Interview Date: June 14, 2017
Interview Location: Denver, CO
Interviewer: Rob Stoddard
Collection: Oral History Collection
Stoddard: It’s June 14, 2017. We are at the TCC tech studios at The Cable Center here in scenic and beautiful Denver, Colorado. And I’m Rob Stoddard from NCTA, the Internet and Television Association. Today we’re going to spend a few minutes with someone who’s been the backbone of our industry’s trade association for more than 35 years. A role model for women of color and people of color. A wonder woman, a power broker, award recipient, a Cable Hall of Famer. The leader and keeper of the flame for our industry’s trade show for 35 of its 65 years. The great Barbara O. York, currently senior vice president for industry affairs at NCTA, the industry trade association. Welcome to our oral and video history. This is The Cable Center Hauser Oral and Video History Project. Barbara, it’s great to have you here.
York: Thank you.
Stoddard: In full disclosure, of course, we’ve been NCTA colleagues for more than 15 years. By my count we’ve been friends and industry colleagues now for more than 30 years. So we think of this as an inside job.
York: This is an inside job.
Stoddard: Absolutely. And of course many of us have known you for many years and I think to a lot of us you’ve been very intriguing over the years. You clearly have a very distinguished heritage and I thought we might start if you could explain to us your personal background. Where are you from, what global influences have affected your life?
York: Thank you, Rob. And thank you very much, the Cable Center. It’s a pleasure to be here. It’s a pleasure to participate in this program. As a member of the board I’ve heard so much about this program and it’s an honor and truly a fulfilling pleasure to be part of it. So thank you. And to all the staff and to Rob, thank you very much for doing this with me. So I was born in Calcutta, India, post-World War II. My parents are Shanghainese. Before the world war four children, my older brother and sisters, were born in Shanghai. Then the war intervened and my father was in business between India, England, and China and he was in India when the war started. It was the jute business. The jute was grown in India, banked in China and then —
Stoddard: Sorry, what is that again?
York: Jute. Which is what made gunnysacking, which was the Saran Wrap, the binding, the crating of the shipping industry in those days. Everything had gunnysack all over it. So that was his business. And he was in India when the war started and so then there’s like an up to 10-year gap between when my mother was in China with the four children and he was in India. After World War II she joined him in Calcutta and the four of us were born. We lived in Calcutta until I was age 13 and then the Indochina war broke out in the Himalayan Mountains and so we all lost our citizenships. We were all declared — we had no residency and no citizenship anywhere, so we all had to leave as Chinese folk. And there was a whole bunch of Chinese people who left India at that time. Our intent was to go to Hong Kong for a short time, pay our deference to our grandparents, and then go on to England where my father was trying to put the business back together. Unfortunately he passed away when we were in Hong Kong so we stayed in Hong Kong for just a bit. Actually my eldest sister is still there. I was just there for the four years of high school and then came to the US to Trinity College on a full scholarship. So Washington [DC] became my home then and after Trinity I stayed on to just work a little bit and then go back to grad school. And then one thing led to another, led to another, and pretty soon I had nine years under my belt at Grocery Manufacturers of America working. And it really has set my path working in trade associations, working under the phenomenal George Cook who was the CEO of GMA, getting to know Tom Wheeler who was the vice president of public affairs in GMA. And then once Tom left GMA to go to NCTA a couple of years later he called George and said, “I have a job, this is what it sounds like, do you know anybody?” And George came to me and he said, “I don’t want you to leave GMA, but this is a great opportunity, why don’t you go talk to Tom?”
Stoddard: All right, hold that thought. We don’t want to get too far down the line because I want to circle back and ask you — we’re going to talk a lot today about the history of our industry trade show and the impact that you’ve had on this trade association and this industry over the decades. Before I do that I’d like to hear a little bit more about how your Indochinese upbringing has impacted the way you look at life and even the way you look at the job. Can you describe for us any attributes that you think have arisen in your behavior and performance based on your background?
York: Actually that’s a great question, and it really has. I think understanding people as very diverse people, very diverse religions, and very diverse living cultural habits. Growing up in India I had Muslim friends, Hindu friends. We grew up Catholic, Catholic friends. I was under the British system so I learned all the British ways of behaving. So the overlays of culture, one on top of the other, understanding all that and not letting it throw you off. I think that has helped me and has helped me really in our work world because you can’t get thrown off.
Stoddard: You’re known to possess an internal calm. You seem unflappable in a million ways and that might explain some of that.
York: I think it does, it really does. Understanding people, listening, looking, learning, and accepting. I really think accepting is a big part of it.
Stoddard: That’s great. So this very circuitous path brought you here to school and to the United States and eventually to the Grocery Manufacturers Association prior to your career with cable. Talk a little bit about that nine-year period at GMA and what you learned from that, and how it prepared you for work in the cable universe.
York: George was a remarkable CEO and his philosophy on staff is if you can — he’d let you try anything you think you could do and expected you to succeed. He gave you the latitude to succeed, but he gave you the responsibility to. So I started as an editorial assistant working on the newsletter and through that learned everything about the grocery industry because I had to interview and write up stories of people in our industry and in our association. I had to learn how to put the newsletter together. I had to learn in due course how to run the printing press. So my job then eventually became learning the whole office and learning how things work and who was who. So I then became the manager, the internal administrative manager. And two things came of that. One, because I always had a keen interest in journalism and writing and in news, I joined the media relations team and worked with Jim May and Tom a little bit before he left.
