Brian Lamb’s office is stuffed. Books are everywhere. The desk chair looks like a public library castoff. Getting a view of the neighboring Capitol from his window would require improbable contortions.
It’s the office of an untenured university professor, a far cry from the Aeron-and-leather digs of other national cable news network executives. It is, in short, the perfect office for Brian Lamb, founder and for 30 years the head of C-SPAN, the nation’s only truly unfiltered window on the inner workings of Washington.
Finding the perfect sock
In 1991, Washington Examiner Editor Stephen G. Smith, then with Knight Ridder Newspapers, spent a week trailing Brian Lamb to gather information for a profile for The New Yorker. Smith had to abandon the project for lack of time, and so never got a chance to write about Lamb’s secret quest. Nearly two decades later, an Examiner writer picked up the thread of the story:
EXAMINER: There’s one last question I have to ask you. I promised Steve Smith I would ask you.
LAMB: Are you going to ask me about socks?
EXAMINER: (Slack-jawed stare)
LAMB: (Laughing) You tell him I finally found some. Tell him, though, that I didn’t find them until the last year. That will blow his mind. I couldn’t find a pair of socks that would stay up, and I wasn’t going to spend $20 on a pair of socks — that’s insane. Every time we’d get together, I’d say there’s this sock I want to check out. It was fanatical.
[Lamb’s perfect sock: the Carlisle made by Gold Toe. Only one problem: It always seemed to be out of stock.]
LAMB: I found the Gold Toe factory, and I called them — they’re down in North Carolina — and I said, “Can I order the Carlisle from you?” I just wanted to order enough so that I never had to ask about socks again. [Goldtoe referred him to a department store] and I bought enough to last me for a while.”
EXAMINER: I have to tell you, I’ve never had a chance to ask anyone about socks.
LAMB: It’s a very deep question. ... There’s no sock that does what the Carlisle does. And you can get them three for $21, and if you get them at the right time, you can get a discount that will take it below $18. That’s a pretty reasonable price — $6 for a pair of socks.
“I don’t know that I do fit in,” Lamb says of his adopted hometown of four decades. “I don’t ever think about that.”
“He is the antithesis of what many people view this town to be,” says Steve Scully, who’s worked with Lamb at C-SPAN for 18 years.
In Washington, where even the most mundane items can become coveted emblems of power and prestige (biggest status symbol: President Barack Obama’s e-mail address), Lamb is the anti-icon. He drives himself to work, lunches at Union Station and prefers friends’ homes to embassy parties.
“I don’t think I ever felt cool,” Lamb says. While peers, including his brother, veered toward sports, Lamb says, “I didn’t care. I wasn’t athletic. I just loved radio.”
At 13, Lamb knocked on the door of a local radio station and asked to see how it worked. The proprietors were agreeable, and Lamb walked away with an insight that would serve him well years later when he walked into the offices of cable systems operators and asked them to bankroll his idea for a national non-profit cable news network. The worst thing people can do when you ask for something, Lamb learned, is to say no.
Among Lamb’s earlier mentors was Bill “Daddy Fats” Fraser, a broadcasting teacher at Jefferson High School who built a student-run radio station. It could be heard no more than 100 feet from the school, but Lamb was inspired. “It was real!” he says.
Lamb originally dreamed of being a disc jockey, not a newsman. He played music on the air and drums in several local bands. He interviewed celebrity musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Nat King Cole during their visits to neighboring Purdue University, and hosted a television program called “Dance Date.” (Think “American Bandstand,” but even less hip.) At age 17, Lamb got his first job, at WASK radio.
Lamb graduated from Purdue in 1963 and joined the Navy, which sent him to the Pentagon’s public affairs office and later to Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House. Jobs as a Senate press secretary, a White House policy staffer and freelance reporter followed. Lamb was Cablevision magazine’s Washington bureau chief in the 1970s when he came up with the idea for C-SPAN.
He started knocking on doors in 1977, asking the owners of the nation’s cable systems for money. His first boss, Bob Rosencrans, cut him a check for $25,000. Others followed.
Cable was a young arena at the time, and its owners were eager to show federal regulators that, unlike their broadcast counterparts, they did not need the government to tell them to be civic-minded. But Lamb cared little about his backers’ motives.
“Everything you want to say about what they were, they were,” Lamb says of his earliest backers. “In that first 22 [companies I went to], the last five — and I won’t name them — said, ‘Do I have to? Why do we really think we want to do this? Is this going to make us any money?’
