve got to get a profit motive working there. Also remember, I’m the son of a rabbi and there’s a lot of Talmudic discussions and intellectual ferment, and my mother was… a do-gooder wouldn’t do polite to her – she was helping anybody that needed help without being a busybody.
FROKE: So in a sense, then, all of your personal interest, all of your personal philosophies have come together with the field of communications being a means by which you can express to the nation and the world what is significant, what is important from your point of view.
TROBE: Absolutely. And let me say this to you, it’s with a feeling of… I’ve been rewarded. I say, boy, am I lucky! Lucky to be alive at 90, lucky to be free of Alzheimer’s, lucky to be intellectually curious. I go to New York, that’s not easy going up to New York and leaving Ruth, and when I go away from the Algonquin Roundtable with all those bright people and changing technologies and they show up and they’re so animated, and I’m the moderator, I go away and say, boy, what a reward! And I have to tell you, in the big city of New York, when total strangers stop me in the street and say, “You’ve got a good show,” I’m obviously pleased. I say, that’s great because now I know I’ve got an audience of one because my wife doesn’t watch me.
FROKE: The prominence that you achieved from a public point of comes about as a result of your interviews with these communications specialists, being on WNYE and on the Public Broadcasting System, and also then on several cable systems across the country.
TROBE: Marlowe, you know, it’s very interesting. I didn’t anticipate all this. First of all, now I number of people know me, but in the early days it had to be all new people. I read about them in a journal, they were a leader and they and they had a topic, and I’d get on the phone and I knew I had to get by that one or two secretaries to talk to the principle, so I honed a little short speech that anticipated every doubt they had in their head – “Why should we meet this guy? He isn’t a professional, he isn’t at NBC, CBS, what the hell are we going to bother the boss with him for?” There was one woman, I wish I remembered who it was, one secretary said to me, “Mr. Trobe, how many times a day do you make that speech? You must be exhausted.” But it worked. It worked.
FROKE: Do it for us now, will you?
TROBE: What’s that?
FROKE: Do the speech for us now.
TROBE: Oh, no, I don’t remember the exact thing, but as it went along, also reassuring as you go through the 80s, you begin to say, “I have enough pride, I don’t want to be on the air when I’m over the hill. I want to be the first guy to recognize it.” Because television’s a very… it can’t fool you. So when I call up people, when I got a lovely note from Tom Rodgers, who was chief strategist for NBC, president of NBC Cable, now the head of a big stable of magazines going to the internet, and they call up and they want a copy of a tape of a show he wasn’t even on. Then he writes me a note saying essentially what you’ve said to me – you’ve been a historian of the field. My first reaction to historian is all of these big shots doing it, but I have to say I get a big bang. I had Brian Lamb on before McNeil-Lehrer had him on, okay? So there is that, but I very, very… I can’t give it up but I can’t quit. Nobody believes I’m going to quit. The last time I said this is my last broadcast, they said this isn’t going to be your last broadcast. I’m not going to do that much of it. The Roundtable, twice a year I do, and it’s reassuring. I’m never bored a day.
FROKE: In all of the work that you’ve done in the social field, in communications, with the law school, with the Algonquin Roundtables, has your wife been interested in all of those or does she have her own separate interests?
TROBE: Well, she has separate, but there is a kinship. First of all, you’ve got to understand, that wife of mine I married 62 years ago after a 10 day courtship. It turns out that I was right and I’m happy that she was probably right.
FROKE: Was this when you were in college?
TROBE: I was just out of graduate school earning very little, and she had a little job, etc. So we’re going to hack it. We’ve done it for 60 years.
FROKE: She was from Beaver Falls, too?