Stoddard: And Jim May went on to a career at NAB, the broadcasters’ association?
York: And then the Air Transport Association, and he retired from there. And then from there the other thing I also did was move the building. GMA was at 14th and K and we moved to Georgetown and I was responsible for the whole buildout.
Stoddard: All in Washington, DC?
York: All in Washington. So it was a very varied career. Each year of my near nine years I was doing something different and I think that really set me up for NCTA.
Stoddard: So from George Cook at GMA you had your first encounter with, as you mentioned, Tom Wheeler. Now, of course for people that may not recognize that name straight up, all these decades later Tom Wheeler has had a distinguished career and most recently prior to the date of this shooting stepped down as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission after many years in cable, many years in the wireless industry, but you met Tom kind of before Tom was cool, I guess.
York: He was always cool.
Stoddard: He was always cool?
York: Tom was a cool cat. As VP for public affairs and government relations he was high energy. Same high energy, same dynamism, same total focus on what he was doing and total focus on making a difference. And he did that at GMA, he did that at NCTA. I know, since I’ve known him for all these years at CTIA, in all his venture capital efforts and firms that he started, and then as we know, also with the FCC.
Stoddard: So you had such a strong relationship that when Tom moved over to then the National Cable Television Association, NCTA, he invited you to come over. And you were telling me a little earlier, before we began this segment, of an amazing job interview that you had with Tom Wheeler in 1982. What was that like?
York: So I came over for the interview and I had never done conventions before. I had never even attended one and the job was really running NCTA as well as the convention. I said, “I really don’t have convention experience. I have conference experience, having worked at all of GMA’s executive conferences.” And he said, “Don’t worry. I’ve got everything in place. I’ve got three vendors. What I need you to do is be the person working with those three companies and then reporting in to me so that you’re saving me some time.” And the three companies were, one, Williams/Gerard who did general sessions for my 35 years, and Dobson and Associates that was and continued do logistics and all of the underpinnings of the convention work, and then Frank Masters and Trade Associates. And he did the exhibit floor for a couple of years, then Dan Dobson took it over. So just taking one aside here, and this oral history is to really thank Bud Melto at Williams/Gerard, Dan Dobson who’s deceased but Carol Sullivan who is still — who just shut his shop down, and the Freeman Decorating Company and Joyce [Rasinski?] there, to thank them very, very much for without them the 35 years would have never happened.
Stoddard: So flashing back to ’82, Wheeler essentially told you, “Barbara, don’t worry, piece of cake, all you need to do is come in and run all the pieces.”
York: Piece of cake.
Stoddard: How did that work out?
York: Actually worked out really good. I quickly got to know and love all of the Williams/Gerard, Dobson and Associates and for the short time Trade Associates. They’re all very professional, very good. And coordinating with them was easy. They did not have the substance part of the NCTA agenda so that was really my role in the first few years, ensuring that the focus — actually it was my role in all 35 shows now that I think about it. Focusing the show on what the industry needed, when it needed, and hopefully just pointing the way to the near future of where it was going. And as I look back over the years, when it started to where it came through to 2016, we really did do that. I think we reflected what the industry was doing, stepped ahead of them just a little bit, not too far to get into trouble, but just far enough that the dispersion in the industry could see what was coming next.
Stoddard: We’re going to take a deep dive into some of those experiences in just a moment, but I have to tell you I’m in a lot of ways touched and moved by the tribute you just paid to three or four individuals and companies and organizations that stayed with you really for 35 years. And I think many of us were in awe of the fact that you kept that team together through thick and through thin in an era when frankly most of us turn vendors and contractors over almost on an annual basis year over year. What was it about those relationships and why was it important to stick with those teammates all the way through? What difference did it make in the way that you led and staged the trade shows?
York: They always delivered. In all honesty, every year I would get calls from competitors and they’d say, “Are you ready? Would you like a bid? We can come and talk to you.” I took the calls, I took the meetings, but in the end my answer to them was always the same. They’ve never failed NCTA. They’ve delivered what we were going for. So to take something away when there was no failure and performance was perfect — they met all the needs — would not have been the right thing to do.
Stoddard: Impressive, to say the least. So 35 years, annual basis, every year, and you managed to reinvent that trade show and make it feel new and fresh and different every year. And how did you do it? What did it take to breathe new life into it every year? Because you could easily have just come in and said, “We’re going to do the same thing over again. We’ll spend a few weeks getting ready for it, let’s recruit some speakers and roll.” But I personally saw the time and energy you invested to make that happen. What was the secret sauce there?
York: The industry. This wonderful, wonderful industry we have that’s never stood still itself in the 35 years. I mean when we first started it was just, gosh, 25 channels. That’s right 25 channels in ’82. And C-SPAN had launched, CNN had launched, ESPN had launched, but that was it. HBO had launched. But then the plethora of networks came online, each more exciting, different, fun, energizing. It was great. And then the operators were not far behind, increasing the capacity, the technology, the introduction of the cable modem, the introduction of broadband, wireless, Wi-Fi. I mean the technology, everything got better and better every year and that was our inspiration. So to answer your question, it really is the inspiration came from the industry and that percentage, probably 5-10% of the effort. The second part really came from what we were talking about earlier, listening and hearing and understanding and being part of. And just the convention committees over the years, our friends, like you even before you came to NCTA, over the years listening to you because you were in the field, you were working it. Your input was important and that gave us what we needed to do to make each year meet that year’s needs. And then the rest of it is just plain — I won’t deny it — plain old hard work and hours and hours and hours and hours.
