The bolt of lightning that eventually led to the creation of C-SPAN struck a Navy public affairs specialist named Brian Lamb 46 years ago when a flock of students invaded the Pentagon for a Vietnam War protest.
Then-Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara had allowed the kids access to the building in a show of goodwill. The group spread itself across a corridor and gathered peacefully until an ABC News correspondent arrived and turned on the cameras.
“These kids who had been quiet and serene stood up with their placards,” recalls Lamb. “What [television viewers] saw was not what was actually happening. They saw a minute-and-a-half story on the evening news. It was misleading. I said to myself, ‘It’s too bad the public can’t see the whole thing and let them make up their own mind.’ ”
He eventually founded a cable channel to do just that, and nearly half a century later, Lamb, 69, presides over a network that beams gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Senate and House of Representatives to 100 million television sets.
If you have a cable TV clicker, you get C-SPAN.
This week, Lamb, who describes himself as a“social entrepreneur,” is receiving the Lone Sailor Award, given to sea service veterans who have gone on to excellence in their civilian careers.
FedEx founder Fred Smith, Estee Lauder executive Leonard Lauder, Bill Cosby, former Virginia senator John Warner and former Redskin Eddie LeBaron are past recipients.
Impressive crowd, but so is Lamb and his invention.
C-SPAN’s funding is a nonprofit fundraiser’s dream: Every cable television customer in the United States pays a 6-cent-per-month fee. That brings in around $60 million a year, which supports 275 employees and leaves a 2 to 3 percent surplus. (Nonprofit groups technically don’t have profits.)
Lamb, who earns less than $400,000 a year, runs a lean operation with a fanatical attention to head count and low costs. The company, which started in a 500-square-foot office, occupies 70,000 square feet a couple of blocks from the Capitol.
The C-SPAN family is a happy lot. Lamb, known for his dead-pan interview style, says 60 people have worked at C-SPAN — short for Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network — for more than 20 years.
The entrepreneur built his success on two smart strategies: He cultivated mentors, and he was persistent. He soaked up everything he could from people and was not afraid of conflict or being uncomfortable.
“The real secret of entrepreneurs is learning from everyone you know,” he says.
His first mentor was a teacher at Lafayette Jefferson High School in Indiana named Bill Fraser. Fraser introduced him to radio in his freshman year, and Lamb hosted a 7 a.m. show that reached only 100 feet beyond the school doors.
Fraser taught him how to interview (“ask open questions so you don’t get yes or no answers”), and they remained friends until Fraser’s death five years ago.
He created his first career break the summer of 1959 before his freshman year at Purdue, when Lamb went to work for Henry Rosenthal, who owned the Lafayette radio station, WASK.
“He agreed to hire me for the summer for a buck an hour,” said Lamb, who did odd jobs around the station. “One day in the summer, he asked me, ‘How would you like to make a station break tonight?’ That means saying, ‘This is WASK Radio, Lafayette, 1450 on your dial.’ ”
The Purdue speech major was hooked.
While at Purdue, Lamb got his first taste of business when he approached a television station manager named Dick Shively. He pitched a dance show called “Dance Date,” which was a local version of “American Bandstand.” Shively told him to go do it.
Lamb visited high schools, where he recruited student leaders to bring kids to the studio. He trudged to local businesses and asked them to advertise. He helped design and build the set. He emceed the program, getting an all-around education in the business.
He joined the Navy after graduation, spending two years on a ship and two at the Pentagon. There, he picked the brain of news correspondents such as NBC’s Bob Goralski and observed the news-gathering process.
His vision of C-SPAN started taking shape.
“The three networks did basically the same thing,” he said. “The correspondents were different, but they covered the same things. There wasn’t much choice as to what was on television.”
Lamb kept thrusting himself into situations, looking for opportunities.
He met a young Tennessee senator named Howard Baker at a White House social event, who helped find him a job in the Nixon-Agnew campaign. When he next tried to join a broadcast network, he was turned down, so he went to work in the communications office of a Colorado senator named Peter Dominick.
His views from the inside started to coalesce into a philosophy built around greater information opportunities for citizens and for the politicians who want to reach them.
“I had wanted everybody else to see what I could see,” he said. “If everybody could see this unfiltered, it would give them choice and better perspective.”
By the time Lamb went to work for a cable television trade publication called Cablevision, in the early 1970s, he wanted to marry his vision of a network dedicated to unedited content of the political system with emerging technologies that would eventually result in the television and telephone systems we enjoy today.
The owner of Cablevision, Bob Titsch, helped him win support from industry executives. Twenty-two of them signed on, including heavyweights such Bob Rosencrans and Ken Gunter, who owned systems around the country.
Lamb incorporated in December 1977 and officially launched C-SPAN in March 1979, with four employees and a $480,000 budget. It broadcast eight hours of U.S. House of Representatives activity from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., available in 3.5 million homes.
C-SPAN’s future was uncertain until Oct. 1, 1980, when Lamb staged his first call-in show featuring a roundtable of reporters. The switchboard lit up.
“They were so enthusiastic that they could talk back to somebody on television,” said Lamb. “I just knew I had a hit.”
The cable industry agreed to underwrite a full-time, round-the-clock network.
C-SPAN now has three networks, including one for the Senate, one for the House and one devoted to history. There are no reporters. No interference. Several staffers take turns interviewing guests. The nonprofit media company produces its own documentaries and has 25 Web sites with 165,000 hours of content dating from 1987.
There’s an iPhone app with the three channels and its radio station. Viewers can call up the Web site and view all of that content.
And they can see how he fulfilled the mission he started that day in the Pentagon 46 years ago.
Follow me on Twitter @addedvalueth.