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Brian Lamb's C-SPAN held its first live call-in show 25 years ago, and the first call came from Yankton, S.D. The network's anniversary call-in this month was a reminder that before Fox News, MSNBC, and Rush Limbaugh, C-SPAN was quietly helping Americans engage in political dialogue by pointing the camera at their public institutions.
Today the largest of the company's three TV channels reaches 90 million homes, and Lamb presides over 255 employees and a $50 million budget.
C-SPAN, entirely funded by the cable television industry, began as a public-relations venture by a heavily regulated business eager to stay on the good side of Congress. In Lamb, who had worked in government relations, cable TV found a hard worker with an original concept--unfiltered access to the workings of government--and an unshakable commitment to political neutrality.
Lamb, 64, remains a Hoosier after years in Washington. On air he is formal and understated; off air, he shows a polite sense of humor. He is dismissive of leadership theories: "There is absolutely no one way to lead." But he says he knows what works for him. "I manage by walking around," he says. "I manage by hiring people that I have a great deal of confidence in to do the job and leave them alone."
He also believes in simple gestures. Employees call him by his first name. Susan Swain and Rob Kennedy, who share day-to-day operations of C-SPAN, stress his sense of loyalty--both to employees and their families and to small vendors the network has stayed with for years.
High office. Lamb is fascinated by American presidents and has interviewed every one since Lyndon Johnson. Bill Clinton, he recalls, would sometimes ponder for 30 seconds before answering a question. "I thought that was terrific," Lamb says. And Ronald Reagan, he recalls, had a plaque on his desk that said, roughly, "No telling how much you can get accomplished if you don't care who gets the credit," says Lamb. "I've used that. I just find that to be incredibly important."
Despite his encounters with America's power brokers, Lamb says he took his biggest lesson in leadership when he was a young ensign aboard the USS Thuban in 1964. He was the officer of the deck, facing 22 enlisted men. "My petty officer fought in World War II," says Lamb. "You know, you don't come on and act like you know the world."
As for the leaders who have most inspired him, Lamb names the 15 board chairmen C-SPAN has had over the years. "You learn compromise from one; you learn the ability to delegate from another; you learn how to spend money correctly from another," he says.
Thanks to the board's continued commitment, C-SPAN has brought an openness to government that would have seemed improbable 26 years ago. And its fly-on-the-wall presence at political events may be as important as ever. In the 2004 elections, for instance, the only place to see extended convention coverage was PBS or C-SPAN.
Some of C-SPAN's legacy is open to question. Gavel-to-gavel coverage gives incumbent politicians a huge advantage, and it's hard to maintain that the presence of cameras doesn't affect the events they're recording--one reason the Supreme Court refuses to let them in. But Lamb's reluctance to speculate on "the C-SPAN effect" matches his famous reluctance to venture his political opinions. At C-SPAN, that's the way it is.
BORN: Oct. 9, 1941 EDUCATION: B.A., Purdue University FAMILY: Just married READING HABITS: For his long-running program Booknotes, he averaged 20 hours a week reading each book and prepping for interviews. ON TAKING RISKS: "The risks weren't very significant. No one knew who I was. If I failed, so what?"
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