Stoddard: Sure. Worst kept secret, you worked many weekends, many nights, and particularly as the show approached you just didn’t stop, it became a 24/7 job.
York: And my team too. It was not just me, it was the team. And the team was very special over the years. I mentioned Carol Sullivan; she’s been strong, but even on the NCTA side in the early years Ann Dorman and then evolving to today with Mark Bell and Lauren Dwyer who just left. I can’t go down too many names because over the 35 years there’s so many but really and truly the team has always been great and they always got inspired. They never stopped being inspired by our individual.
Stoddard: Sure. Well, and a lot of that credit goes to you personally, if I might say. So speaking of names, the show operated under many different monikers over the years. My earlier recollections were Cable ’87, Cable ’88. At some point it became the National Show or maybe it was always the National Show.
York: Always the National Show.
Stoddard: Then it became the Cable Show for a few years and then ultimately INTX, the internet and Television Exposition and we’ll circle back to talk a little bit more about that, but what was important about the way the show was branded? How did you look at it as you went into it on a year-by-year basis?
York: It’s interesting. We would call it Cable ’82, Cable ’83, but the underlying premise was it was always the National Show because in those days we had the Western Show, the Texas Show and the Midwest Show, the Eastern Show, all the shows. And cable was growing so fast it needed that B2B component in the meetings and the exhibits all the time all over the United States. Then as the operators and as the companies grew, the operating companies grew and consolidated and became a more nationwide footprint, then things — we didn’t need to distinguish so intensely. And then, as you saw, in the late ’80s, early 2000s the demise of the regional shows. And I think the last Western Show was 2002. We were saying 2002, 2003, but
— and then it became — at that point we said we’ll just stay with the National Show for the short time. Then NCTA rebranded itself to Cable, and Cable was everything even in the front of our building. So then it became the Cable Show and then the conversation, understanding that cable as cable was changing, so we needed to change the name too. But even this good handle, it’s helped us also to find what the show was, why people needed to come to it.
Stoddard: It seemed for many years as though this industry was kind of a culture of trade shows. You rattled off a few trade show names probably compromising maybe 30 to 50% of the actual number of trade shows that occurred every year. Can you talk a little bit about that culture and why it was important to the way the business operated?
York: Because it was growing so fast and communications and managements and understanding the product, showcasing the product, getting a customer service staff to understand what they were selling, training field people how to do everything from stringing cable to connecting the boxes to troubleshooting to answering questions. Everything was growing so — every year something changed and I think the need for education, for demonstration, for just communicating and convening and being together as a community — cable was different. It was not broadcast. Broadcast was all over and it was more commonplace, but this little industry that became this ginormous industry just needed the warmth and fuzziness of bonding with each other a lot more than just one time.
Stoddard: And I would say that in addition to the sheer amount of effort you put into creating great educational content for the show, it seemed in a lot of ways like one big party, (laughter) and I don’t say that in the pejorative, but one big networking event. Is that how it felt as you were staging it, as people came in from all over the country, many people who went to this series of trade shows over and over again.
York: It’s the nature, again, of our industry and the fact that everybody really likes each other. The need for the parties, the need for fun, the need for letting down your hair in the evenings. It is a culture of great music. Our whole industry loves music.
Stoddard: Can you recall some of the great musical acts that were staged in the show?
York: When I first started I think Sammy Davis Jr. was my first big performance at the NCTA show, followed by Paul Anka the next year, and then over the years Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Janet — was Janet Jackson one year?
York: I mean the names. I’ve promised the Cable Center I would try and collect from people’s memories and from yours, since you attended most of them, the names of the great performances over the years. Because it was just spectacular. I mean our networks hosted the best and they were willing to bring them out.
Stoddard: There was, particularly during the first half of your tenure, a lot of involvement by the big premium networks in staging parties. What do you remember from some of those?
York: The first one in 1982 was CBS cable. We’ll never forget that one. My first year, not understanding really what everything was about, and there’s a ginormous party in the desert.
Stoddard: In Las Vegas?
York: In Las Vegas in the middle of the desert CBS created an oasis and a whole campground, tents, they brought in camels, they had open fire pits grilling meats, they put in water features and they had a whole marketplace, a Mideastern marketplace in the desert. It was about an hour drive by bus out there so we were pretty far out and it ran very, very long. And Rob tells me that some people got left out there when the last buses left.
Stoddard: That’s the lore. That’s what I hear. They may still be there to this day decades later.
York: Waiting for someone to come get them.
Stoddard: That’s right. And that was for an arts and entertainment network essentially that CBS had launched and was trying to gain carriage for. So that was important. So CBS. What other premium networks were really involved in staging parties?
Stoddard: Because, as I talk to people over the years, as I said, a lot of great content, immense general sessions, but people really are riveted by those party memories.