TROBE: No, no, she was entirely different background. She was born with a silver spoon, mine was an immigrant home, etc. They even had a tennis court in their backyard. Her father was a successful gold manufacturer, but incidentally a self-educated man. He didn’t go to college, but his two sons went to Yale and his three daughters went to Smith. My wife is the youngest of the five. We met in the social work school, at graduate school. We met at a part of her cousin, a birthday party. I didn’t want to go to the party and she had another date, but we hit it off that time and we’ve been… I would say within a couple months we were married but the decision was made in ten days. Let me tell you this, she is right today running social issues. The topic is who controls your information. There are all kinds of topics, mad cow disease, etc. At 3:00 if you have time we’ll take you in there a little bit, but she’d doing that. Tomorrow she’s going to get a cataract operation so she had to call up at 2:00 to find out what time she’s due there. So she has a broad… a woman here was one of the early principles with Harry Hopkins and FDR days about the social security system, and she lived here and was running a program called Social Issues, and she said when we were new here, “I hear the Trobes are activists. I’ve asked Mrs. Trobe to take over for me.” My wife for six years, and we draw upon mostly the residents here. We have a lot of graduates. We’re in Haverford, Pennsylvania. We’re right now the Haverford College, Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, a lot of retirees live here, ex-academics. That’s one line, so that feeds the thing. In addition, I have to tell you, the connection is my sister-in-law – my older brother married a woman that was one of the early founders of American Women in Radio. She was a small town broadcaster but they hired a wire for her from WOR to wire. She carried the fashion shows in New York called American Women and she was president of the Pennsylvania chapter. Now to gild the lily a bit is my grandson is a Harvard particle physicist, Yale, Harvard, etc., is a science correspondent for National Public Radio. Today as I was shaving for this session, I tune on NPR as is my habit, and sure enough David Kastenbaum is reporting on the Russians that are going to fly with the astronauts on Saturday. So he’s on a lot of this stuff, and then I’ve got a son-in-law who’s an editor for the Philadelphia Enquirer, like you have a daughter at Associated Press. I love journalism, I love law and I love freedom.
FROKE: All of these communication moguls, as you refer to them, really don’t know it but you and your wife and the rest of your family control the media in this country.
TROBE: Well, let me say this to you, another coincidence, this Marriot operation has a rinky dink SMATV system. I saw it was inadequate. So I quickly go to the town manager, I get copies of the franchise ordinance and agreement and I come to the Marriot manager at that point and I say, “Listen, I want Adelphia. Everybody in this town has a right to it, the contract says I have a right to it, and I want it here.” “Well, it’s private property.” “I know the easement issue, but actually if there’s a right of entry you may not even have to do that, but I don’t want to get in a fight with you.” So I campaigned for four years and Adelphia was the cable operator, it was somebody else first. I never mentioned – you know, you brought me together with John Rigas – I never mentioned my connection in that regard here. I kept lobbying for this, etc., and the managers don’t want it, they’ve got a cheapie system. Well, finally everybody asks me, I say, “Hey, just ask the management.” Well, it so happens I said you should be wiring the whole place. Now it’s going to be Comcast because they’re trading systems and it’s going to be a Comcast operation here. What do you know? As of last week, the manager announced that Comcast was going to wire all these buildings, and then I said to him, “You were the one that held it up when you were the boss of the former manager there, but I’ll forgive you. But I want to tell you, the reason they didn’t want to come in here is you’re not big ticket customers, you loose money on the old codgers, they’re not going to buy all this stuff, they’re going to buy the basic, and you’ve got an impossible competitive scheme with them – a cheapie system for 16 bucks.” But at any rate, all that’s forgiven, and I have to tell you, the Adelphia woman that has multiple dwellings said, “We have a 16-inch book of all your communications. I got in here originally, the only one, by telling Conrad, the manager for Adelphia, “Hey, if you don’t wire me, Conrad, I’m coming before the town board and say you’re in violation of your franchise. You get 6 million revenue from this town and you don’t want me to do that, do you?” He said, “Oh, Jake, aren’t we friends?” “I don’t like bullying. Forget the language but remember the message. I will be wired!” And I was wired. They walked in there, they not only wired me, they wired the whole building. Nobody knew what was happening, they come in here and in six days they wire, punch holes, and my neighbors wanted to kill me. But now we’re all going to be wired.
FROKE: Jake, of all of the scores of communications giants with whom you’ve visited in these audio and video recordings, who are the two or three that stand out in your mind? Can you pick two or three?
TROBE: I love the entrepreneurial ship that Bresnan represents, John Rigas represents, Alan Gerry. You know these men well. They represent people that started from nothing, had courage, it was not a sure thing, they’re very honest, they’re very humble. When I asked John Rigas how it was selling telephone he said, “It’s hard, it’s hard.” I don’t invade proprietary information, but I enjoy the honesty and the simplicity of their being good citizens. They started with a movie house in town, John starts with $150 of his brother and himself and winds up with 2 billion dollars. I think it’s the American story. So there’s a guy – exemplary. You knew the founders, the moms-and-pops. I didn’t know the founders. I knew the nearest one. Then, let me tell you, I admire people that record history well. Eric Barnow, who I’m privileged to know, might be the most distinguished historian for television, radio and also film, who the Library of Congress consults, etc. I was at a distinguished lecture of Tim Wirth for the law school and I’m in the back row. Rodgers was talking to me, just who are you, and then a week later he calls me up from Washington and he says, “Trobe, Congressman Wirth heard of my conversation with you and you’re on a public access channel. He wants to have that stay in law.” A lot of Congressmen say it’s a waste of time, it’s a waste of channel capacity, etc. He said, “Tell me what you do?” I said, “Hey, wait a minute, you’re talking about Jake Trobe dog-and-pony show. You’re big shots. You’re the council to the House Committee with jurisdiction and Tim Wirth is the chairman.” “No, Jake, we want to know it.” That was it. He’s been my guest five or six times over the period. That started. Tom Rodgers has moved with the thing; I had him on the program when he said there’s nothing in the internet and now he chairs a big company that’s diverting a couple of hundred magazines to print.
