S Listings

Save to PDF

Susan Swain

Susan Swain

Collection: WICT 20th Anniversary Collection Project

SWAIN: Susan Swain, S-W-A-I-N. And I am executive vice-president and co-chief operating office of C-Span.

INTERVIEWER: When you first got into cable, what pushed you towards this business? And then sort of that first time you were working at C-Span, what do you recall about that time?

SWAIN: I was looking for a job, and it wasn't an affirmative choice of cable television. But, in fact, I had been looking for a long time for television that fit my particular interests. The thing that was an interesting experience for me is I grew up my whole life wanting to work in television. And there wasn't television that fit what I wanted to do. I was the kind of person--when I was young, I used to watch the folks on commercial television news in Philadelphia, which is where I was growing up, and write letters to them saying, when I grow up, that's what I want to do. And I'd get letters back, and one of the highlights of my entire life was when I actually had a telephone conversation with Jessica Savage who was on the local news in Philadelphia, and had a chance for about five or six minutes to say, "How do I get to be what you are when I grow up?" I went to college. I got a degree in communications, and was hired during my last year of school to be a reporter at the CBS affiliate, real small market in Scranton, Pennsylvania. And I had one of those experiences that now I've gotten a chance to do it, I don't like it. I didn't like the commercial nature of television news, and running up to people in moments of great adversity saying, "How do you feel about this?" And it was becoming increasingly clear that as television news was moving from a public service project to a news--a commercial venture for stations. That was going to be a revenue leader for them. That this was going to be the direction for less public service, more commercial, more bringing in the bucks for the stations and that wasn't me. I really was in it for pure information, so I left sort of chagrinned as a newly graduated senior from my university having no idea what I was going to do, because what I had wanted to do all my life didn't turn out to be what I expected it to be. I kind of bumped around for about four or five years doing public relations, press relations, marketing for a few different companies, but I was gravitating toward Washington, because I'm a serious person, and interested in how the world works so that's the center. So I finally just packed up and moved there without a job. I found C-SPAN because people who got to know me said, this little place is starting up. This is perfect for you. It's what you've been looking for. And, in fact, I went over there and interviewed, and I always say, I never left. I walked in the door and said, yes. There is the kind of television out here that treats the audience seriously, that does serious things, and that is a good match for my interests. It wasn't that I set out looking for cable, but cable was beginning to develop the kinds of things that would appeal to people with broader interests than the general audience. And you could find a niche that appealed to your particular interests, and I was happy to make that match.

INTERVIEWER: What you just described was the ideal situation where you had the right person, the right place at the right time, at the right situation. If C-SPAN didn't exist, where do you think you would be today? Would you be completely out of television just doing some other sort of communication?

SWAIN: I don't think so. If there had not been a C-SPAN the thing that was happening at that time period is that cable television was beginning to come forth with all different sorts of ideas. And there are other places on the cable dial where I probably could have played a role. I think in the end a very different role, but there's enough serious information based programming going on across the cable dial that I think I could have happily found a home someplace. What was fortunate for me was to walk in the door of C‑SPAN when it was very small, and be the kind of person who would just put their hand up and say, let me try that. I'll give that a shot. And that happened to a lot of people in my generation in cable. Start-ups are enormously terrific places for people who have a lot of energy and a lot of willingness to try things. And that was my good fortune was to walk in the right door of a small place that needed all the help it could get.

INTERVIEWER: The majority of new businesses started in the United States now are started by women. Are entrepreneurship start-ups the way that women will find equality with men, by starting their own businesses, going outside the normal route in corporate life do you think?

SWAIN: I think it's the nature of any organization that the dynamism is in the beginning, because if you think of a fire that you're building, you've got to throw lots of logs on it to get it to burn brightly. And so organizations that are in the building phase need capital. They need human capital that can help them build, and it doesn't matter where that talent comes from. It's always more difficult when something's in an established bureaucracy to come in and say, I can do this for you because there are a lot of people already in line doing those things. So I think start-ups, whether they're in the Internet, or in the programming content side that can deliver whatever the platform is going to be, start-ups, no matter what field, always offer opportunities to people of every stripe. So if you've got a lot of energy it's best to be able to get in there and do it as opposed to selling yourself to an established organization and say, yes, I really can do this for you.

