Terry Murphy

C-SPAN Producer Terry Murphy was interviewed as part of the Booknotes Oral History Project on March 27, 2015

Interview Transcript

Hello, I'm Lindsey Bestebreurtjei, oral historian for George Mason University Libraries, and with me is sound engineer Robert Vay. Today is Friday, March 27, 2015, and we are recording from Fenwick Library, where we are speaking with Terry Murphy, C-SPAN's Vice-President of Programming who worked on the Booknotes program. Hello, Mr. Murphy, thank you for speaking with us today.

Hi, how are you doing?

So, what was your official title at C-SPAN, and when were you involved with the Booknotes program?

My title now is Vice-President of Programming and Executive Producer, and the producers that worked on Booknotes reported to me. So that was my role. I didn't have a day-to-day responsibility, the producers did. I oversaw their work.

How were authors chosen for the Booknotes program?

Well, you know, most of it was chosen mainly by Brian because it was ones that he found interesting and that felt like he could sustain an hour-long interview with. But the producers who worked on the program also suggested ideas, and they were all current books, so it was a very narrow universe of where to pick. So the producers would suggest, and they'd either convince Brian that it would be a good interview to pursue, or Brian would see books that he'd say, "Let's do that one."

And how did these selected authors react to the call asking them for the interview?

Well, I would tell you there are two reactions. One is, the positive one is they want to sell books. So most often they were out doing a book tour, and so their reaction would be, "Yes," right away. But the second type of reaction would be having to sit down for an hour because most TV interview programs about books were very, very short. So I think some people were kind of maybe taken back or a little surprised that we were going to give them a full hour to talk about their book. But generally very positive because they wanted to talk about what they put their hard work into.

Were there any authors who expressed interest in being interviewed but were not chosen? Or conversely, did anyone refuse the invitation to be interviewed?

You know, I don't remember if anyone refused. I'm sure there were, and the producers probably could tell you this. Often what we ran into is for some of the authors that were big names or celebrities in terms of our world, like Hillary Clinton or people who had a bigger name in politics, they often would agree to go on 60 Minutes or The Today Show or Good Morning America first. They would have exclusive rights, and then they would do all the other programming. So sometimes we would want to get them and they weren't available or they were under contract to other places. That was the biggest thing. Then as Booknotes went throughout the years, the publishers realized how important it was and successful it was in helping them sell books. So sure, we got a lot of books sent to us that we didn't pick, but we could only do 52 of them a year. And you think about all the books that are published, they're nonfiction. So there are a lot of ones that we would be lobbied on that we didn't get.

A Booknotes interview is quite simple in appearance with just a black background and two people sitting opposite one another. Was there a reason for this simple set?

Yes. The reason is that the focus was on the author and what they were saying. If there was a big set or elaborate set or a flashy set, that would take away from the viewer's focus just on the author. So that was simple. That was the reason. Just keep it simple. Keep it focused on the author because that's what's going to make the program. It's not how fancy or how colorful the set is.

Would you describe what goes into preparing for a Booknotes interview?

For the producers, what the producers would do is look at all the books coming out, say that month or in the next few months. Producers also would go to bookstores from time to time and just look through the racks to see what's out there to get ideas. So producers would get ideas. Brian would get ideas. He'd do the same thing. He'd hear about books coming up or being released. He would go to bookstores. They all looked and came up with some ideas. They met once a week. They'd go through books and they would decide which ones to pursue. For the producer, the producer would try to read the book, not always able to read the whole book before the interview, but they would try to read the book and make sure there were certain things that Brian knew about. But Brian read the whole book. So he prepared the most for the program by reading the book and developing his list of questions from his reading.

How did the production team prepare the author for the interview?

Well, I think again what we would do is we would explain to the publicist the format, which is it's an hour long. It's live to tape. It's not going to stop. We're not going to edit it. So we kind of talked through our approach and that the author has to come prepared to sit for an hour-long interview. We did have authors who showed up and said, "Oh, I knew I had an hour, but now I only have a half an hour." We wouldn't accept that. It was an hour-long program, so they had to commit to an hour. We told the authors it would be about their books. Brian, because he read the whole book, asked them about the book. I think some authors were surprised sometimes when Brian would bring out quotes from the book or talk about specific things they talked about in the book and ask them to further explain it. The other thing is they'd just tell the publicist and the authors about Brian's style, which is a very, very simple question, mostly about the book but also about you and how you went about writing the book.

Speaking of the limited editing, which went into a Booknotes program, were there ever any Booknotes bloopers or unplanned happenings during the taping of the program?

