Former C-SPAN Senior Producer Sarah Trahern was interviewed as part of the Booknotes Oral History Project on 19 March 2015. Ms. Trahern discusses her time working with C-SPAN and Booknotes from 1987 to 1995.
Hello, I'm Lindsey Bestebreurtjei, oral historian for George Mason University Libraries, and with me is sound engineer Robert Vay. Today is March 19, 2015, and we are recording from Fenwick Library, where we are speaking with Sarah Traherne, a senior producer at C-SPAN who worked on the Booknotesprogram. Hello, Ms. Traherne, thank you for speaking with us today.
Thank you, it's good to talk with you as well.
So what was your official title at C-SPAN, and when were you involved in the Booknotes program?
I first started at C-SPAN in 1987 as a guest coordinator, and I think at some point they changed our title to producer, and then I oversaw the call-in unit and became a senior producer somewhere in that window. I was at C-SPAN from 1987 to 1995, and I was involved in Booknotes from 1989 to 1995. How were authors chosen for Booknotes? You know, certainly we received probably 20 books for every book that we got to do an interview on, and the producers in my tenure was myself, and then we also worked with a woman named Hope, who then later took over the series from me after I left. We would cull through all the materials. We would read articles, whether it's the New York Times Review of Books, or we would get galleys. I remember one of the things that was to me the biggest -- not necessarily stressor, but the thing that I took very seriously was the fact that I'm going to go and read a chapter or two of a book or four or five different books and then make a decision on something that Brian's going to spend a significant amount of time doing. So you don't want to -- as a producer, you didn't want to pick what was going to be a crappy book that he was going to have to spend days of his very valuable free time reading, because certainly if anybody gets a chance to look at any of Brian's copies of the books over those years, with the notes in the margin and things he highlighted, there's no question as much as we might prepare some top-line interview questions for him and that sort of thing that he really was the heart and soul of what made Booknotes so special is the amount of time he took into it. So as someone who is in the position of trying to make those decisions on what books we did, I always had in the back of my mind Brian looking at me and going, "Hey, Sarah, is this one going to be worth my time?" So then after we -- after myself or myself and an associate producer would go through the list, we would sit down with Brian usually about once a week or so and go through what our suggestions were. So we might bring in three suggestions for every interview we did and really make the pitch, "Okay, we should do this book because of this reason. Here's who the person is. Here's who the story is. Here's why our viewers would have interest in it." And just as much as we would do a lot of prep to bring those in, Brian might have read about some book as well that he would bring to the attention of those meetings. How did selected authors react to your call asking them for interviews? You know, usually -- it would be two things. One is we got to deal with the author directly ourselves. Certainly, all of them or most of them were very familiar with the C-SPAN Book Note Show, so most people were, you know, quite excited about it. Often we would be dealing with -- you know, for the books that came through a major publishing house, we might be dealing with the publicist for the publishing house. So certainly they're calling us, pitching their artists all the time -- or their artists -- you can tell I'm in the country music business now -- pitching their authors all the time. And, you know, they certainly knew that a get on Booknotes probably sold a lot of books for them. So they were, you know, they were quite excited. Some of them pushed really hard and, you know, they were not always happy when we had to tell them a no. One of the things that struck me as I was prepping to talk with you today, I went back through the list of all the Booknotes over time, and I'd forgotten not just how many we did over the years I was there, but that it was a book a week. And, again, I just have so much admiration for the time that Brian took on it. Certainly I know there's some interviews that I pushed through that probably were unexpected surprises in a good way, and there's some that I probably pushed through that were dog. But regardless, Brian still gave it the attention that it needed to prep for the interviews.
Were there any authors who pushed to be interviewed but weren't chosen, or conversely, were there any authors who refused the invitation to be interviewed?
