Interview with Brian Lamb.
Abstract from Interview
00:00:37- How did the idea for the Booknotes program come about?
In 1988, Neil Sheehan, a reporter for the New York Times who obtained the Pentagon Papers and Vietnam veteran wrote Bright Shining Lie agreed to do a two and a half hour interview with Mr. Lamb, which was to split up into thirty minute segments over five nights, with the last night for callers to ask Sheehan about the book. Booknotes was not started right away and did not begin until 1989, one year after Bright Shining Lie, but the idea of marrying a book and a television program “seemed really important at the time because no one was doing it”. Early book shows were not popular among the public, but Mr. Lamb saw an opportunity through his own interest in government policy and politics.
00:02:40-Was there any hesitation in trying this new kind of program?
Mr. Lamb had no hesitation because C-SPAN did not have limitations of making money, ratings, commercials, or celebrities, as Mr. Lamb stated, “as long as we’re inside our mission we could do anything we wanted to”. Many different techniques were tried to add useful information for happenings in the political world, and Mr. Lamb’s goals were to read every book on the program, read only nonfiction, and have a new hardback edition of the book, which kept interviews focused and the formula worked for the program throughout its sixteen-year run. The program began to connect with viewers through word of mouth.
00:04:15- How were authors chosen for Booknotes, and was there a selection procedure?
The process was “very unsophisticated”, ideas were brought by the co-producers and Mr. Lamb, and Mr. Lamb visited bookstores, watched television, and listened to radio to learn about new books from authors that might be interested in appearing on Booknotes, which worked for the program. Because Mr. Lamb was conducting the interviews, he wanted books that were of interest to him and hoped that it would also be interesting to the audience. There was concern about asking dumb or insignificant questions, but Mr. Lamb interviewed for the average person, not the “well-educated intellectual”.
00:05:50- Did publishers or authors reach out to C-SPAN to be on Booknotes?
Many authors did reach out to C-SPAN, but publishers were difficult and eventually understood that Booknotes was a marketing opportunity for authors and began to send authors to the program. Eventually, Booknotes had to turn down some authors because there were too many scheduled.
00:06:19- How far in advance were authors booked on the program?
An author would be booked a few months in advance, and for highly anticipated books (such as David McCullough’s Truman), Booknotes would approach the publisher and ask for the first interview on the book and often did not get it because morning news shows would get the interviews first, though some authors preferred Booknotes to shows such as Today because they had the opportunity to speak about their work for more time. Don Hewitt, the creator of 60 Minutes agreed to do the first interview for his book on Booknotes, and the program was able to fend off Barbra Walters who wanted to exchange the interview for promotion of Booknotes, which Mr. Lamb and the show declined for the exclusive interview with Hewitt.
00:08:20- Were you aware of authors that wanted to be on Booknotes but could not, and were there authors who refused to appear on the show?
Sen. Warren Redman wrote a book and Booknotes generally did not interview members of the senate or congress because their books were often “promotional” and didn’t tell the “real story” behind an event. Booknotes declined Sen. Redman’s request and he came to C-SPAN and berated Mr. Lamb because of the denied request, and then did the same thing six months later. Some authors refused to appear on Booknotes, including Anne Richards, former Texas Governor, who was scheduled to appear, but said she could only do one half hour instead of the full hour.
00:11:02- How did you prepare for a Booknotes interview? How long would it take, and how was it balanced with your scheduled?
Mr. Lamb spent 20 hours a week reading and read early in the morning and on weekends and wanted to prove that someone could the books and be informed for the author, and Mr. Lamb wanted to learn for himself about these topics presented on Booknotes.
00:12:35-How was this workload managed along with running C-SPAN?
Mr. Lamb did not exactly remember how he managed it, but considered it a “labor of love”, and he did not rely on others for research of the books he read. The simple secret of Booknotes is to read the book.
00:13:56- Why is the premise and set of Booknotes so simple?
The reason for its simplicity is focus on the author and no other distractions from the sets, exorbitant amounts of money for sets “didn’t matter to C-SPAN”, but sets had to be clean and well thought out. A simple black curtain behind the author meant that the audience would focus on the interview and not the set.
00:15:21- How would you describe your interview technique?
Mr. Lamb’s style is adapted from his high school broadcasting teacher who taught listening is most important. But as television developed, interviews became more about the interviewer and not the subject. At Booknotes, the subject is the most important part of the interview.
00:17:23- Authors were often asked biographical questions, and some authors found it outside of the norm. Why ask those questions?
Authors didn’t always expect those questions, even though they had often spent years researching and asking biographical questions for their books. Mr. Lamb thinks that it matters to ask about an author’s life beyond the book they wrote and gives an “even bigger connection to the book” and audiences appreciated it.
00:19:08- Why was Booknotes one hour long?
There was no specific reason, but one half or whole hour is a traditional television and radio run time for programs, but a half hour didn’t seem like enough for authors to really talk about their book.
00:20:08- What was the most memorable Booknotes experience?
Several experiences stood out, and one in particular was Ron Chernow, whose interview had to be stopped five times because there was construction noise above the studio, which was not supposed to be done during the day. The experience of interrupting was difficult and Mr. Lamb has not watched that interview. The biggest shock of the Booknotes series was Robert Conn, the co-founder of the Internet. Fifty minutes into the interview, Mr. Conn fainted from dehydration and ended up in the hospital. Booknotes asked him to return to finish the interview, and he came back wearing the same shirt and tie and finished the last part of the interview in eight minutes.
00:23:23- Were there any Booknotes bloopers?
Amity Shlaes’ interview went well, but after she left, Mr. Lamb was told that the interview did not record. He called Ms. Shlaes and asked her to come back and she did.
00:25:17- Did the later episodes differ from the early years of Booknotes?
Mr. Lamb considers himself better at the show than he was at the beginning and no longer asks the same question twice, but doesn’t know why he asked those questions. He also received feedback from viewers about saying “how come” instead of “why”, and he became conscious of using “why” instead. Mr. Lamb also learned that not every page of every book needed to be read in order to understand the basic concepts, and longer books are difficult to get through.
00:27:22- What did you learn about authors, the book world, and publishing after being exposed to it for sixteen years?
Mr. Lamb admires good authors, journalists, and historians more than anyone because they spend so much time writing their books and learned that the authors who wrote such in-depth books had the answer to almost every question, with few exceptions. Authors are “interesting people” who know a lot of information on one subject.
00:30:45- What is the lasting impact of the Booknotes series?
The project at George Mason University is the legacy for Booknotes because the collection is available for people to study. It is valuable for historians and teachers, and the biggest impact will be for those who have passed away because they were able to learn something new and read each week.
00:32:33- Is there anything else you would like to add about C-SPAN, Booknotes, and your experiences?
Mr. Lamb felt that he has been very lucky to do Booknotes, and enjoyed learning about history more than anything else.
Lamb, Brian, 1941-
C-SPAN (Television network)