Brian Lamb

C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb was interviewed as part of the Booknotes Oral History Project on 1 October 2015. Mr. Lamb discussed the history of C-SPAN's Booknotes program.

Interview Transcript

Hello, I'm Robert Vay, archivist from the George Mason University Libraries. Today is Thursday, October 1st, 2015, and we're recording from the C-SPAN studios, where we're speaking with Brian Lamb, C-SPAN founder, executive chair, and the creator and host of the Booknotes program.   Hello, Mr. Lamb. Thank you for being with us today.

Bob. Thank you.

First off, how did the idea for the Booknotes television program come about?

We kind of stumbled into it back in 1988. I don't remember exactly the moment when the idea came, but I can remember the event, and that was Neil Sheehan, who was a reporter previously for the New York Times. And he had been in Vietnam. He started out with UPI in Vietnam back in the early '60s and was responsible for, among other things, the Pentagon Papers. He got the leak on that from everybody who pretty much believes it was Daniel Ellsberg.  But after the war was over and after he was finished with it, it took him 16 years to write a book called Bright Shining Lie.  

And when that-- I was very-- you know, I grew up in the Vietnam era, and I was very anxious to see what his view was, because he had been there when things started to go badly. And I asked him, I remember, just as a lark, to come over and we'll do a two-and-a-half hour interview with him. We'll break it up into five programs, 30 minutes long. We'll put it each night, Monday through Friday, when his book comes out. And then on the fifth night, we'll do an open phones and let him answer questions from the public. And that's where it all started. We didn't start Booknotes right away. We didn't start it until 1989. But the idea that you could marry a book and television seemed really important at the time because no one was doing it. Oprah Winfrey later on started doing the book thing. There were early book shows back when I was growing up, a thing called Book Beat out of Chicago. A guy from the Chicago Tribune did it. But all that had gone away. And we had the time. I had the interest because I wasn't the super student that I should have been when I went to college. And I was really starting to get very interested in details and policy and politics and how it worked and making all the connections. So that's how it all started.

Now being kind of an odd format or, in your case, a new format because other shows had gone away, did you have any hesitation about trying this kind of program?

I had absolutely no hesitation primarily because this network, C-SPAN, is so different than every place else for one very important reason. We do not have to make money for anybody. And that changes the whole attitude that everybody has about what we do. We don't have ratings. We don't have commercials. We don't have stars. We could really, as long as we're inside our mission, do anything we wanted to. And so we tried a lot of things. We tried things, I'm sure, that had about four viewers, if that many. And so the idea was to do things differently, to do things that added some good information to the whole discussion about what happens in the political world. And so we weren't the slightest bit hesitant of starting it. I set out in the beginning, this was my own goal or goals, to read every book, to only do nonfiction, and to have it a brand new hardback because that way it would keep us on track, it would keep us focused. And it did, and it worked. And we did that for about almost 16 years. And that's why the whole thing was there. And it started to connect with people in kind of word-of-mouth ways. And that was the beginning.

So how were the books and authors chosen for Booknotes? And was there sort of a selection procedure?

It was very unsophisticated. I've had people that I've worked with all through Booknotes and now the show since then Q&A who have been what we call producers. And it was just the two of us working together. They would bring me some ideas. I would wander around bookstores all the time or listen to the radio or watch television and spot people that were about ready to bring out new books and all that kind of stuff. And we just, the two of us would get together and talk through who our next guest was going to be. And it worked. I say it worked. I mean, it's within our own parameters that it worked. And the other thing was because I was doing all the interviews and we had a full hour and I was going to read all the books, I wanted it to be of interest to me. And I was hoping that if it was of interest to me, it would be interesting to the people watching because I'm not nearly as educated as a lot of our viewers are. And that was part of the danger that you would ask dumb questions or insignificant questions or all that kind of stuff. But again, I felt like I was interviewing people for the average person, not some super well-educated intellectual. And the trick was making sure you didn't chase them away just because you kept it at the middle level.

Now, did publishers or representatives or authors ever reach out to C-SPAN and say, "Hey, can I be on Booknotes?"

Had a lot of that. Not everybody. You'd be surprised how difficult the publishing industry is. Sometimes you wonder if they're paying any attention to where people sell books. And you sometimes had to beg them for some of these authors. But overall, the book publishers began the process of feeding us their authors as they would come along.