I don't think there are any authors that refused the invitation to be interviewed during the time I was there. There were certainly -- I think there's some people who walked away from the interview not knowing the depth of it. It's ironic. There was a book we did on the New Hampshire primary, I think it was in -- I have to look at the list here -- maybe 1991 with a guy named Dayton Duncan, who I now work with in my current job, who is a producer with Ken Burns on the Ken Burns documentary series. And as I was reviewing the books that we did during my time there, I realized that Dayton was one of the interviewees. So I emailed him and said, "Hey, I knew you looked familiar." And he sent me a note back that said, "At the time I did the Booknotes interview, I didn't have cable, so I didn't understand what a lengthy" -- this is his email -- "I didn't understand what a lengthy and good interview would be, probably the best any author could hope for." Brian actually read the book, or at least was thoroughly prepared on it, and asked a lot of pertinent questions. I didn't get that everywhere. I just thought that was so interesting, is that some people may come into the process, who weren't familiar with C-SPAN or Brian or the show, and think that they're going to get the standard interview questions that came out from their publicist in their press packet. And certainly when I saw some of the authors that we had in our show interviewed on other news programs, whether it was PBS or some of the morning shows or other places where authors might be featured, often the four or five questions that got asked were the questions probably straight out of the press kit that the authors had prepared. And what I always loved about working on Booknotes is that you've got a unique sense of the depth of the author's dedication to the book. I mean, certainly to put out a book of the kinds we featured on Booknotes, the author's giving that multiple years of their life and really investing in it. And I think the thing that I'm -- one of the things I'm most proud of is I think the interview gave the chance to really reflect both the depth of the knowledge the authors had on their subject, but their passion and commitment to those subjects. And then Brian also gave you the chance to get to know the author's own story a little bit better. So why did they choose to invest so much time of their life into the book?
Well, the Booknotes interview is quite simple in appearance, with the black background and two people sitting opposite one another. What was the reason for such a simplistic set?
I think the thing about the set is really that the focus is on the content. And you see it really in several different ways. One is the black background and that it's not about being sexy television. It's about the content being king. And the focus is on -- is always on the guest first and foremost. The focus is not on the host being Brian.
So it really was can the guests in their story sustain the interest against a more stark background in an era, particularly as we're moving towards today where things are flashy and sexy and you've got six layers of graphics on the screen. The other thing is that the host never met the guests before the interview. They didn't want to get into those kind of pleasantries in the green room. Or if you look at a number of the guests we featured over the years, whether it was, you know, Ben Bradley or Marlon Fitchwater or, you know, Pierre Salinger or Gore or, you know, journalists and historians and politicians. I'm just looking on the list, Dan Quayle, George Shultz. A lot of those people had been through C-SPAN in some other capacity. And so the goal was not to -- was to keep the interview pristine so that the first time the interview subject sat down, Brian O'Brien and talked to him was in the studio, in that stark studio when it was just the two of them. And so often myself as a producer or someone else from our staff would be the ones greeting the guests and warming them up and asking what questions they had about the show or the process, explaining that there was not a break or the ability to be edited. You know, so once you're in a C-SPAN show, you're in a C-SPAN show, so everything you say is going to go out. We're not going to go back in and cut something out down the road. You know, the philosophy is everything airs in its entirety, which is always a good thing to remind guests of before that you can't necessarily stop and start and say, "I want to take that out." But one of my favorite stories at the time on Booknotes -- there's so many of them when I look at the list, but one of them actually was when Richard Nixon was in to do his book, and certainly, again, Brian didn't meet with him beforehand, and he came without a big entourage or secret service. It was himself and one assistant to the green room. And we're putting -- you know, so I'm the producer, but I'm also the makeup person in that case. I'm putting some powder on him. And, you know, here's a figure that -- you know, I grew up in the '60s and early '70s, so I remember clearly where I was when he resigned as president and with my parents through that period and all kinds of things. So you're sitting there talking to him, and, you know, you really -- what do you say to somebody who's such a historic figure for better or worse? And I knew that he grew up on the New York Mets, and I had been a Cardinals baseball fan, so we sat in the green room while I was trying to warm him up for his interview and talked about baseball. You know, how many people have that opportunity to talk baseball with Richard Nixon? Or I remember when Caroline Kennedy and Ellen Alderman came in for their book. I think that was one of those shows where I saw Brian being a little awestruck, kind of, just again, even myself, that, you know, that Caroline was a little bit older than me but was somebody who had been so involved in the fabric of what American history was. And I think that's the thing. When I look back now, years later, at all the people that came through that show, that we were fortunate to really touch, I mean, what a great fabric of history of the last 50 years of America, and certainly the subject matter that they cover going way back. I mean, I developed kind of an academic crush on David McCullough because I think he's got such a great voice and is such a strong historian.