“But that’s the way it always is,” he says. “Go to the Founding Fathers, go to Philadelphia, and listen to that conversation” over the drafting of the Constitution. “There were 55 delegates, 39 signed in the end. There’s no such thing as perfection. You’re never going to get 100 percent.”
On March 19, 1979, C-SPAN went on the air with a budget of $450,000, four employees and one phone line. It shared a satellite with Madison Square Garden and was bumped occasionally to make room for professional wrestling shows.
Lamb’s budget now tops $55 million. He knows the first names of more than 200 employees. There are now three C-SPAN channels, an XM radio station and an interactive Web site. About 100 million homes now get C-SPAN.
But Lamb seems unchanged. He still won’t take credit for creating C-SPAN.
“There’s a whole bunch of people who came here right out of college and started out here as an intern, a receptionist and audio operators, and today they’re vice presidents,” Lamb says. “They stayed 25 years. They literally built the place in their image, not mine.”
Kyle E. McSlarrow, president and chief executive officer of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, discovered Lamb’s distaste for celebrity and self-promotion when the NCTA man excitedly asked for an autograph the first time he met Lamb. “He was very chagrined,” McSlarrow recalls.
“It was a group effort in a sense,” McSlarrow says of C-SPAN’s beginnings. “But there was a clear leader. This is Brian’s baby, and if it wasn’t for him, it wouldn’t exist.”
Lamb, the network’s president and CEO, also hosted many of its programs five days a week, starting at 7 a.m. with a three-hour call-in show called “Washington Journal.” Lamb no longer hosts the show, but he still gets up at 4 a.m. every day and is in the office by 6 a.m., having already devoured, it sometimes seems, every possible bit of news available.
Journalists who have appeared with Lamb on his call-in show usually have two distinct memories: obnoxious callers and Lamb’s daunting talent for knowing more than anyone else.
“I used to call it Brian Lamb’s oral exam. It was tough, it was rigorous,” says Craig Crawford, who was working for the Orlando Sentinel in 1989 when Lamb first invited him to appear on the show.
“The thing with Brian Lamb is you didn’t know what he would be interested in,” says Crawford, now a political columnist and commentator under contract with NBC, who still goes on C-SPAN for free whenever he’s asked. “He’d find the most obscure story in any newspaper in the country, and then he’d find the most obscure paragraph in that story.”
Lamb, of course, puts it more modestly. “I just want to learn things and pass it on to others,” he says.
“People think I’m a nerd, which they’re entitled to, but I am not a geek ... absorbed in technology or a policy wonk or any of that,” Lamb says. “I’m just interested in the world.”
Lamb is now preparing for an inevitability his colleagues don’t even want to think about: C-SPAN without Brian Lamb.
Now 67, Lamb has cut his on-air time to one hour a week, a Sunday-night program called “Q&A.” He’s put others in charge of the day-to-day operations and lets them run their own editorial meetings. Lamb says he has no immediate plans to retire, or for what he’ll do once he does. Still, he’s preparing others to take over.
“C-SPAN is ready to be here without me,” Lamb says. “They know darn well they can do it without me. And that’s good.”
From radio disc jockey to television
BORN: Oct. 9, 1941, in Lafayette, Ind.
Full name: Brian Patrick Lamb
CURRENT HOMETOWN: Arlington
FAMILY: His “very Irish” dad was a beer distributor; his grandfather owned a bar called Lamb’s Place. He has described his mother as “very religious.”
EDUCATION: Bachelor of Arts, Purdue University, 1963
MILITARY SERVICE: Navy, 1963-67, including stints at the Pentagon’s public affairs office and as a social aide at the White House. The most famous picture taken of Lamb shows him escorting Lady Bird Johnson down the aisle at the White House wedding of then-future Sen. Charles Robb and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s daughter, Lynda.
POLITICS: He worked briefly as an aide to Richard Nixon during the 1968 presidential campaign but belongs to neither the Democratic nor Republican party.
CAREER: Started as a radio disc jockey with dreams of becoming an entertainer. He was the drummer in a number of Indiana bands and hosted a television program called “Dance Date,” the Indiana version of Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” Convinced the cable television industry to bankroll C-SPAN in 1979.
MARRIAGE: Wed for the first time in 2005, at age 63, to Victoria Martin, a woman he’d known for 30 years.