Home > Brian Lamb, C-SPAN, and Booknotes

Brian Lamb, C-SPAN, and Booknotes

Brian Lamb is the founder and chief executive officer of the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (C-SPAN), a television network dedicated to delivering United States government activities and events, and other public affairs content to the American television viewer. Lamb has served as the company’s CEO since its beginning in 1979. After graduating from Purdue University, Lamb joined the Navy where he spent nearly two years at sea, served as an aide to President Lyndon Johnson, and was later stationed in the audiovisual office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs.

In the late 1970s, with a group of key cable industry executives, Lamb worked to create a television network that would deliver gavel-to-gavel coverage of the proceedings of the United States Congress. Creating C-SPAN as a non-profit entity, this group built one of the Washington area’s first satellite uplinks.  On March 19, 1979, C-SPAN presented the first televised session of the U.S. House of Representatives to millions of cable television viewers nationwide.

An accomplished interviewer, Lamb conducted one of his first interviews with the members of the musical group, The Kingston Trio, at age 17. As an employee of a radio station he interviewed other musicians including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, and Count Basie. Within the first decade of C-Span, in April 1989, Lamb and C-SPAN began to air a program called Booknotes.  Its format was described by Lamb simply as "one author, one book, one hour." The weekly program, which concentrated on non-fiction books, was hosted by Lamb himself, who, by his own accounting, spent an average of 20 hours reading and preparing for each interview.

The program began officially on April 2, 1989, as Booknotes with an interview of Zbigniew Brzezinski about his book entitled The Grand Failure, on the fall of communism. But Booknotes’ roots were in a series of interviews conducted by Lamb and shown on C-SPAN in September and October 1988.  With the release of Neil Sheehan’s landmark the Vietnam War book, A Bright and Shining Lie, during that year, C-SPAN decided to feature Sheehan and his work in a series of interviews. Over two and one-half hours were recorded for C-SPAN to televise in five parts that fall. The show format was quite simple. Lamb and his interview subject were seated on a dark empty set with sparse lighting. The cameras focused primarily on the subject, and only rarely did we see the interviewer. The author being interviewed did most of the talking as Lamb would only ask brief questions and follow up periodically.

In total Booknotes aired 801 interviews from 1989 to 2004. It focused primarily on contemporary nonfiction books, though one title, Say Cheese, by Vasily Aksyanov, was actually a novel. With Booknotes, C-SPAN established a popular television forum for writers of history, biography, politics, and public affairs. Lamb is currently host of the interview series on C-SPAN entitled Q&A. C-SPAN has also created Book TV, which is seen on C-SPAN 2 and carries 48 hours of non-stop non-fiction book related program each weekend.

The original Booknotes interviews can be viewed at booknotes.org.

To celebrate the donation of the Booknotes collection, Lamb visited Mason’s Fairfax Campus in September 2011. Lamb hosted a master class for Mason students, focusing on topics such as how he prepared for interviews; the “art” of the interview; and his reflections on interviewing famous and influential people. Lamb also joined Presidential historian and Mason Scholar-in-Residence Richard Norton Smith in a program during which they reflected on the Booknotes series, its participants, and its impact.

Mason's Brian Lamb Booknotes Collection at George Mason University on Vimeo.