But there's just different things you remember. I thought General Schwarzkopf had the best blue eyes, and the pictures of -- that's just what I remember being in the control room as he was being interviewed and how bright blue his eyes were. And then there's Clifford Stoll who hid behind his chair, and probably the first time we ever had a guest physically do some different things on the set that were saying to the camera guys, "Just go with it. Like if he walks off the set or does something strange, just go with it." So it's fun to look back. Well, you mentioned these memorable experiences and authors. Were there any other bloopers or unplanned happenings during the taping of the program? Well, I think one of the things that -- because Brian asked all these open-ended questions, sometimes people didn't know what to expect. I remember we did an interview with a guy named Martin Gilbert on Winston Churchill, and there was a lot of discussion on buggery and things in the British situation at the time, and Brian would ask his wonderful open-ended questions, you know, "What is buggery?" Or I remember in one of the interviews, and Martin Gilbert was like, "Uh-uh," and didn't know how to answer it in that interview. There's also one I think where he asked somebody -- I wish I could remember the specifics, but it was like, "Who is Thomas Jefferson?" or "Who is Alexander Hamilton?" And the person's looking at Brian like he's got two heads. "Well, of course you know who Thomas Jefferson is." But that's not the point. It was not about Brian or the host showing how much he knew. It was asking the basic questions that the audience might want to know, and that's the role that he put himself in as host, is the everyman, you know, asking the basic things.
Well, you've touched on C-SPAN's editing policies, but what did the producer do after the interview in order to prepare it for air, and were there any rules regarding scheduling from when an interview was recorded and when it was ultimately aired?
I mean, sometimes for the edit it might just be putting heads and tails on a show. Sometimes it might be adding additional pictures in. Often the host would hold up pictures that we could get on camera during the time, but it might be that we needed to go back and lay some of the pictures from the book over the specific stories. As I was looking at the list of interviews that we did over the years, it really struck me how much volume there was, how many shows we did. And as I was trying to figure out what the last Booknotes I did was, gosh, I remembered certain interviews that were airing well after I was involved in, well after the time I was there. And then that just reminded me that we taped, sometimes we might have five shows in the can ready to go, and then something new would come out and that would bump the other ones back. I mean, certainly we look to have a diversity of topics. So if you were doing something on a series of different books that all touched on race relations, you might not air them all back to back to back to back, but pepper them throughout the series. So you didn't have five books on World War II airing at the same time or five books on journalism, but really tried to mix up the subject matter so that the audience wasn't seeing the same thing week after week. With this high volume of shows, not every Booknotes interview was conducted at the C-SPAN studio in Washington. Where else were interviews held, and what were the logistics of these like? You know, I know, you know, I remember the very first Booknotes interview. I was at C-SPAN when we did really Neil Sheehan, which became the, it was a separate interview, but it became the impetus for us doing Booknotes. And I can't remember if we did that one in the studio or not, but the majority during my time there were done in the studio. We did, I think, President Ford up in New York, and we did a number of field interviews with authors, but during my time most of them were there. I mean, certainly if you're going to go do a show, we had some derivative shows that came off of Booknotes. Like we had a series called Conversations where you might put three people, usually authors, together to discuss the world. One of my favorite ones was David Halberstam, George Will, and David McCullough. And we shot them in town. I forgot if that one was at the Library of Congress or at some other historic location, but so you've got three authors who've all written numerous books talking about everything in American culture, from pop culture and music and baseball to great historians of great historic figures of the 1800s. Those shows were usually done in the field, and whenever we went to the field we had a, you know, portable unit and I had to take lights. C-SPAN was really good at traveling their shows. I'll say today I worked on much bigger productions. I appreciate how nimble we were and how easy it was to get in and out of situations with our crews.
What did you learn about authors and the book world while producing Booknotes?