So how far in advance would you book an author to be on Booknotes?

We often would book an author a couple months in advance. And it depended on, you always knew the big books were coming out, the big history books. Let me just give an example. David McCullough's Truman. There was a lot of anticipation for it. And so we would go to the publisher and say, "We'd love to have the first shot at that." We often didn't get it because the Today Show or one of the morning shows would demand that they get the first shot at it or 60 minutes. And then everybody else had to wait till that happened.

Periodically, though, people would say, "I would rather get on the Booknotes show because I know I'm going to be able to talk the whole thing out even though I will go on and appear on other shows." I remember one time Don Hewitt wrote a book. He was the producer of 60 Minutes. He was the inventor of 60 Minutes. And we went to his publisher, which was Public Affairs, and said, "We'd love to have the first interview with him." They went to Don Hewitt and Don Hewitt said, "Sure, it's fine. Let's do it." So as we got closer and closer to doing the interview, Barbara Walters decided that she wanted Don Hewitt for the first interview. And the publisher said, "No deal. Schedule for Booknotes." Well, I'm sure she thought that was rather insignificant compared to the show that she was doing. And she was going to deliver a lot more eyeballs. And she even called and I remember I didn't talk to her, but she called up and said, "If you'll give us the first interview, we'll promote your show on mine." And we didn't relinquish that. It was just -- it wasn't that big a deal, but we had an exclusive and we thought, "Keep going." And it ended up we had quite a few over the years.

By the way, I loved the Don Hewitt interview when he talked about Frank Sinatra. I thought that was -- Don Hewitt was a very interesting man.

Yeah, that was quite an interview.

So were you aware of any authors who wanted to be on Booknotes just but were not chosen? And did anyone ever refuse an invitation to be on Booknotes?

Both of those happened. I remember one in particular, he's deceased. And it's not really talking out of school, but Senator Warren Rudmond from New Hampshire had written a book after he got out of the Senate. And as a rule, not all the time, but as a rule, we didn't do those books, members.  Members' books often were very promotional in nature. They didn't go into deep substance. They often, you know, they wouldn't tell you the real stories and all that. And so we had just said no.

And one morning I was hosting the call-in show and he came on the set. And before the show started, he tore into me because I wouldn't do his book on Booknotes. And I didn't realize it was that important to him. We never did do the book. Actually, he tore into me twice. He came back about six months later and I still hadn't done the book. And he was really upset. And he probably had a reason to be upset because he really had something that he wanted to say. But that happened more often than you would think. We just only had one hour a week and that's why we started something called Book TV. It started out something called About Books. We did six hours on Saturday and six hours on Sunday of just going into bookstores and places like that and showing authors. And then we eventually decided that we would spend on C-SPAN 2 all weekend on books as a way to deal with all the books that were coming out because there are a lot more books published today than there were when this network started, believe it or not, even with the new world that we live in.

But there were only 52 Booknotes a year and we had to turn people down. There were people that we asked for and they turned us down. One of the more interesting incidents was the former governor of the state of Texas, Ann Richards. Ann Richards was scheduled to do Booknotes. I had read her book and when she arrived here for the show, she told us that she could only do a half hour. And we don't do half hour interviews. So we said no to her. And so she literally had to leave the building. She wouldn't give us the full hour. And that kind of thing happened from time to time. Mikhail Gorbachev tried to get us to shorten it to 30 minutes and we didn't. But he stuck by it and eventually did the full hour.

How did you prepare for a Booknotes interview? How long would it take? And did you do all this work yourself? And how did you do it with your schedule, the other things going on?

It was actually kind of a bizarre experience in a way. I once tallied up how many days and weeks that I spent reading for Booknotes only during those 16 years and it turns out to be almost two and a half years of reading. I would spend sometimes even more than 20 hours but on an average of 20 hours a week reading these books. And in order to do that I was getting up at 3 o'clock in the morning and reading for three hours and then coming to work and doing my thing. And I was reading a lot on weekends. I was dedicated. And I think in the end more than anything else I wanted to prove that you could do this. It's really not necessary to have a good interview but I wanted to prove that you could do it because authors complained all the time "they [interviewers] didn't read my book."  I also was driven by the fact that I wanted to learn myself. I messed up when I was in college. I graduated and all that. I graduated in four years which is not what some of my more intelligent colleagues could say. It took them five and six years. But I did graduate but I just didn't have my heart in it like I did when I got to Booknotes. And the learning experience was fantastic.

