C-SPAN Founder Says His Network Is Based on "A Simple Concept"

Photograph: Eil Noam, director of Columbia's Institute for Tele-Information, talks to Brian Lamb, the founder and president of C-SPAN. Photo Credit: Joe Pineiro.

He has a face seen by millions of Americans, but recognized by few. As founder and president of C-SPAN, Brian Lamb is the creator of one of the most successful cable stations. Speaking at the Business School last week, he listed the successes of his popular network, and also explained how unfamous he is.

"I'm constantly on C-SPAN, but I am amazed at how few people know who I am," Lamb said. Not that he isn't recognized. He has one of those faces that prompts: "Don't I know you?" He has been mistaken for the governor of Oklahoma and someone's high school classmate.

"This goes on all the time," he said.

Lamb has good reason to wonder why he is not more well known. C-SPAN, the 20-year-old cable network based in Washington, has become an influential presence in this country by broadcasting unabridged coverage from the floor of Congress. C-SPAN, short for Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, has been seen by 40 percent of Americans, about 90 percent of whom are registered voters, according to Lamb. Forty-five foreign governments have approached Lamb for information about starting their own political networks. And anyone who cares anything about politics is often a self-described "C-SPAN junkie."

Lamb visited Columbia last week as the video collection of his program, "Booknotes," was donated to Columbia libraries by C-SPAN's original backer, Robert Rosencrans CC '49. The collection includes approximately 300 of Lamb's programs, which feature interviews with various nonfiction authors of political science and history. Lamb's talk was sponsored by Columbia Libraries and the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information. Before his speech, Lamb was taken on a tour of Butler Library by Elaine Sloan, vice president of information services and University librarian.

Lamb founded C-SPAN in 1975, with $25,000 from Rosencrans. It is one of the few not-for-profit networks on cable. It operates on a $26 million budget and has a staff of 220 employees.

The concept behind C-SPAN, Lamb said, is to present political and public affairs events to viewers with little interference from the broadcaster.

"It's a simple concept," he said. "All I want to do it help you be there."

Lamb is particular about what he covers. For example, C-SPAN did not cover any of the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

"I consider myself, at heart, to be a journalist," he said. "And if you want to argue that, if you want to call the O.J. trial journalism, then we can have a good discussion."

Lamb sees C-SPAN as having three roles: It informs the general public; it informs other media; and it informs the political process itself.

"Bob Dole goes home every night and watches C-SPAN," Lamb said. "Some people may say, 'Get a life.' "

Columbia University Record -- October 27, 1995 -- Vol. 21, No. 8