Well, for me it's amazing when you look at the authors who've done numerous books, how they can time and time again put out the volume and the depth of some of the amazing projects they worked on. In looking back at the list of the shows, I really want to go back and read those books again now. It's pretty -- looking back on that time, I said, wow, you know, sometimes you don't take advantage of it as much as you do when you're in the midst of it. But just continue to have incredible respect for the authors and the amount of time and passion they put into their subject matter. And I think they, almost to a fault, every one of them walked out of that interview just so appreciative of C-SPAN and Brian for giving them the chance and the full chance to talk about their experience, not just a soundbite. I think you're definitely right about that impression taken away by authors, because in our interviews of the Booknotes' authors, that's definitely been a running theme, the appreciation of the preparedness. And I love the fact that, you know, if you look at the history of C-SPAN, one of the things I'm proud of as someone who's touched that show is how much Booknotes has influenced other things the network has done, that Brian has used the experience of what he learned through Booknotes to create other major platforms for the network, whether it's the de Tocqueville series that happened right after I left, the President's Grave piece. I know there was an author that we interviewed while I was there on George Washington -- I have to remember his name here in a second -- who visited all the President's Graves and talked about that in the interview. And I remember Brian just being so fascinated by that. And then, you know, a couple years later, Brian's doing that and taking our viewers along on that journey as they're going out to that. We've done some stuff on presidential libraries. I say "we." I've been gone for 20 years, and I still feel part of the family. And then the one I think I was the most directly involved with was the Doug Brinkley "The Magic Bus." And I remember looking at the book -- I knew Doug from Georgetown when I was in college. He was in graduate school there. And I thought, well, this is a really different book. And certainly it didn't have the gravitas, ironically, of some of Doug's later books and some of the things he's doing now as a historian. But it was really more a pop culture history book about Doug's experience teaching at Hofstra. And so I kind of had to talk Brian into doing that one. And then he started reading it, and it came not about the book. But he'd come back and he'd say, "This book's going to change C-SPAN. This book is going to change C-SPAN." And he wouldn't tell me how. Let me finish a couple more pages. You know, "This is going to change C-SPAN." And we did the interview, and certainly he had dug in numerous times over the years to do -- touch other things that he's done as a historian. But it changed C-SPAN because Brian came up with the idea about the C-SPAN buses and our education initiative to go out around the country. And so I think if you look at various interviews over the years, they really then became derivative of other things that -- they were the, you know, the initiating point for a lot of long-term and productive C-SPAN initiatives.
Well, Booknotes has certainly impacted C-SPAN. But in your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes in then-contemporary American society and perhaps since?
I've been gone 20 years from C-SPAN, and the fact that I've produced Booknotes is often in my bio, not always depending on the length of things. And I can't tell you how many people comment on it. I was part of a military program a few years ago, and the mayor of Nashville, which is ironically the city I live in, was in my group on that. And he sat down next to me on the bus one day, and he said, you know, I'm a big fan of Booknotes. And we sat down to talk about some of the favorite shows we saw on Booknotes. And if people have been C-SPAN watchers and know Booknotes, the first thing if I say I worked at C-SPAN, "Oh, do you know Booknotes," or "Do you know Brian Lamb?" And certainly there's different parts of the world where that's much more well-known. Certainly in the D.C. corridor, up in publishing circles in New York, in both of those worlds, whenever I bring up C-SPAN in a context, people are like, "Oh, Brian and Booknotes." Certainly I think there's other areas that it's not as well-known. But certainly in my tenure, it's one of the things on my resume I'm the most proud of, is getting to be a part of that show. And I think when you talk about what's the view on Booknotes' role in history, I think anybody who's doing a history on any of the subjects that we've looked at or should really pull up the interviews, because I think those interviews give context to Ben Bradley or I'm just looking at the list here, even what are you trying to learn about John Adams or Jefferson or Gerald Ford or any of those things. I think that the transcripts and the content of those Booknotes interviews can help other historians as they push their piece forward. Is there anything you would like to add regarding Booknotes, C-SPAN, or Brian Lamb? I think Brian Lamb is a huge visionary in the media landscape. I don't think he necessarily gets his due, but I also know that he doesn't seek that out. But if you look at how long C-SPAN's been around and the lasting impact it has, I was talking with a young man in the music business the other day, and it came up that I worked at C-SPAN in my past, and he said, "Oh, I was just watching this hearing the other day on intellectual property rights." And he said, "You can go here on the website and look it up." And again, a totally different context than living inside the Beltway, but it makes me proud to this day that I work there when I see what an impact it continues to have in a variety of functions, whether it's as a historical piece, as a way to communicate what's happening in Washington. I worked there nine years, and I still tune in to call-in shows on occasion just to see what people are thinking. So I'm certainly glad that I had experiences to do other things, but I'll say in my career some of the things I'm most proud of were things I got to work on at C-SPAN.
Great. Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.