So how did you manage this workload? The reading, the taking the notes and everything along with running C-SPAN?

I don't really remember it being any different. You wanted to get it done. You got it done. In those first 20 years of C-SPAN it was nonstop 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was a labor, this is a trite expression, it's a labor of love. You just loved what you did and you just kept doing it. And the producer would do what they could but they had other jobs besides producing this program and I didn't rely on them for research although different producers did a different amount of research. And if you asked them of course they would do it but I wanted to do the research myself.  

And the interesting thing was the internet wasn't around when we started. There was no such thing as Wikipedia which I rely on heavily now much to the chagrin of a lot of people in academia because it gives you some of the basics you can't get anywhere else and it leads you to other sources. But in the end to do a Booknotes if there is such a thing as a secret to it you just read the book.

So Booknotes interview is quite simple in appearance. You've got two people, black background and a book. What was the reason for that?

The reason for that was the most important part of that whole situation was the author. And we didn't want anything else to distract it because networks spend an exorbitant amount of money on sets. And it's not that sets don't matter, they don't matter to C-SPAN. You have to have a decent looking set. It has to be clean, it has to be well thought out but the kind of millions of dollars that are spent at the big networks is something that we never will get into because it wouldn't work. We couldn't afford to do that. But this was the basic fact here was a simple black curtain behind the author meant that you focused on the author not on all the other stuff. That's really the downside of television. I find I learn a lot more if I'm just listening. We have a radio station, we have podcasts and all that stuff. And if you just listen to something, you'll learn a lot more than you will if you watch it because when you watch television, everything there is distracting. Your glasses, your color, your tie, your suit, whether you blink too much, all that stuff and it can get in the way and we wanted to keep it as simple as possible.

So how would you describe your interview technique? Did you study others? Is it all your own?

I've always given credit or blame depending on whether you like the technique or not to my high school broadcasting teacher, Bill Frasier. And he taught us, I was 14 years old when I started out in his class at Jefferson High School in Lafayette, Indiana. I just loved broadcasting. It was my first go with it. I'd always liked it as a kid and I watched it and listened to it and all that. And he would say, when you interview people, listen. And the interview is not about you. Well as television developed, the interview became about the questioner, not the person being questioned. And over the years you've noticed, no doubt, that people who are asking questions on television make a tremendous amount of money. So if you're paying somebody like Matt Lauer $25 million a year to do the Today Show, he has to perform. And that's not taking anything away from him. He's obviously in the commercial world worth it.

But here it has nothing to do with me other than I want to ask the questions and listen and then follow up when I hear something that I didn't expect. And I often never came to the interview with a list of questions. I have more papers in my hands today than I did when we started. I would only have the book. We had no fancy graphics. I'd take the book and hold it up to the camera and they'd zoom in on the picture or whatever it is we had. And it was so simple and relatively successful. And interestingly, more successful I think than the Q&A that I went on to do afterwards because people have this connection to that book. They could go out and buy the book and then be a part of the whole thing. And I think that really mattered.

So you frequently ask your guests biographical questions. And some of the authors found that outside of the norm. So why did you ask? And do you think that the reading public or your viewers appreciated these questions?

Well if you think about it, I think it's always surprising to people that are being interviewed that you ask them, "Who's your father? What was he like? What's your mother like? What was growing up in your town like? What was your school like?" What's odd about that though is often these are the same journalists, historians that have spent their last several years writing about somebody else and the depth of their own family situation. And I think they do view themselves as being passive in some regards. But I think it matters where somebody comes from and where they went to school and what their interests are and what their family's like and whether they're married, not married, all that. I just think it matters. It gives you a sense of even having a bigger connection to the book. And those are always questions that frankly elicited the most interesting answers I think to the audience. The audience loved the "Where do you write? How do you write? What do you write?" All that. And I was always interested in it. I had no idea. And when I would travel and we had our own books that we published, that was always what people honed in on. They loved those questions because writing is hard. And anybody that's read much knows how hard it is. And then when you find out how people do it and they all had different ideas on how to do it, it was really interesting.

