The Norman Transcript

November 9, 2011

OU honors C-SPAN founder with Gaylord Prize

By James S. Tyree
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — The University of Oklahoma honored Brian Lamb on Tuesday for founding C-SPAN in 1979 and nurturing it ever since, though he deflected credit for starting the pioneering station.

“In the creation of C-SPAN, I didn’t do it,” said Lamb, who is CEO of the public affairs cable and satellite station. “A whole lot of people did.”

Lamb received the Gaylord Prize, sponsored by the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, during a Tuesday luncheon in Oklahoma City.

C-SPAN networks broadcast live coverage of debates, votes and other procedures in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. It also has call-in shows and programming relating to politics, education, literature and technology.

OU President David Boren said the prize was created to recognize “someone who’s had a tranformative effect on journalism and on our country and society.” Longtime PBS commentator Jim Lehrer won the first award in 2008. New York Times reporter Thomas Friedman received the prize in 2009. No prize was awarded last year.

Lamb said C-SPAN started with 22 co-founders and four employees. He also had a number of supporters along the way, including Steve Janger, an OU grad and founder of the Close Up Foundation that has sent many high school students to Washington, D.C.

“He bought for us two cameras and a type machine,” Lamb said. “He said we could use them as long as we do programs for kids. They were TK-6 RCA cameras — I remember — and those two cameras were the way we (filmed) in the beginning.”

Lamb has maintained a longtime interest in journalism, though he’s “seen a lot of shenanigans over the years” in Washington and politics.

Addressing the many OU students in the audience, Lamb said he was a Colorado senator’s press secretary in 1969 who, on his first day on the job, arranged for an appearance on the Today Show. An assistant for the senator said he couldn’t do it because the senator was going to a hospital for exhaustion, but Lamb refused to give that explanation unless he knew it was true.

Lamb said the senator went on to say that he would be treated instead for angina — and to trust his young press secretary.

“Along the way, you’re going to have to make a decision — stick to your principles or go with the flow,” Lamb said. “A lot of people just go with the flow.”

Gaylord College Dean Joe Foote said Lamb started C-SPAN before prominent cable networks like CNN, ESPN and the Discovery Channel went on the air by convincing the cable industry “to have a channel it didn’t even know it needed.”

C-SPAN went live on March 19, 1979 — two months after Boren began his first term as U.S. senator — after lengthy debates on whether to allow television cameras in the House and Senate chambers. Both Boren and Lamb recalled a senator who painted or polished a bald spot on his head because he was so worried about it showing up on camera.

“But the lights came on, the cameras came on and the American people were able to see the Senate and House in session,” Boren said. “It improved not only the conduct on the floor but also their appearance.”

Lamb said the future of C-SPAN will depend on the network’s ability to adapt to changing economic models in the industry, but he is confident that journalism will remain vibrant despite current changes in the industry.

“Journalism, in general, has a great future,” Lamb said. “They will figure out how to use this Internet, how to make money with the Internet and explore its creativity.

James S. Tyree 366-3541