York: The first years the big party was Jerrold. They did a big event every year even though it was all technical, technological, everybody went. They did a beautiful — took over huge suites and did a great event.
Stoddard: Do you remember who was running Jerrold at that time? Sorry, I’m springing that on you. I just can’t recall who that might have been.
York: It could be Hal Krisbergh.
Stoddard: Of course, Hal Krisbergh. Yeah, sure.
York: And then going from there HBO was breaking news with parties, CNN was doing parties. And as networks launched they did big parties. Then in the late ’80s, ’90s Viacom’s headline parties. Viacom really put all their effort in. They brought in the best. That was where Aretha Franklin performed. It was always terribly VIP, but everybody just would give anything to get a ticket to go. And those were legend. Those were totally legend.
Stoddard: You know, they were legend and it makes me look back at kind of the track of attendance at the shows over the years. By my count during your 35 years we had as many, say, as 8,000 people attend at one end of the spectrum and more than 30,000 people on the other end of the spectrum. What do you recall of that cycle and what really drove attendance over the years?
York: When I started the attendance was just about 10,000, just under 10. And the year 2000 we hit the apex. Steady growth from the ’80s to 2000. In 2000 we hit the over 300,000 square footage and over 30,000 people and that was the crescendo. It was the crescendo of the networks; it was the launch of broadband. That was the first year — second. No, it was three or four years into broadband and the whole broadband millennium that came right after that.
Stoddard: And going back to the height of attendance, 2000, a lot of people refer to that as the internet bubble year because of all of the high-tech companies that were looking to fight their way into cable and they saw the show as an opportunity to do that.
York: Yeah. And be there and be part of it.
Stoddard: So when I think of the show in my head you can almost classify the decades into certain movements. I want to talk about those in a minute, but you said something to me in advance of this interview that you felt as though in a way the show and the industry were almost mirrors of each other, right? The show both followed and led the industry as developments were underway. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
York: Yes, very much that. The ’80s when programming was — new networks were coming on four, five a year. The show reflected that.
Stoddard: It was a bazaar of networks, right, for networks in that era?
York: It was a bazaar of networks.
Stoddard: Do you have any recollection of some of the amazing booths over the years? And there were large booths staffed by scores of people.
York: Scores of people and everything inside. Giveaways galore. Tchotchkes, oh my God. We should do a feature on cable show tchotchkes.
Stoddard: I understand there are a ton of them stored here in the basement of the Cable Center. Did you know that?
York: No, I did not know that.
Stoddard: There’s a cable tchotchke collection right here at the Cable Center.
York: Just wonderful tchotchkes. I mean people would bring empty suitcases just to take stuff home.
Stoddard: I had friends who would go to shows, get tchotchkes, bring them home and use them as Christmas presents, for instance. Why not?
York: I know, I know. But it was wonderful. I mean really the networks were very generous, very open, so much willing to be part of the show, the fabric of the show, the vibe of the show, the buzz. It was wonderful.
Stoddard: I still salivate for HBO cookies.
York: I know. HBO’s famous HBO cookies.
Stoddard: So the ’80s did seem to feel really very much about network and content expansion.
York: Yeah, ’80s and ’90s.
Stoddard: Yet in the ’90s the show, as the industry, started to give way to the broadband era, right? Because it was in the mid-’90s when our companies began to roll out broadband. And maybe it was subtle in those days, but it felt as though there was a subtle move more into technology and into infrastructure. Was that by design or did it just, again, reflect what was going on?
York: No, it reflected the industry. And looking at one apocryphal year was ’96 when we did the high-speed demonstration for Al Gore and stayed up all night trying to demonstrate — get it all wired.
Stoddard: Al Gore, then vice president of the United States?
York: Vice president of the United States. And I know from there, because I had his itinerary, he was headed to the Buddhist monastery. I never went to the Buddhist monastery, but maybe he derailed and detoured. Since I knew on paper he was headed there it was funny, but he came, he saw it; he was very — it was fun having him there. It was great.
Stoddard: Over the years I recall some stunning technical demonstrations, particularly during general sessions. And I think a lot of the preparation for those was done totally out of the eyesight probably of 99% of the people who attended, yet I imagine you were sweating bullets backstage getting ready for those. What was it like backstage as you were trying to prepare for those demonstrations?
York: Totally intense. Because they had to be perfect and when someone like Al Gore came back there we only had 15 minutes to show him everything. And many others like that. But actually that was the intensity, the amount of work, the investment, sheer financial investment in getting it done made us start to initiate and at this point evolve to what we started to call the industry exhibits. So in the mid ’90s we did a couple and then starting in the late ’90s through the 2000s to today, every year NCTA has hosted, built, invited companies to participate in an industry exhibit that was the next wave coming down the line.
Stoddard: So when you say industry exhibit you’re talking about an exhibit that would be on a par with other corporate exhibits on the floor?
York: On the exhibit floor.
Stoddard: But which NCTA packaged, put together, funded, and you solicited the participation of many industry companies.
Stoddard: So it was shoulder to shoulder with all the —
York: And this was really born out of what we were doing backstage and realizing we should never just keep it under pillows.
Stoddard: And so what were some of the themes of those exhibits over the years?
