In 1961, the award-winning writer William Saroyan came to Purdue as an artist-in-residence. His professional peak perhaps two decades in his past, Saroyan was seeking opportunities to get out of debt — as well as contribute to the aesthetic development of young Boilermakers.
Despite a penchant for drinking and gambling, Saroyan produced a three-act play later known to some as Hanging Around the Wabash. His student rehearsal assistant, however, distinctly remembers a different name for Saroyan’s Purdue drama.
“We knew it as High Times Along the Wabash,” says Brian Lamb, now the CEO and founder of C-SPAN, the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network. “Hanging Around the Wabash? That can’t be right.”
Lamb’s memory is dependable. A detailed researcher who prepares carefully for every on-camera conversation, and called by one Washington Post journalist “America’s most original and innovative interviewer,” Lamb is perhaps best known in his adopted hometown of Washington, DC, where the cable television network he dreamed up in 1978 has changed the way political candidates are elected and government operates.
Lamb received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civil award, at a White House ceremony in 2007, and C-SPAN has been recognized dozens of times for its editorial and programming excellence.
But awards are never the focus of the Lafayette native, who graduated from Purdue in 1963 with a degree in speech and received an honorary doctorate in political science and government from the College of Liberal Arts in 1986.
Lamb appreciates it when C-SPAN’s employees are lauded, but he doesn’t like the network to compete for journalism prizes. In 32 years, he has never introduced himself on air. He’ll say that’s because he’s not the focus of the interview, a radical view in today’s media carnival. He’ll also say C-SPAN is different from commercial TV because it has no advertising, so there’s no need to compete for sponsorship dollars. What he doesn’t tell people is that he designed it to be that way.
Lamb has explained C-SPAN’s founding principles using different examples. One story stems from Vietnam protests like the 1967 march on the Pentagon, recounted in Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night. Lamb was serving in the Navy at the time, detailed to the Pentagon’s public affairs office, and watching within spitting distance as Mailer and other protesters were arrested.
The march on the Pentagon, like other Vietnam protests, was widely covered by the three major television networks. Lamb later described how young people would arrive at such protests with their signs, waiting patiently for leaders to arrive. They often milled about calmly, quietly organizing. It was when the television cameras showed up to cover the event that their behavior changed.
“My mother watching the evening news in Lafayette wasn’t getting a clear picture of what was really happening,” Lamb later said. He wished at the time there was a way for Americans to see an entire event in context, not edited by the networks.
Insatiably curious, Lamb is more interested in those he meets than in talking about himself, a trait he honed at Purdue when he met celebrities visiting campus and interviewed them for radio. The Kingston Trio lives forever in his heart because the folk-music group agreed to tape an interview, and after it was over, Lamb realized in a panic that he hadn’t been recording. He sheepishly asked the singers if they’d agree to a do-over, and they did. He’s never forgotten their generosity.
If there was an event during his days on campus that could have foretold Lamb’s career, it was his involvement in Purdue’s mock political conventions in the spring of 1960. On the Democratic side, there were at least seven candidates vying for the presidency, still months away from the national convention that would formally select Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy as the nominee.
Purdue students prophetically nominated Kennedy, which was such a big deal to the candidate that he personally called the mock delegates to thank them for their support. “It wasn’t just that we nominated Kennedy,” Lamb recalls. “It was also that we paired him with Lyndon Johnson, which no one nationally was doing at that early stage.”
Lamb thinks students should consider conducting mock conventions again. “I learned so much by going through that process,” he says.
Imagine who might emerge from such an experience, and what that student might dream up years later.
As Lamb’s historic career proves, the most profound changes in society often begin with simple ideas and singular events.
About the Author: Maura Pierce (BA ’86, American Studies) is a visiting clinical professor in Purdue’s School of Communication and professional-in-residence at the Purdue Exponent. She worked at the C-SPAN Networks in Washington, DC, for 13 years.