It has been an exhilarating past few months for Susan Swain, who oversees all programming and marketing decisions at C-SPAN.
She just issued last rites to Booknotes, the long running author-interview program, while recently baptizing two successor programs. “I've been having a blast these past couple of weeks with these new series,” says Swain, one of C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb's first hires in early 1980s. “I find all of this invigorating.”
Thirteen years into her career at the public affairs network, Swain became C-SPAN's executive vice president and co-chief operating officer in 1995. She has responsibility over everything produced by C-SPAN, a portfolio that is more expansive than many people would assume: three TV networks; an FM radio station in Washington, D.C.; 10 Web sites; rebroadcast deals with XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio; and two school buses roaming the nation.
And now there's one more product, designed for C-SPAN's mobile devotees. To inform lawyers and lobbyists about the latest Senate filibuster, C-SPAN is now available live on cell phones equipped with the MobiTV service as part of a $10 monthly add-on, which also includes a few cable entertainment channels.
“Our goal is to try to have a presence in all of these emerging technologies,” Swain says. “If we can get the word out that [MobiTV] exists, it's going to be a pretty interesting little service.”
Dedicated to political and publishing news that brackets gavel-to-gavel coverage of the House and Senate, C-SPAN is not rated, which means Swain's ideas have time to stew outside the Nielsen ratings pressure cooker.
And clearly, she is unafraid to experiment. Needing to replace Booknotes after a 15-year run (a switch that irked some 1,000 e-mail correspondents), in December she launched Q&A, a one-hour interview program Sundays at 8 p.m., that is essentially a conversation between Lamb and someone who may or may not be famous. The show's first guest was David Levin, the 34-year-old founder of a middle school education program that produced top results in Houston. The second: Fox News Channel's CEO Roger Ailes.
Her second concept is more daring. After Words is a one-hour adjunct to C-SPAN2's Book TV lineup that involves an author interviewed by a knowledgeable outsider not on C-SPAN's payroll. It bowed Jan. 2 with congressional scholar Norman Ornstein quizzing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on his new book Winning the Future.
A hectic work pace does not leave Swain much personal time, but she does enjoy an active outdoor life. “Over the past couple of years, I've managed to get these middle-aged muscles into horseback riding. I take lessons every week, and then have a friend who has a horse that I borrow on weekends,” she says.
She is also an avid hiker and is now a competitive sailor, joining a local team last year. On the cultural front, Swain is a regular at The Shakespeare Theater on Capitol Hill. Her favorite: the tragedy Macbeth.
As a political news executive and political news junkie, Swain confessed that work and leisure are hard to separate. Not surprisingly, a Sunday morning with The New York Times is just as relaxing as tugging on the reins or raising the mainsail on the Potomac.
In addition to her management responsibilities, Swain is an on-camera presence, logging up to 18 hours a month hosting Washington Journal and other specials. Her office — a short walk from the sixth floor studio in C-SPAN's headquarters — is a few paces down the hall from Lamb's. A seat beside her desk is stacked with weighty political tomes that she has read or is about to consume.
Swain's early career included reporting stints in local broadcasting in Scranton, Pa., and public relations roles with Up With People and Raytheon Corp. She joined C-SPAN in 1982, landing an interview with Lamb while on an unrelated job mission on Capitol Hill. Lamb hired her instantly, the 18th person to join the fledging network that has long been a media force.
“I didn't know if this place was going to survive. I didn't know whether I was going to click here. But I knew it was the kind of place I had been looking for and relished the opportunity,” Swain says.
Swain, 50, reports to Lamb and shares COO duties with Rob Kennedy, who oversees infrastructure, engineering, personnel and finance.
Swain's leadership has earned her the esteem of cable industry chiefs. “C-SPAN wouldn't have become the institution it is without her guidance, vision and optimism,” says C-SPAN board chairman and Comcast COO Steve Burke.
Char Beales, CEO of the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing, gives Swain kudos for keeping the C-SPAN brand vibrant, pointing to a show that brought Washington-area high schools face-to-face with Supreme Court justices and Bush administration Cabinet members. “This program was well marketed and, as they touched so many young lives, generated inches of ink in the local media and good will in the community,” Beales says.
Swain will continue to push the network in new directions in 2005. One of C-SPAN's buses is undergoing a complete overhaul, becoming a sort of Book TV on wheels. “We think it's a bit of a mixed message to have the big yellow school bus sitting in the middle of a book fair,” she says.
Swain's also assigned a team to prepare a video history of Capitol Hill, marking the network's first attempt at HDTV production. Swain is unsure whether C-SPAN viewers will see some or all of it in HD. “It will be our first experiment in HDTV. How it ultimately airs, I'm not sure.”