So what was the reasoning for Booknotes being an hour?

There was no particular reason. In C-SPAN, in the C-SPAN format, we have programs that are six hours. We have programs that are 20 minutes. They're really not programs. They're events. And an hour is a traditional old line radio and television format or a half hour. And a half hour, you can't get to any depth at all in an interview. The thing that probably shocked authors more than anything is they'd come in and we'd talk for an hour and they'd say, "Oh my God, that time just flew by." And then they'd say, "Well, I just got six minutes on the morning show somewhere." And they don't even have time. By the time the questioner talks for three and a half minutes of the six, they don't have time to say much of anything. And here it's about them.

So what was your most memorable Booknotes experience?

There were several and the experience wasn't what you might expect. Sitting here in this room many years ago was Ron Chernow, who has had a fabulous success story. He wrote Washington. He wrote Hamilton. There's a Broadway show now called Hamilton that came from his books. And he's a terrific historian. Sitting right there, I think if I remember correctly, we had to stop the tape six times, five times, because up above us somebody was drilling. Now there was a time in this building that there was constant construction. And they weren't supposed to do it during the daytime. And Ron Chernow was very patient with us, but it was terrible. And so it's the experience of having to interrupt and all that. And I haven't gone back to look at that interview. I've interviewed him for several hours on different books. I think it was his Hamilton book, but I'm not sure about that. He did a book on Morgan, J.P. Morgan, and Warburg and others. But that's one.

Probably the biggest shock we ever had was a man who was the co-founder of the internet was sitting right where you are. Name's Robert Kahn, Dr. Robert Kahn. This was several years ago. And I can remember this, we were 50 minutes into the interview. And I asked him a question. And all of a sudden his head went back and his eyes rolled and he slumped in this chair. And I froze. I mean, I had never seen anything like it. I was completely, I thought Dr. Kahn was, either had a heart attack or he just collapsed or whatever. And a producer ran through the door and yelled at him, you know, "Dr. Kahn!" And fortunately he came to, perspiring. We had no idea. And it turns out it wasn't serious at all. But within 15 minutes his wife was here, the EMT people were here from the hospital. They brought a gurney in here and he was strapped to it and went to the hospital. And it turned out he had nothing more than dehydration and had passed out. But the fun thing about it, if there is such a thing as fun in this, we asked him to come back. Same shirt, same tie. - For 10 minutes. - Eight minutes. And he did, he sat down there. And if you go back and watch that program, you can tell it if you are watching. Now that I've told you it's eight minutes to go, you can see it. But nobody else could see it. He looked good and he was really good spirited about it.

Were there any Booknotes bloopers? 

Well, I don't know what you call a blooper. Amity Slays, who wrote a book, the most recent book she wrote was on Coolies, but it was a book before that, came here some years ago. But again, sitting there, she had a bright red dress on. And she was all excited because her grandmother was a big Booknotes watcher. And I remember Amity coming in, I know her, we've done a lot of shows together, and she came in and she said, "Oh, my grandmother's so excited I'm doing Booknotes." And I thought, "That's great." And I've heard that before and that was always fun. A lot of older people watch. Now that I am one, I know what that's all about. You do have more time when you get older. But we did the show and I walked her out. She had come down from New York and she left the building. And as I walked back in, I ran into a couple of my colleagues with these very, very long faces. And I knew something was wrong. And this is the only time this has happened ever. It didn't record. We didn't get the interview. And I remember calling Amity up and saying, this is very painful for me to tell you this, but the program we did did not record and the only thing I can say is if for some reason or other you're going to be back here, we'll do it again. She came back. Same dress, bright red dress. We did the interview. And so her grandmother was able to see her on Booknotes. And that's a huge mistake, but I don't know that it would be so much of a blooper.

Did the episodes in later years differ anyway from the earlier Booknotes episodes?