INTERVIEWER: One of my favorite things on C‑SPAN are the commencement addresses that you pretty constantly get from Memorial Day on. In a common theme of every commencement address is distilling everything you know down to 15 words or less. So what I'm going to do is ask you to distill down the reasons for your personal success. Why do you think - in as few as possible words - you've been successful?

SWAIN: I spoke to the graduates at my own university, University of Scranton, and it is now a 60% female school. When I went to school there, by the way, I was in the first class of women so that school, in one generation, has gone from 50 women on campus with 5,000 men to being 60% female. And my message to them was, you have to listen to what it is that makes you happy, and then find someone to pay you for it. Because the real key to a life well lived is to do what is inside you and fulfills you rather than to make compromises simply to get a paycheck. We only get one shot at this, and it makes an awful lot of sense with the number of hours that all of us put toward our careers to do something that really fulfills us. And not to simply take a job because it's a job, but because it reaches some chord inside of you that you're happy when you go to work everyday. And I do think it's possible for every person to find what it is that makes them happy, and find a way to get paid for it. Now, if that is making all the money in the world, that sets you in lots of different courses. But if it is something other than making money that really fulfills you, go do it. And money will come, not necessarily in the multiple millions and billions, but it's really what's inside that makes you tick and makes you happiest. That, to me, is a life well lived.

INTERVIEWER: We're trying to find out from people what they feel their greatest personal achievement is, but in light of what you just said, maybe the question should be, what is your most satisfying personal achievement?

SWAIN: Mine is that I'm part of a team, and that team has created an institution with the help of a lot of other people; people in the cable industry, people in Capital Hill, and people among the general public who really had a belief that it is an important and valuable thing for people to be part of the national dialogue about issues and that I have had the chance to play a small role in establishing some permanence for that organization. And it's a small role, but nonetheless, really satisfying to have been at a place where there were big question marks in the beginning; will this survive? Will people watch this? Is there a role for it in the large media mix in this country? And the answers to all of those things were yes. I feel so lucky, really lucky.

INTERVIEWER: Are there more opportunities, do you think, for women in business or in politics?

SWAIN: My answer to whether or not there are more opportunities for women in politics or business...and by the way, I really tend to think of myself as a journalist who covers politics. There's a nuance there that's important. I really think that it is possible for any human being, male, female, black, white, yellow, or brown to do what it is that they want to do if they don't take no for an answer. And that has been my belief. It has been the centerpiece of how I've approached my job, and for me the thing that helps me mentor other people. My personal philosophy is that any of us really can accomplish things no matter what barriers are in place. If you really want to do it, there's a route. So that's a very general answer to your specific question, but if there are women who want to get ahead in politics, I think there are routes available for them to do that. And increasingly, we are seeing more women in the Congress, but more importantly, more women in the state legislatures which are the natural stepping stones.

INTERVIEWER: Do you ever see a day where there will be a majority of women in the House or Senate?

SWAIN: That's probably a long time coming. It gets back to the question of women and others coming into established organizations. There's a hierarchy, and there are also people in the slots. So it is a challenge to come in fully formed at an executive level into organizations where people are on the rungs of those ladders already. So it's going to take time within an established structure to work your way up, but if that's what women want, if there are enough women out there who are willing to make the kinds of enormous sacrifices for a full-time life in politics, it'll happen.

INTERVIEWER: What do you think will happen first, will there be a woman President in the United States, or a woman heading one of the top ten Fortune 500 companies?

SWAIN: The question of whether or not it's more likely to have a female President or a female head of a top ten U.S. corporation, well, the odds are the corporation because there are ten as opposed to one. If you think about the history of the United States, so far there have only been 41 human beings who have been elected president of the United States, and an awful lot of people vying for that position. So there's an incredible amount of competition. I think the logical way given the observation of how politics works is that there will be a female Vice-President fairly soon. And then you've got the exposure to the public that you need to achieve that very difficult office, very difficult to attain office. In the corporate world, there are more opportunities. There are more women who have the exposure, and there are corporations that really also want to be able to show that these positions are available to all, so the odds are a little greater that that will happen first.