Marlowe, I’m telling you, you did something for me. I would have recycled these tapes or they would have stayed around ’til my children when I died would have had to throw them out, and you said to me they’re historically important, then at Penn State, that’s back in 1991. Like everything else I asked you for some of your reports, you sent me, I have the paper of what you were dreaming about that only really came to fruition not at Penn State, but now at your new museum. The industry’s so proud of itself, rightfully. You raised 50 billion bucks you’re so into it. Let me say this to you, I’ve always wanted to do well at whatever I did. When I did the refugee job in Europe, the displaced persons, I’ve had private audiences with Pope Pius XII, two of them. I’ve dealt with the masters. But I want to keep myself simple. All men are really created equal but I have had the richest experience of variety. It’s accidental. So you’ve got the picture. Who else? Let me tell you, I’m doing a program on special series on the place of information technology, educating America’s children for productive lives and I’m asked to do that. I got a couple of very good guests and then I said, Jake, you don’t know enough about education. So then I get a call from the FCC chairman’s office and he wants to do a program. I was already in my mind going to cancel the series. Oh, I’m so flattered, here the chairman wants to do a program with me. Yep, it’s on. The only day of six dates, he could only do it on September 4th. It’s a deal.
FROKE: This is Mr. Powell?
TROBE: This is what his name before Cannard is.
TROBE: No, before Cannard, the preceding guy (editor’s note: Reed Hundt). I don’t know, but I’d know his name. Any rate, let me say this to you, so there are a lot of surprises in this field. It’s firm, and I say to the station, oh, I know they’ll be happy for me to have the chairman. Not at all, they say “We wanted a series, Jake, we don’t want one shot.” So I finally said to them, “All right. I’ll do four. Four, that’s all. I can’t do more. I don’t know it.” I wound up doing eight. I wound up with the governor of Wisconsin calling me up and saying (he’s coming in, flying in) and said, “My wife went into surgery, Trobe. I can do the program if you go to a PBS station, we’ll go to PBS.” I said, “Oh, I can’t.” So I thought that would be the end of that. I said, “All right, we’ll do it sometime when you’re able, when your wife is well.” A few weeks later she’s fine and he calls me up and says, “I want to do the program.” So he gives me a date, he’s on his way to make a speech at Harvard, he gives me a date on the way, and unfortunately the station didn’t have time, but they said, “How about doing it on the way back?” We did it. Tommy Thompson now, as you know, is in the Bush cabinet. I idolized him as a small town guy. I said, “I’m small town”, and I didn’t know whether he liked this, this big-shot governor who was a potential candidate for the president, and I said, “He’s small town. I’m small town, but he grew up in a town of 1,500 people and his pop had a gas pump and his mom, they had a little grocery store there, and she’s an elementary school teacher.” When I saw the tape he was smiling all over. Anyway, that’s it. So there are simply hundreds of people I admire, there’s no question about that.
FROKE: When you began the series, which you call Telecommunications and Information Revolution, cable television was really not very well thought of in the country. The broadcasters were critical of it, the film industry was critical, the advertisers were critical. Cable people have a phrase that only the customers liked them.
TROBE: Certainly. When I asked your friend John Rigas, “How do you start?” He said there weren’t enough television systems, they were in mountainous country – you know the history – and they bring wires into town and they’d get started. They weren’t at all sure – that’s what I admire about them, the fact that they wanted their own museum that’s much bigger and much more expensive than the Penn State operation shows the pride of the people, even though it’s gone through tremendous consolidations because Manhattan at that point had two franchises – ATC and Westinghouse cut in the middle of the borough. Now you’ve got all these clusters, and here Comcast, the outfit with these wonderful men who are videotaping me today, they have a million and a half customers around here. I don’t know the Roberts but I read about them all the time. I read compulsively, Multichannel… one of the best jobs done in the field is your Milestones because that traces these early beginnings honestly in a wonderful document.
