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The Whole Story

Tired of the network sound bites, C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb created "Booknotes," weekly, hourlong author interviews. From that, comes an anthology of the chats, in which the writers talk, and talk, and talk.

June 26, 1997|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Once again, Brian Lamb has bucked the tide.

It wasn't enough for him to celebrate the publication of his first book with a national tour or a private party for friends. That would have been too predictable, too mainstream.

Instead, the founder of C-SPAN and the author of "Booknotes" (Times Books) drove to the printing plant in Virginia where his title was rushing off the presses, and he watched in awe--like a little kid at his first baseball game.

"A friend of mine told someone she was going out there with me," Lamb says, chuckling in his office near Capitol Hill. "And he said: 'Wow, that's interesting. Why don't you just pull over to the side of the road and watch the grass grow?' "

Or watch C-SPAN. Lamb has heard all the jokes and wryly shrugs them off. But he's serious about the importance of books and was proud to witness the assembly-line baptism of his own.

"It was amazing to see them printed, and the guy at the plant said that in 13 years, I was the first writer to do this," Lamb adds. "So I guess I did something different."

Doing things differently has become a trademark for Lamb, 55, whose new book offers highlights from eight years of "Booknotes," the weekly, hourlong TV interviews he has conducted with some of America's most outstanding authors of nonfiction.

While the book focuses on the mechanics of writing, the 119 authors interviewed--ranging from Doris Kearns Goodwin and Shelby Foote to former President Nixon and House Speaker Newt Gingrich--offer glimpses of the worlds they have chronicled, and of their inner lives as writers.

Informative and fast-paced, "Booknotes" is unlike any other nonfiction anthology on the market. But the Sunday night show it honors is even more unique. Long before Oprah discovered reading and the mass market for books, Lamb was serving up a special kind of journalism that let writers talk--and talk, and talk--with little or no interruption.

The goal, he says, has been to offer an alternative to the fleeting encounters that pass for literary interviews on commercial television. Instead of the typical network spiel--where a writer who has spent years on a biography must boil it down into several chatty comments--Lamb lets authors think out loud. He encourages them to digress, to backtrack and ultimately give viewers more than a sound bite.

In the process, he almost disappears. For millions of C-SPAN viewers, Lamb is the Man Without Emotion, the fellow who appears to have lost his ego. Yet it's not because he's shy.

"I'd be surprised if, on the 57 minutes of any show, I'm talking for more than five minutes," he says. "And the danger is that people will see me as eccentric. . . . But I want [viewers] to have a TV experience that has nothing to do with me."

*

In person, Lamb is cheerful, amusing and outspoken--light-years, in other words, from the button-down persona he projects on TV. But his low-key image has built a loyal audience. Besides "Booknotes," he has launched "About Books," a five-hour block of weekend programming on C-SPAN2 that reports on trends, events and personalities in the book world.

Like its predecessor, "About Books" brings viewers to the unvarnished heart of a story--whether it's a literary festival, an academic lecture or a colorful bookstore tour--with a minimum of commentary. "Booknotes" and other C-SPAN programming now reach an estimated 70 million homes, while "About Books" can be seen in 47 million.

Lamb was inspired to create "Booknotes" in 1989 when advance publicity for Neil Sheehan's "A Bright Shining Lie" suggested that the former New York Times journalist was about to publish a formidable history of the Vietnam War. The project took 16 years to complete, and C-SPAN's founding CEO cringed at the thought of what Sheehan probably would encounter in network television interviews. He knew there had to be a better way.

"I wanted to give viewers a chance to really find out what was in the book, instead of watching a brief spot on the 'Today' show," Lamb recalls. "And that came from years of watching interviews on TV and saying to the interviewer: 'Shut up! Get out of the way! I don't care what you think about the book or why you think it's important. Stop showing off!' "

It's the same philosophy that has guided C-SPAN (Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network) since Lamb began his pioneering broadcasts in 1979: He is wary of middlemen and on-air commentaries that get between viewers and a story, and because his nonprofit corporation is funded by cable TV companies, he has the luxury of doing things differently.

"We are what TV would look like if you took profit out of it," he suggests. "We never know what our ratings are. We don't have commercials and we don't have bottom-line concerns."

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