INTERVIEWER: People who are successful often identify role models that they have modeled themselves after. Are there role models that you've had in your professional life?

SWAIN: Yes. I have two role models who have been very important--(pause). I have two role models who have been and continue to be important to me. One is my boss, Brian Lamb, and the other is Amos Hostetter, pretty well-known individuals in the cable business. They both have left similar messages for me and that is the importance of caring about the people who work with you. I have spoken a few times today about the importance of team. It is impossible for any of us to accomplish anything all by ourselves. We really need the help and support, and buy-in of a lot of people around us. And most of those folks don't get any credit for what they've done. Amos Hostetter and Brain Lamb, as I have observed for them for almost 20 years, always take time to recognize the input of all the people around them. And even folks who are considered the little people, the people who are just coming into the process, it might be a production assistant or whatever, and for them it's enormous contributions. But in the hierarchical scheme of things, who takes time to remember everybody? But they do, and I think the enormous encouragement that that gives to people along the way that, yes, my efforts are being recognized matters, and that the whole team does better as result. And that's just been a terrifically important thing to watch. The second thing from both of them is that you can be terrifically successful and still be nice people. Both of them are very nice, warm individuals who take time to talk to people around them. And we all know that there are lots of folks in the world that don't take time for others, and I have been enormously impressed that they have always taken time for people around them. And the third with Amos, because Amos has done well with financial success in the world; whereas, Brian Lamb has, of course, been motivated more by public service, but when you look at Amos Hostetter and how he's lived his life, he's always made time while he's been making money to also do good with that. And that's an enormously valuable and important thing to watch. This country offers people so much opportunity, and I think along with that comes responsibility. And Amos has been a real role model to living up to that responsibility. I feel so fortunate. I think one of the side benefits of being at C‑SPAN along the way is that our board of directors are the people who have built this industry. And I've had a chance to watch many of them, and get to know them on a personal level, and they are an impressive group of business people because they are socially responsible as well.

INTERVIEWER: Do you see yourself as a role model?

SWAIN: I don't think about myself as a role model. But a point of fact I have to realize is that people who are on television, because of the enormous amount of cache that American society gives to that box, is that people look to those of us who are on on a regular basis for something. And I certainly don't feel as though I have life lessons to give others, but I do try my best to realize that I'm a public person and to realize that I'm representing a company and an industry, and comport myself in that fashion. So I guess to some degree it never leaves you. You don't allow yourself, if you're feeling grouchy, to let on to the public when you're out just grabbing a taxi or whatever, because you really don't know who recognizes you and will judge an institution or an industry based on a very small personal encounter. So that has become a part of my life over the years. As to being a role model, I guess I forget as a manager - and I think this happens to managers everywhere whether they're on television or not - that a lot of people are watching you all the time. And things like whether or not I make eye contact in the hallway, or whatever, registers on people. And so I have learned over the years to become aware that as we move up the ranks in any kind of organization is that it is important always to not be caught up in what you're thinking about at any given moment and be solving the world's problems, but be aware of the circumstances around you so that you can make connections, because they're important.

INTERVIEWER: Do you see, in your own experience, that the metaphor for the opportunities given to you were a wide open door, that you had to politely knock on, and which was politely opened for you, or that you had to kick down the door.

SWAIN: My door for the metaphor of my career has always been wide open, and I can't tell you whether or not I'm just fortunate. But whether it's been in the cable industry, or the two or three jobs that I had before I came to C‑SPAN, or even in my university and moving ahead there, I have never had anyone say, no, you can't do that, because you're a woman. I think again it goes to the basic nature of the way that you approach life. And I have simply always presumed I can do anything I want, and therefore, just charged ahead and have done it. And I've had no road blocks along the way, and I can't tell you whether or not my experience is different because it is the only experience that I've had. But I feel as though I've had every chance to do things in life that I've wanted to do. Maybe not always on the timetable that I've wanted. I might have to come back and say, hey, remember I'm interested in--but I really feel as though life has afforded me the chance to do what I want, and I have always been the kind of person that puts my hand up and say, I want to do that. Give me the chance to do that. Don't forget I'm interested in that. And it's always worked out, so that door's been pretty wide open.