York: In ’94 broadband home. We built a huge house, master bedroom with the spa tub that had an HDTV built into the tub and a little rubber ducky bouncing along. A children’s bedroom tech tiled, a little doghouse where we had AIBO, Sony’s first robotic dog. Cute little puppy. Of course a great room in the living room with all surround sound and wonderful televisions. And then the big point, the piece de resistance, was the back deck and you opened out from the great room into this deck which was the general sessions stage. And the audience was theoretically on the lawn of this beautiful home so we had green carpets and white chairs and all of the general sessions were staged there. The best was of course Billy Tauzin. He was the keynote speaker that year.
Stoddard: Louisiana Congressman.
York: And head of the energy/commerce committee. Camera picked him up as he was coming in through the front door and walking through. And the first thing of course he does is go to the kitchen and ferrets around in the fridge and then he comes out with something that some poor worker left and brings it out on the general session stage. And of course he throws his arms up in typical Cajun fashion and he says, “Welcome to New Orleans.” It was just wonderful.
So in ’94 broadband home, ’99 HD pavilion.
Stoddard: It was probably in many cases many people’s first time seeing high definition displays.
York: Yeah. And Michael Powell actually cut the ribbon, at that time FCC chairman. Cut the ribbon that launched HD for Comcast in Chicago. And then over the years —
Stoddard: So let’s stick with that for a minute. In ’99 Michael Powell who as we speak during the course of this interview is currently the president and CEO of NCTA, the Internet and Television Association, yet there’s an apocryphal story, I believe, to that show as well that involved Michael Powell. Can you tell that story about the acrobatics on stage?
York: Yeah, this is the year before, a few years before HD Pavilion. This was his first year as chairman of the FCC and he was doing a keynote speech. We had warmup acts before each general session in those days. We had these young children in Chicago doing tumbling, somersaulting, gymnastics, the school team. So that warmed up the audience. Then Joe Collins was chairman of the NCTA.
Stoddard: Joe Collins of Time Warner.
York: Yeah, Time Warner Cable then. And he walked on to introduce Michael Powell and I’m standing on the wings there making sure everything is all right and the next thing I startle because I think Michael has fallen down, but he literally from backstage somersaulted onto the stage. And Joe and I, our faces must have been priceless because we didn’t know what to think. We didn’t know he was planning to do that. But he said he was inspired, he had done gymnastics as a child and inspired by the children of Chicago he somersaulted on the stage.
Stoddard: Yet he also tells that story and will say, “Honestly, I didn’t know whether I’d be able to get up off the floor” because he suffered a very serious broken back injury during his military career and I believe this is the first time he had attempted a somersault under those conditions.
York: Yes, never practiced before.
Stoddard: That’s been captured to videotape somewhere, if I’m not mistaken.
York: Yes, it is.
Stoddard: So ’99, the HD pavilion and Michael’s involvement. Many, many industry pavilions in subsequent years. What else comes to mind that you think really struck a chord?
York: Fast forwarding a little bit to Washington, DC, when we did broadband nation in 2009, I think. We created a whole nation. This is to show Congress the spread of broadband through the United States from the waving fields of amber to a cityscape to a school to a doctor’s office. It was huge; it was wonderful. The Secretary of Commerce came and cut the ribbon for that. It really went to the heart that this was completely nationwide and these are the companies that are doing it. And then escalating from there —
Stoddard: And if I’m not mistaken there were hundreds of members of Congress that year that came and actually privately walked through that exhibit and had a hands-on opportunity to see a lot of it.
York: And that’s true. And then four years later when we escalated it to the observatory and showed the whole history of cable —
Stoddard: Under a dome?
York: Yeah. What are those domes called?
Stoddard: Geophysical, astrophysical? Yeah, we’ll figure it out. Geodesic dome, right.
York: Yes. And that was another very, very groundbreaking exhibit for educating public policy officials about the history, the breadth and the future direction of our industry.
Stoddard: What kind of strain did that put on you and the team to produce those?
York: Oh, massive. It was like producing two shows in one. It just became its own animal, started early, very early. Intense technical and technological wiring and equipment like you would never believe and lots of underpinnings. A lot of underpinnings.
Stoddard: Sure. So in addition to all of that, which was great show and tell, your team was staging some immense general sessions that featured some kind of celebrity business leaders over the years. What are some of your recollections about some of the more interesting and famous people that appeared during those sessions and that really had an impact on us?
York: The general sessions were always the headline story. We were lucky enough from very early in to have a lot of networks cover them, some of them live depending on the speaker, a lot of them taped and then re-broadcast.
Stoddard: C-SPAN every year.
York: C-SPAN every year. CNN with clips on the evening news. MSNBC doing footage right from the floor. CNBC, big way on the floor because so many industry leaders were there. Over the years all of the big conglomerate media companies, Barbigha, Rupert Murdoch —
Stoddard: Cisco’s chairman, John Chambers.
York: John Chambers. Paul Otellini from Intel. Even in the new space Jerry Yang came, Larry Page one year.
Stoddard: Paul Allen.
York: Paul Allen several times.
Stoddard: And Steve Ballmer.
York: Bill Gates twice.
Stoddard: Paul Allen once brought a boat to the show. What can you remember about that?
York: He brought his big motor yacht, Octopus.
