To understand just how indispensable co-COOs Susan Swain and Rob Kennedy are to C-SPAN, consider this insider tidbit: They openly mock their boss, Chairman and CEO Brian Lamb, and he just laughs it off.
"They have to endure my stories, and they number them," says Lamb, who seems amused and not the least offended by the whole thing. As soon as he tells a familiar story, Swain and Kennedy turn to each other and blurt out a response like "No. 14" or "57." They insist the numbers they choose have no connection to particular tales. "I don't think we're that sophisticated about it," Swain says. Lamb adds with a chuckle that the two executives "live for the day" when he'll share something new.
Even gentle ribbing of the boss would trigger all-out warfare at many media outlets. At C-SPAN, though, it's a privilege that comes with earning your stripes. Of C-SPAN's 25 years, Swain has been there for 22 of them, Kennedy for 17.
"The thing it shows," Swain says, "is that the three of us have a really good working relationship. It's our way to gig Brian."
Says Lamb, "These two folks have been leading the day-to-day activities at C-SPAN for many years now." They're not tremendously visible—not like Lamb, who is probably the best-known fact on the channel—but they've contributed immensely to the network's programming and finances. Swain and Kennedy share this year's coveted Vanguard Award in Programming, recognized for their innovation and leadership.
There's plenty more that's unusual about Swain and Kennedy, starting with the facts that they've been co-COOs since 1995 and have worked together in adjacent offices for 15 years.
"We really do work as a team," says Kennedy who specializes in the business, finance, and technology operations of the network and wins praise from Lamb for keeping C-SPAN on a tight budget. The network hasn't raised affiliate fees since 1996 and doesn't expect a rate hike until 2008.
Swain focuses on content, production, and marketing messages.
The two are such students of shared-COO arrangements that they study other pairings and read books on the topic.
"Most other chairmen ... that put this in place do it with the eye that one is going to vanquish the other. It's a race to the top," Swain says. "Brian's intent with this was for us to manage this company. It wasn't a competition between the two of us. And I think that's been the secret to our success. We both respect one another, and we want to make it work for C-SPAN."
The longevity of Swain and Kennedy at C-SPAN is partly due to their comfort with the network's philosophy of comprehensive, unadulterated content without hype. "The whole place is organized around the no-stars philosophy. There's an absence here of over-inflated egos," says Swain, explaining that, as a non-profit, C-SPAN doesn't need TV personalities to generate cash flow. There are no big-money contracts either.
"We never introduce ourselves when we are doing interviews," notes Swain, highlighting a subtlety lost on some viewers.
The duo also have an insatiable curiosity about politics, history, literature, and people, a characteristic they share with Lamb. Swain enjoys walking Civil War battlefields and has visited numerous gravesites of U.S. presidents for a C-SPAN book on the subject and programming on American presidents.
"This job requires a lot of reading," says Swain, sounding more like a professor than a programmer. She is one of the creators of C-SPAN's Book TV
lineup and one of its on-air hosts. On weekends, she has four sets tuned to Book TV
so she can watch on all levels of her townhouse.
C-SPAN doesn't have a precise idea of the size of its audience. It's not measured by Nielsen. But Kennedy says a recent survey shows the network has at least 34 million regular adult viewers, up from 28 million in the previous survey four years ago. The demographic makeup reflects a wide variety of ages, incomes, education levels, races, and political affiliations. "That's very pleasing to us," he says.
C-SPAN has changed considerably during the Swain-Kennedy tenure, blossoming since the mid '80s from two networks to three, expanding to the Internet with 10 Web sites, and adding a radio station in Washington and a presence on satellite radio. Its budget has increased more than six-fold to $40 million. The scope of the content is also much wider than it was two decades ago; C-SPAN has added programming on history and literature, along with its signature call-in show Washington Journal.
"It is the chance to continue the growth of the place that has kept us both here," Swain says.
Despite its subdued on-air style, C-SPAN constantly pursues innovative ways to reach viewers and employ technology. The C-SPAN School Bus, for example, has been on the road for a decade. "You now see every other network launching their own bus," Swain says proudly, adding that some industry types initially thought the bus idea was "crazy."
That innovative spirit is spurring C-SPAN to use the latest in wireless-camera technology on the campaign trail and during the political conventions this summer.
And ingenuity also extends to marketing. In 1994, the network hired a Lincoln impersonator to help convince several Illinois locales to host re-creations of the Lincoln-Douglas senatorial debates. (Before one event, the Lincoln imposter arrived late and sweaty after breaking down on an Interstate and changing a flat tire dressed as Lincoln, triggering numerous double-takes, a traffic jam, and local radio coverage.)
C-SPAN recently indicated that it may add a tape delay, but—despite the timing of this development—the executives insist they're not responding to political pressure over television indecency but instead seeking to control unruly callers during the heated political season. C-SPAN has previously considered a delay, Swain and Kennedy say.
They also maintain that the cable industry's warnings of C-SPAN's being dropped from systems if broadcasters win new must-carry obligations for their digital TV signals is genuine—and not a threat designed to spook lawmakers worried about losing coverage.
"We've suffered the consequences of must-carry first-hand," Kennedy says, referring to carriage rules in the 1990s that resulted in some operators' dropping C-SPAN. Nearly all later restored it.
Do they ever indulge in trash TV? Kennedy admits to watching, and enjoying, South Park
with his kids. Swain unwinds with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy
and the Style network.
And they have other differences, of course. Swain enjoys riding horses. Every other Sunday, meanwhile, Kennedy gets together with middle-age friends to play drums in a rock-and-roll basement band. And in his rock collection is Ozzy Osbourne's first album. Not exactly what you'd expect from a C-SPAN executive. But then, the Swain-Kennedy business model is as unique as C-SPAN.
Broadcasting & Cable Newsletter
The smarter way to stay on top of broadcasting and cable industry. Sign up below