FROKE: The government also at all levels seemed to be in opposition to cable. The FCC, certainly in the early days, was issuing rules and regulations that protected the broadcasters so to speak, and held back the development of the cable industry. At the state level, the public utilities commissions tried to protect the utilities from cable moving in. At the local government level there were all sorts of roadblocks that came about.
TROBE: No question about it.
FROKE: Who provided the turnaround to the point where today cable is regarded as perhaps the prominent technology medium?
TROBE: No question about it. My friend, the JP Morgan top media analyst said to me, “Cable’s the winner here.” This was before the high-def thing, and because it got diversity into the thing, it began to do some of its own production sort of thing, it grew. Basically, ideally, if you’re writing a thing you would have a wired nation, you’d have every cable company connected. They had to go out and seek franchises wherever they could get them, so you have every little town, you had big shots that interfered, so it went crazy. If you had cable, you had to get the franchise from any one of 11,000 communities. If you wanted telephone, probably the utilities commission, and in the federal if you crossed state lines – it’s a terrible thing. Now, with new technology, I defy anybody to keep abreast of it with law and regulation, etc. So we’ve seen the wave back and forth, regulatory, over regulation, price control, etc. Let me tell you an interesting thing: I’m reading a distinguished history of railroading in America and the parallel on regulation is right there. They had the problems of who regulates, the little town or the state in an accident or having the train on time, making sure there was a station where people would assemble. That’s why I love American history because there’s a lot of… I’m a great believer of the open mind society. Be curious about something you don’t know and don’t be lazy. If you study it, you’ll know it.
FROKE: Do you feel that the economic system of the country, which is based then on free enterprise was a major factor?
TROBE: You would have never, never, never had this without the free enterprise system.
TROBE: Look, I believe any institution should be able to perform well. I’m not anti-government, but I do believe that we’re over-regulated and some of it was contributed by the poor service given by the cable companies. They had to clean up their act. But they also had people devoted who stayed with it and ventured this sort of thing. I’ve seen the other systems – after all I saw the British, the French, I interviewed them. You remember, we made an early decision at the time of radio to let commercial in. That’s atypical. Let’s also remember, all these BBCs and French things had no advertising and then let a little bit in at the right time not to break the program. When the new technologies came around, satellite, they didn’t finance with a license fee. You have to buy satellite in Britain or France and you have to buy the equipment of Home Box Office. The license fee gives you a stable… Now nobody can outdo the BBC in quality and our PBS station depends a lot on quality. We don’t have enough of it to match the technology. The Discovery Channel is good, Arts & Entertainment… let me tell you, Arts & Entertainment, A&E, I went to the head of that outfit and I said to him, “You’re not on my system but I like your whole concept. I’m running a class at the Institute of Retired Professionals. Would you loan me the tapes? I promise to give them back to you. I won’t show them anyplace else, but I’ll show them in this classroom.” He gave me four hours of production before they were on the New York system. I want to tell you another story. I don’t know if you know the Rockefeller Foundation was in this game at one point. They wanted to have a bluebird channel, I don’t know if you remember that. I knew a lawyer who was now the head of this law practice. I knew him as a young labor lawyer when I was negotiating a social work contract with the unions and his senior partner said, “Jake, would you like to have one of our experienced young labor lawyers with you?” I said, “Yes, but he mustn’t interfere with our lawyer but if he’s there to listen carefully and give advice in our private caucus, fine.” That was a wonderful guy. Many years later, the Rockefellers hire him for a study about their coming in the field and I call him up. I said, “Hey, I’d love to see that. I know it’s a product for your client. I will respect it,” but because I have no ulterior motive other than to learn the game he gave it to me. He let me come in the office and I read it. I was amazed because you know, that’s privileged conversation and I respect those things very much.
FROKE: You mentioned earlier the recent activity by Larry Grossman and Newton Minow and the studies that led to what they are now referring to as the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust, and what they are saying is that the Public Broadcasting System can move ahead and the new media can move ahead if the Federal Government and private business create a multi-billion dollar investment, some of which would go into digitized programming. Cable, obviously, is capitalizing on digital capability. The satellite broadcasters, obviously, are very computer people and so on. What do you see ahead, then, with all of these new media that are being created as a result of digital communications? What do you see ahead with the decline of the commercial television broadcast networks?