Stoddard: How many hundreds of feet? It was massive.
York: It was huge. We were in New Orleans, he pulled up in the berth right by the convention center and we had this VIP party aboard.
Stoddard: So Paul Allen, former Microsoft, one of the Microsoft founders and a very active investor at then Charter Communications, right?
Stoddard: And talk a little bit about the vessel and what everybody did on board.
York: It had a helicopter. It had a private submarine. I think it was five stories, four, five stories. We were all on one — well, we were spread out over several decks, but this one deck had a full swimming pool. You could do laps in it. Wonderful food. He was a very gracious host and in fact, he went into the music room as the party wound down and pulled out his guitar and people who stayed had a private one to one concert with Paul Allen. But actually Paul Allen actually did a concert for all of the show. We did battle of the bands.
Stoddard: Since you brought it up let’s talk about that. There’s so much to talk about during the 35 years of the show. Never enough time. But battle of the bands. Battle of the bands fit into a segment that I think of as a strong commitment to public affairs, particularly over a period of several years post Katrina in New Orleans. But first of all let’s talk about — so you and Mark Bell worked together to stage battle of the bands.
York: Let me step back into why we even went down this path. The show was scheduled in New Orleans in 2006 —
Stoddard: And Katrina had hit in September of ’05.
York: Yes. And we were actually in the planning meeting with Dave when Katrina hit. Gerry Laybourne and Tom Rutledge were the convention co-chairs and I was sitting there with them and Kyle McSlarrow, then NCTA’s president, and in Gerry’s office she had the TV on and we were watching what was happening in New Orleans and then we all —
Stoddard: And this was Gerry’s office in New York City.
York: The four of us realized we could never — if the effect was going to be what we were seeing on TV there was no way we were going to do the show there. In three, four weeks we realized we could not do the show there so we quickly moved the 2006 show to Atlanta and committed to New Orleans that we would come back. They could take us in 2008 and when we came back as a show and as an industry — this is from the highest levels of the board — the commitment to New Orleans was there because so many of the board members grew up at conventions in New Orleans and it was a city everybody loved being in. They said we should give back. We shouldn’t just do a show there. We shouldn’t just come, have fun ourselves, and learn a lot and walk away. It’s time to give back. So we did a huge Cable Cares program. I’m thinking three playgrounds, two schools?
Stoddard: Many of them in the ward of the — was it Ward 9 in the city that had been under so much water?
York: Some networks helped us put together semis full of supplies for schoolchildren and school rooms were decked out with computers, high speed, the whole nine yards. And then the big fundraiser was battle of the bands.
Stoddard: So what the concept, the idea behind battle of the bands?
York: Again, this comes back to the underlying love of music in our industry. It is the fiber that I think so far every generation our industry has connected with. And they thought there would be nothing better than to have — there were so many informal bands already in our member companies. Charter had a band, Arris had a band, C-SPAN staff participated in bands, Jupiter.
Stoddard: Cox had an amazing band from San Diego, if I’m not mistaken.
York: I mean eight, nine bands. And then of course Paul Allen was most famous. Well, actually Jimmy Dolan would probably be the most famous or equally famous.
Stoddard: So Jimmy Dolan of the Dolan family running Cablevision Systems and front man for JD and the Straight Shot right and still to this day making records and performing at coliseums around the country. So all those people performed in a charitable concert?
York: Yeah, in a big fundraiser. A lot of people donated magnificent things for the blind auction — silent auction. And we raised a little over $100,000, $125,000, which we gave to the city of New Orleans. And then so we continued battle of the — everybody loved it so much and everybody had so much fun with it. So in ’09 we repeated it in Washington, DC. That was the year in DC. And again raised money for schools in DC. And then in ’10 we did it in Los Angeles in Nokia Theater and Time Warner Cable — under the auspices of Time Warner Cable and they gave the money to their charity, A Place Called Home, for underprivileged children for a safe place between school and going home. So it was wonderful, but again, the work to put on a battle for the companies and the bands themselves, NCTA of course built the stage, donated the back line and all the personnel and all of the wiring, lights, sound. It was very expensive. It was an expensive concert to stage, but it was a lot of fun.
Stoddard: And of course you know that for all the years that followed when we didn’t do it the bands would always come back and say, “When are we going to do battle of the bands again?”
York: Yes, and several of them, like Time Warner Cable’s Cowbell, performed just in nightclubs somewhere and one of the vendors would host them. More Cowbell.
Stoddard: That’s right. That’s great. And there were some amazing events during the history of the show that I personally recall that I wanted to ask you about, but things that seemed to come out of the blue. You mentioned an appearance by Al Gore as Vice President of the United States, but Al Gore, programming company president, showed up once to —
York: That’s right, with Joel —
Stoddard: Joel Hyatt, right, sure. To launch a —
York: Held a press conference.
Stoddard: To launch a channel, Current TV, I think, is what they were launching. How about the Michael Jackson year? What do you remember about that?
York: We did not anticipate him coming.
Stoddard: That was Chicago, is that right?
York: Chicago. And we did not — his brother had launched a network —
Stoddard: Jermaine. It was an African-American family network based in Atlanta.