I've never studied it, but I'm sure they did. In some ways, I'm better at it today than I was years ago. And what I mean better at it, the thing that drives me crazy, and I used to do this and I don't do it anymore, I used to ask the same question twice. I couldn't understand it. You asked this question earlier. I was probably too busy. And I don't do that anymore. And I don't know why, but if I go back and look at the program, I said, there I go again. So I tend, and I used to worry about people would write and they would catch me doing things. Instead of asking, why do you do something, I would ask you, how come you do something? Well, it's not good English. And so I started becoming conscious of that. Also I did learn this, and this is not, most people would probably agree with this. You don't have to read every word of every book in order to have a good interview. As a matter of fact, a lot of books are too big. After you've learned the basic information, sometimes you get the feeling that somebody thought they had to make it an 800-page book instead of a 250-page book. And I would say, I would advise anybody writing books that you're better off if you can keep it shorter just because attention span and also people, those 800-page books are difficult to get through. It takes you forever. So yeah, I mean, I've learned a lot about asking questions and I've never thought that I had the answer. I just always thought that if I kept me out of it as much as possible, the audience would get the most benefit out of that by hearing the author.

So speaking about 800-page books, what did you learn about authors, the book world and publishing, being exposed to this for almost 16 years?

Well, I find, you talk about admiration of people, I admire authors more than just about anybody because good authors. I'm not talking about somebody that slaps a book together, but good authors and good journalists and good historians spend an enormous amount of time on their books. And I've lived through, Richard Norton Smith has turned into being a good friend and he did a book on Nelson Rockefeller and we would have lots of, over the years, meals together. And I lived through that book for 14 years. And there were a lot of reasons why it took 14 years, including he would fuss over the book and the language and rewrite it and write it and rewrite it and researching it and getting new information and all that stuff. And he was totally dedicated. It was his magnum opus for whatever reason, that was what he wanted to do the most extensive research on. I've learned also that this is something that I think is tremendous. I've rarely interviewed anybody that's written an in-depth book where they didn't have the answer to every question I ask them. And I think that's amazing because there was a woman years ago who did a book on the Civil War and in the middle of the interview I asked her, we were talking about Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who went on to be a Supreme Court Justice, important Supreme Court Justice. I think, I hope it wasn't Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. But I ask her, you said in the book that he fought in three different battles of the Civil War, which battles were they? And she had a great answer. I've been on to my next book, I wrote that a year ago, I'm on to my next book, I can't remember. And that's one of the few times that's ever happened because authors know their stuff. And I'm always worried because it's not my job to embarrass them, but I'm always worried that you ask them. Because I used to get into the numbers game and so and so was born on such and such a date and how long do they live and when do they die and what do they die of and all that stuff and they almost never miss. And authors, most authors are interesting people. They know a lot of things about a lot. And they know how to find information. And if I had my druthers I'd spend an evening with an author before I'd spend my evening with, this sounds almost heretical, with a politician. Politicians are always, almost always, tremendously nice people because that's the business they're in. But they have to be, you know, a tremendous amount of skin deep information, broad information instead of in-depth information. Authors are really interesting people and they work very hard at getting that final product out.

In your estimation, what is the lasting impact of the Booknotes program?

Lasting impact of the Booknotes program will probably end up being the project that you're involved in at George Mason. I think for most people, I mean the fact that you took all the books and then you have analyzed the marginalia and stuff like that and categorized it and all that kind of thing, that's going to be the legacy of it. The ability for people in the future to study it, I don't think there's any great reason to study what I did so much as here is 15 and a half, 16 years, 801 books, 801 authors because we only interviewed an author once. And it's just a great cross-section and it's an hour. And it depends on what somebody's interested in but if you're a historian, there's a lot of stuff there. If you're a teacher, you can assign it in your class if you want to. I don't hold out much hope that people are going to do that. Up till now, there's not been a super amount of interest in it. Unfortunately, the biggest impact will be on people who a lot of them have passed on. It was just pure enjoyment for them while they were alive. And they learned a lot and bought a lot of books. Other than that, it's passing. It's hard to get people to sit still for an hour, even to be interviewed for an hour or to watch for an hour.

So is there anything else you'd like to add about C-SPAN, Booknotes, your experiences?

No, nothing other than the fact that I was one very lucky person. And when I met people over the years that got to go on that experience with me and they watched it, it was fun. People I think learned something that watched and they became somewhat addicted to it because the authors were just tremendous. They're just tremendous people. Learning is the thing that I enjoy doing the most and learning about history is number one, right up at the top.