Changing the Channel: A Conversation with Brian Lamb

Humanities, March/April 2003 | Go to article overview

Changing the Channel: A Conversation with Brian Lamb


BRUCE COLE: I'm a longtime admirer and it's an honor to meet you. I taught at Indiana University for many years. You're from Indiana as well, right?

BRIAN LAMB: First twenty-two years of my life.

COLE: You went to school there.

LAMB: I went to Purdue, the other Indiana university.

COLE: In those days in Lafayette, what did you want to be when you grew up?

LAMB: More than anything else I wanted to be an entertainer. I was a disc jockey. I did record hops. I played in a band. I was a drummer. In those early days I thought maybe entertainment might be it. But I wasn't really that good.

When I left Purdue and went into the Navy, that began a whole new educational experience, getting out of Lafayette and seeing a lot of the world.

COLE: Can you talk about being a Midwesterner in Washington? Does that give you a different perspective?

LAMB: I was in the Navy, where you find a lot of people from everywhere. But I remember I was overwhelmed. I felt you had to prove yourself. I don't want to overdo that, but the town isn't the friendliest town in the world. There is an East Coast bias, based on lots of very bright people who went to Harvard, Princeton, Yale. You walk into the town, having been a Purdue graduate, and the first thing they think is you're from a school "out there somewhere."

COLE: Fly-over country?

LAMB: There's an enormous number of people that think it's strictly fly-over country. It takes a while to get used to that.

COLE: But eventually the various experiences you were having would come together. You already had run a successful radio show in Indiana-Dance Date, right? When was that?

LAMB: Dance Date was in 1961. I did it in my junior year of college. I loved Dick Clark and what he did with American Bandstand when I was a kid. When you're young you copy everybody else. I built the sets, hosted the show, got the dancers, sold it to advertisers. It was a very important experience.

COLE: This marked the parameters of what you were going to do in the future?

LAMB: Absolutely. I started from scratch. In the early days of C-SPAN I did everything. Again, just trying things along the way and eventually you had something and it either worked or didn't work.

COLE: After school came the Navy. What was that like?

LAMB: The Navy was probably the most important thing I've ever done. It took me into a world that I'd never been in. We were on the brink of war in Vietnam. I was twenty-two years old, and I was forced to grow up pretty quickly. I'd lived in a fairly sheltered environment: a small town, university in my own hometown, hadn't traveled a great deal.

COLE: It was total immersion.

LAMB: Total. You wake up one day and you're on a Navy ship, a huge ship weighing 13,000 tons, as I remember it, and you have 320 people on board and you are what's called an officer of the deck, at age twenty-two.

COLE: You were going from almost zero responsibility to a massive amount of responsibility?

LAMB: Where you were accountable to people that you didn't know and they didn't know you and you prove yourself every day by the performance. You couldn't fall back on your father or your mother or your friends in your hometown environment.

COLE: When you were in the Navy you were suddenly assigned to Detroit. What was that about?

LAMB: I was in Washington for two years-I was on a ship for two years and in Washington for two years in the Pentagon-and I wore civilian clothes every day, in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. That was Robert McNamara's information arm-some would call it a propaganda arm.

I was in the audiovisual office, which was responsible for staying in touch and answering queries by the networks: ABC, NBC, and CBS.

In July of 1967, one of the deputy assistant secretaries came in and said to me, "Go home and pack your bag and take this tape recorder with you and fly to Detroit and report to the chief of police's office. …

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