York: Yes, and I can’t remember the name of the network now. It was day two of the show. We did not anticipate anything. They did not tell us Michael was coming. And then we got a security call saying, “We need the security gate and in an hour and a half we’re bringing Mr. Jackson.” Not just an easy task to do because we had to clear out trucks and vans that were parked in the dock, and the buzz, it was amazing buzz just took over the floor when he walked on the floor.
Stoddard: Entourage of 20 or 30 people.
York: Huge, huge entourage. And the media, they flocked out of — sucked everybody out of every session out of every floor. Just packed watching Michael Jackson. He was only there for 30 minutes, 45 minutes? And then same thing happened when Oprah came to the chairman’s reception. Again, she was scheduled to speak for day three. We didn’t anticipate her coming to the chairman’s reception. Get the phone call, “Ms. Winfrey is coming.”
Stoddard: So that year, if I’m not mistaken, you had in a general session Oprah and the second lady of the United States, Jill Biden, at the same time. That was probably maybe the most extensive backstage operation you’ve had?
Stoddard: What can you recall about it?
York: We had two separate dressing rooms, two separate security clearance areas. Then I had to have a [inaudible] for all my other speakers so it was just like a village back there of facilities to host — and they were on the same day sequencing each other. But the fun one was when Oprah came for chairman’s reception because she walked in and, again, I swear the room just tilted because everybody just came to that and there was just like this wave of people following her. It was fun. It was lots of fun.
Stoddard: Sadly, we don’t have much time left in this discussion, but you and I are our colleagues here at The Cable Center have talked about perhaps an opportunity going forward to collect all of this incredible historic data and archive it, and perhaps at some point in time make it available for people to see so that they too can recall what the shows were like. I’d love very much to spend the next few minutes still talking more about the shows because I know how central they were to your work at NCTA, but I think it wouldn’t be fair if we overlooked some of the other work that you did during an amazing career at NCTA. And one of the things, going back several decades, was a project that many of our gen X and millennial counterparts probably know nothing about and that was a project called the Cable ACE Awards. And you worked with Char Beales very closely on that, former head of CTAM, former NCTA executive. Tell us a little bit about the ACEs and how they came together and what your recollections were about those.
York: It did start under Char when she was NCTA’s VP for programming. The Emmys were so skewed to broadcast and the cable programming was very good. HBO was strong then, Showtime had the Garry Shandling Show, seminal —
Stoddard: This is in the mid ’80s.
York: Seminal show to our content. Bill Maher was on cable. We were breaking ground all over, but there was no recognition of the programming. So Char together with Ralph Baruch, who was then the chairman of Viacom, put together the Cable ACE Awards, first just national, then Ted Turner got involved and realized it was a gem and if we were really going to look at recognition then, hell, it should be telecast. So he put his money where his mouth is. Ted always did that and he put it on Turner Broadcasting and gave us $1 million and it went on TBS. [Sofia?] did the national Cable ACE Awards. I managed, I think, the last three, which was fantastic. And then of course spinning from there we had the system ACE Awards or the local Cable ACE Awards for all the wonderful content that was doing at the local level by our cable operators. Simple things like covering high school football games, concerts, but such a part of the community, because local cable was such a huge part of our community and what made people like cable. But the national awards, it really was — it became very big and it was very received. But at that point the Emmys started to say that should not be a separate show. I mean if we’re going to recognize great content then it should all be in one show. So the deal was made and as you now know cable sweeps the Emmys. So they invited the fox into the henhouse and no more hens left. (laughter)
Stoddard: Which is sweet revenge and irony, isn’t it?
York: I know.
Stoddard: Because I have some recollection that for some time the Cable ACE Awards were to some extent the butt of comedians’ jokes, right?
Stoddard: But we’re the last to laugh based on what’s going on with the Emmys today. So that was a significant contribution to NCTA. The other thing that you helmed that is still paying dividends at the time of our conversation today was the relocation of NCTA’s headquarters building in Washington, DC. So for many, many years there was a building at 1724 Massachusetts Avenue just off Dupont Circle. It was a great building. NCTA occupied it in and of itself. It had a nice theater that had been, as memory serves, built into it perhaps in the 1980s where you could do previews and screenings. Yet in around 2005 our colleague, Kyle McSlarrow, became president at CEO of NCTA and then there was a sea change that involved a relocation. Take us through that and what impact it had.
York: The sea change was Jack Abernathy and the infamous golf game in Scotland where he took members of Congress on this boondoggle and all of a sudden Congress found Jesus, and no members, under the ethics rules, were allowed to travel.
Stoddard: It’s Jack Abramoff is who you’re thinking of.
York: That’s right, thank you. No, they were not allowed to travel. They couldn’t —
Stoddard: So profound changes to the ethics regulations for Congress.
York: And all along the NCTA show would bring at a minimum 20, 30 and, as you know, some years over 200 members of Congress to the show to show them what we were doing. It was wonderful, it was very — going way back even Barry Goldwater was a speaker, one of my first shows. First time I saw him speak he was mesmerizing. Then all the way through. We had to make a change. Since we couldn’t take members to the show we had to bring the show to the members. We found this brand new building in Washington, three blocks from the Senate side. And I realized what we could do is take the ground floor and make it a microcosm of the exhibits and we would stage it like —
Stoddard: So this is about a block and a half from Union Station, about a 5-minute walk from the Senate chamber, or 10-minute walk from the Senate chamber of the US Capitol, but essentially relocated the trade association right to Capitol Hill.