Sure. I'm sure other people can tell you more of them. There was one where I think his name was Cliff Stern got up and jumped around the set to demonstrate his point. There were times when Brian would ask people very, very simple questions. He would do that because he wanted the audience to understand and not assume the audience knew those. So authors would be surprised that Brian would be asked such a simple question and they would question him about it. You don't know what that means? I think Brian often would ask authors, "Where do you write? How do you write? What do you do?" One of the authors told us he wrote in the nude. That was kind of a surprise.


A lot of times these books they'd written over a number of years or they had finished a long time ago so they had forgotten things. Brian had to remind them about things in the book. There were also always times when people would like, I can't think of a specific example, but they would do an interview and they'd say, "Can you cut that out because I didn't really want that to be on camera?" We'd just remind them of our rules, which is it's an hour long, take the interview, and we don't edit.

What went into preparing an interview to air and were there any rules about when programs were scheduled to air?

The only rule was sometimes when, as I mentioned earlier, is if people had contracts with other organizations. Let's say there was an author and they had a contract with The Today Show. Their contract with The Today Show is said they have to appear on The Today Show first. We would not schedule that. We may tape their interview, but we wouldn't air until after The Today Show aired their interview. Those are the type of rules if we agreed to them. In terms of after the production, it was very, very simple. In the beginning, it was really editing the intro and editing the exit. It was really just how we would get into the program and how we get out of the program. As the show grew over years, we started to add more elements to it. We started to add more pictures to the program. We added more video to the program. Some of that was done in post-production. Some of it was done during the production. A lot of it was done after the production. After the taping, the producer would work with an editor to polish the program up a little bit. Not edit any of the content, but add things to it. They would edit it so it's all prepared for air. They would type all the graphics and submit all the graphics to be typed. Then it would be keyed, meaning the graphics would be put on the video by our technicians for it to air at 8 p.m. on Sunday nights.

What did you learn about authors and the book world while working on Booknotes?

That it's a lot of hard work. These people became experts in their subject matter. You learned a lot about public policy. You learned a lot about history. You learned a lot about how authors went about their craft. It was very, very different from each other. You learned a lot about public policy and history and the publishing industry and how it all works.

What was your most memorable Booknotes experience or author?

I'll tell you my most memorable Booknotes experience was Friday at 6.30 at night. It was the Friday before the first Booknotes was going to air on that Sunday. We hadn't decided the name of the program. It was myself. It was the director of programming. It was the producer of the program standing in our newsroom trying to figure out a name for the program. We were all tired. We all wanted to go home. But we had a deadline. We had to come up with a name for the program because it was airing on Sunday. We were batting around ideas. We had some names that we talked about. We finally decided to go with Booknotes. There was a little concern because at that point there was a column in The New York Times called Booknotes. It was a very small column. We thought we were copying them. Then we said to hell with it. We'll call it Booknotes. That's how it began. That was my most memorable experience about putting together the program.

Do you recall any of the other name choices which were considered for the program?

No. I knew you were going to ask that. I may have it in my file somewhere, but I doubt it. They all had book in it. If I can find it, I'll let you all know. I can't. I just remember that one. That's the one we jumped on.

In your estimation, what has been the lasting impact of Booknotes in then contemporary American society and perhaps since?

I can tell you for us it helped put our programming that was not the House and Senate on the map. I think having a regular scheduled program is something that was new to us. Something that Susan Swain, our Executive Vice President at that time, argued for. That it should be the same time every week. That's how TV works. We needed to get into that game. Up until that point, everything we aired was just aired when we could. For us, it had a major impact on helping us shape our schedule. It helped put our network on the map in terms of the book industry. It also helped us craft other programming that we did. We've done a lot of programming that we learned from the authors that we talked to on Booknotes. Whether it was the Tocqueville series we did or the Lincoln Douglas series that we did. I think that it's something that I think the audience really liked. They knew what they were going to get and they liked learning about a new book that they could go out and buy. They were invested in it because there was a possibility to buy that book after they watched the interview.

Is there anything that you would like to add regarding Booknotes, C-SPAN or Brian Lamb?

Well, I would tell you, when Brian told us he wanted to stop doing it, we were all quite disappointed. It was a great program. You looked forward to it every Sunday night because he has a great interviewing style. You also learned something. You got great, notable authors and learned a lot about them about their book. It was kind of a Cliff Notes for those who couldn't read the book. But, on the other hand, when you start to think about it and think that he was forced to have to read a book at least once a week, that's a lot of work. It's a lot of work to do that and run a company. You can understand that after a number of years, it's like, "I can't do this anymore." Or, "It's not as fun as it used to be." Or, "I don't have as much time." It was disappointing when he said, "I'm going to stop it." But, also, you could understand it completely. I think it's one of our most successful programs on C-SPAN in our tenure.

Great. Well, thank you for taking the time to participate in this oral history interview. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.