TROBE: Let me say this to you. I think there’s an appetite for all these things increasing. Look how many poor people… also impoverished people had television sets; they may not have had something else. There is a market for everything. I do feel that a PBS system is still necessary to assure a certain level of thing. Now, you know, there are people that say, hey, Newt Gingrich said that’s a sandbox for the poor. Let’s knock it off in three years. PBS was threatened, the stations were threatened because basically the richer station would be okay but many of them… And I think they were saved basically because everybody had Sesame Street. Every Senator has a grandchild. I think that was the savior, but basically there are certain things you can’t expect government to do or private enterprise to do, so that should be no threat to them but supplementary of it. Just like the Library of Congress does not provide…
FROKE: So you see PBS continuing to thrive.
TROBE: In fact, I think they made a wise decision in the digital report. My worry about them is it takes some real leadership to create this trust fund. Whether it will fly… I’m very disappointed; they had a press conference, I would have loved to go in Washington and I did not find a report in the Times or the Washington Post. I’m going to hit the net to see where they got. I worry about it. I’m not partisan politically but it takes real imagination to… They made a strategic decision. They also had some question whether they’re starving PBS. Larry Grossman’s paper a few years ago at a fellowship at the Freedom Forum said it was the best seat in the house. That’s what you got to expect. What do you want to know before this precious hour is gone?
FROKE: Of all of the interviews that you have done, there are almost as many that you did not do.
TROBE: Yeah. Right.
FROKE: In your mind, what are some of the people that you wish that you had interviewed in your series?
TROBE: Well, I had Kohut, the head of what used to be the LA Times. He’s a terrific pollster of American thing and he’s hard to get and I got him, but I broke three toes and couldn’t walk the streets. I postponed that and that didn’t materialize. I missed him because I see him off on public television and he’s very good. I’m always disappointed that, not because of lack of interest, I haven’t dealt with radio head on for a couple of programs. That’s really a gap that I hope to fill one day. I talk with you, you were always helpful in giving me names and those guys were teaching, etc., and often they couldn’t make it. That wonderful man that worked with Brian Lamb, that early cable operator who lives up in Connecticut…
FROKE: Bob Rosencrans?
TROBE: Bob Rosencrans. I met him because I was in this situation where the French government, I brought the French connection to the law school and they asked me to set up a luncheon meeting for a delegation from France and I got Rosencrans there and he was one of the four or five experts, and I admired what he did and I’ve heard from Brian Lamb how important he was, so I would have like to have done him. I wanted to do Barnow an update, but he was ailing, etc. You know what surprised me is I don’t gave too many misses in getting people, which is very good. Now, you know, by reading the magazines there’s no end of subject matter or good guests to do it. I’m dragging myself up to New York early in the morning, making a train at 6:00 is not easy, but what happens to me is you put me in front of those three cameras and I know which one is on me, I have a fantasy I’m doing King Lear, I’m Laurence Olivier, I’m lost. I feel at home with the American people. Now that’s a braggart for you, isn’t it?
FROKE: Well, Jake, I hope that you continue to make those trips to New York or find a studio someplace along the line so that your contributions to students and scholars in generations ahead will continue to be there.
TROBE: Let me say quickly, if you’ve got a couple minutes, one that I am very proud of the fact that we train people to do the local stuff up there. I myself have done a number of local shows. For example, I did interview every candidate for town board, not partisan-wise, and then interviewed them each for a half hour. The town manager was running for re-election and I said, “Where did you get that haircut? If you paid 200 bucks for that haircut you overpaid for it.” That sort of thing. He cast a vote, he was the only one to cast a vote against airing to the public. I split the political party to get the town the broadcast, which they broadcast ever since. He was against it. One day he says, “I don’t know why we do this,” after they improved it, “Nobody watches it.” I didn’t know there was a telephone in that room and three people called up and said, “You mustn’t stop, we want that.”
FROKE: I’m going to have to interrupt you, Jake, because of time commitments. We are tape recording a video history of Jacob Trobe, who has created the telecommunications information revolution, a series of program interviews with literally scores of leaders of the cable industry and the communications industry in general. The date is the 25th of April. We are visiting with Jake in his apartment at 3300 Darby Road, here in Haverford, Pennsylvania, just east of Philadelphia. The program is produced in association with Comcast and was produced with director Tony Small and assistant producer-director Angelo Parker. Thank you.
TROBE: Thank you very much. Thank you, gentlemen.