York: Yes, and created a special exhibit on the ground floor to showcased the best of cable, and still does today. It’s evolved. I mean the first year it was more like a house, it was more realistic. The playroom, living room, the kitchen, the interactive refrigerator. But today it’s much more technology message driven. And we’ll see this next iteration as we come into broadband and wireless, what we’re going to do with that space. But it’s ours, we live there, we can change it at will to, again, just have something available and something of which we are proud and something that tells the industry story.
Stoddard: And you oversaw the entire move though, right?
York: Yes, I did.
Stoddard: You were designing offices; you were deciding where executives went. It was quite an undertaking.
York: Yeah. It was fun though. It was unfortunately 2006 and Katrina and it was a bad year.
Stoddard: Sure. And of course we would encourage people still from around the industry to come and visit that facility if they haven’t had the chance to do so.
York: And they do. It’s used, as I understand, at least two times a week and the screenings, we have the 107-seat theater, a state of the art theater, and that’s used quite a bit for screenings by our networks.
Stoddard: So another great chapter in the industry, you were involved in an extraordinary effort that was short-lived but that seemed to be seminal at the time, and I’m thinking of the Cable Connection going back to 2009. That involved many, many of our industry societies, professional societies, trade associations, and tried to bring all those groups together kind of in unanimity a couple of times during the course of the year. How did that initiative arise? What actually happened when all those groups came together? Tell us the story of the Cable Connection?
York: Again, go back to the board and the story actually — that story can’t go out, right? The board making a decision that there were —
Stoddard: There are no secrets here, Barbara. You agreed to speak right up.
York: I know. They asked me to do a calendar of industry events because they realized as managers a lot of their staff were always away on something related to the industry. We were consolidating, massively consolidating, in the mid-2000s. So I did the calendar of industry events and found that after 50 weeks — of 52 weeks 50 weeks had an industry event.
Stoddard: So virtually every week of the year had some kind of industry event.
York: Except for Christmas and New Year’s. So the directive was to get all associations together and to consolidate the events to — actually we started out with one week and that could not happen. And now it’s two weeks a year. So Cable Connection ’09, it took us two years to get going and the first one was Cable Connection ’09 and it was here in Denver and we had the WICT Conference, the NAMIC Conference, the hall of fame dinner, the Kaitz dinner.
Stoddard: The only time the Kaitz dinner has not been in New York City, is that right?
York: No, actually it was always in Denver for the longest time. SCTE, every single event got put through this week and the second to last day it snowed in Denver.
Stoddard: This is October. There was a snowstorm here in Denver.
York: Major snowstorm. Airports closed, highways are covered with ice, and the NCTA board came to me and said, “OK, we can change our minds.” (laughter) But we did it in 2010 and it still lives. The consolidation of events still lives, but trying to massively shoehorn everything into one just at that point was —
Stoddard: And I don’t want to understate it. You had to own it, right? This became your project despite the fact that it was really a board directive. But I feel as though maybe it drove some massive collaboration among the groups that wasn’t there before.
Stoddard: And does that still exist today?
York: Still exists today. We still meet, the partners all meet once or twice a year. We are now looking at it again, trying to think through. We think the events side might be all right, but some of the program side might stand a review. There’s a review committee in place now looking at in this new industry that exists today and the industry that it’s going to become very shortly, very, very shortly, what do the associations need to do and what service can they provide the industry?
Stoddard: What do you think this industry is going to become shortly? You just mentioned that in passing, but what do you envision as you look into — sitting here in 2017 as you peer into the future of the industry what do you envision?
York: I think it really has always wanted to be the media and entertainment business. No definition on methodology of delivery. I think it becomes that. Everything, the technology blends. How you get what you want doesn’t matter as long as you get what you want where you want it, how you want it, and what device. The lines start just really melting into one. And then what is the new horizon is some of the new big huge companies that sit on the fringe. Are they part of us? Do they become embedded in the fabric of this big industry soup?
Stoddard: So in closing I’d ask you to be reflective yet again. The chapter on the industry trade show is closed. An amazing run for 65 years. You were personally in charge for 35 of those, more than half of these shows over the years. As you reflect back on all that time and as you distill it what do you think it contributed to our industry? What was its major impact on the work of these colossal businesses over that period of time?
York: I would like it to be that there was one point in time, that one shining moment, where we all got together, we are family, we enjoyed each other, we learned a lot, we understood what we were doing more clearly and as a unit we could look going forward as to what we needed to do next. There’s this lovely coalescing communications community feel. I think it really was a hallmark of cable as old industry and maybe it doesn’t — there’s a new hallmark like that in the new industry. It won’t be the show. It could be something else.
Stoddard: A different way to tell our story as —
York: And to bond. To bond as companies, as people, as friends, as great memoires and great times and a synchronicity of learning and joy.
Stoddard: Well, one shining moment and, Barbara York, you’re the shining executive that made it all happen.
York: Thank you.
Stoddard: Barbara York, senior vice president industry affairs for NCTA, the Internet and Television Association. Thank you for sharing your life and your experiences with us today.
York: Thank you.
END OF INTERVIEW