INTERVIEWER: Somebody far wiser than I said, you can tell a lot about a person by how they deal with adversity. What was the most frustrating experience professionally that you've ever had? How did you deal with that, and come out stronger in the end?

SWAIN: The most frustrating period in my life was moving to Washington, and not having a job. And presuming that Washington was just waiting for me. I was about 26 years old, and I thought I had all this great experience, and guess what I found out? Washington is full of people who think that Washington is just waiting for them, and have all this great experience. It's really a mecca for that. And it took me 11 months of pounding the pavement, learning to say no to things that weren't right. That's a hard thing to do, to really set your cap on what you want to do, and be willing to say no to things that haven't made the connection. I had 11 months of "I love Lucy" reruns during the daytime (laughs), in between waiting for those return calls, or making essentially cold calls to people when you really needed something of them; some of their time, some of their direction, some of their advice, and that was a hard period because I expected to walk into Washington and have all those doors just open for me. It was good, because I learned patience. I also learned to keep on going. I learned to defy authority figures like my parents who were saying, just take a job, Susan. Take any job. You need a paycheck. And be willing to do things like, you know, wait on tables or whatever until that right opportunity comes along. I look back on that experience as enormously shaping, and the key to what has shaped me ever since, which is hang on, know what you want, and don't take no for an answer until it comes along because in the end, I found exactly the right connection for me. But along the way it was a real test of my stick-to-itness to keep on going even when the right connections weren't there. By the way, the side bar is I got to learn how the city of Washington worked, because I was talking to almost everybody in the town at the time. I ended up introducing myself to a lot of organizations that we then covered later on. So I look back and say, this was really a greater learning experience, and even broader learning experience than I expected it to be. I thought it was all about me and finding a job, but in the end it was also about me learning how the city works, and how the connections are made. So it really was a good thing. It just didn't feel like it going through it.

INTERVIEWER: Why do think some women see so much lack of opportunity in their own personal experience in their own lives?

SWAIN: It's a hard thing for me to understand why people feel that there aren't chances for them to do what they want, and I'm not discounting people's experiences. I can only deal with my own. And my experience has been that if this door's closed, I'm going to go over here because I'm set on a particular goal; not on having to follow that route. We talked earlier about if there hadn't been C‑SPAN, would I have found something else? I'm confident I would have found something else, and ended up working in information based television. The route may not necessarily have been exactly the one that I would now have said was ideal, but I would've gotten there. And perhaps it is getting frustrated by not being able to follow that particular step that you see right ahead of you that gets people demoralized. My nature is such that I will then go around or through, or over, or under, or whatever. And maybe that's been my great gift from my parents and my upbringing. But, again, I'm very sensitive to people who have had other experiences than my own, because I can only tell you about my life as I have lived it. And so far none of those speed bumps along the way have been enough to do me in.

INTERVIEWER: Do you think that those changes provide more opportunities or fewer opportunities for women?

SWAIN: I think the future is so incredibly bullish for everybody, male, female alike. The cable industry went through this early process when I came in and the years before, and for a few years after where there were just so many opportunities. Again, it was a great creative stage. The technology was booming. Then there was a leveling out, and the networks were becoming established, the pipeline and size was established, and there was a time when people probably didn't have as many routes to follow their interests and opportunities to try new things. We are now - because of the technological boom - in another great age where there are as many avenues as there are ideas. Now the challenge is going to be finding capital for these things, but the good news is it doesn't take as much capital to get an idea. You can start a Web page with virtually nothing, and the question is, how do you tell the people that you've got this information that might be interesting to them or this entertainment that might be interesting to them. So I think we are in a period of time when the future seems limitless. I think it's incredibly exciting. None of us know how this is going to play out, but that's the charm of it all. So I would again encourage the people who say, I've got an idea to begin to put some energy behind because the opportunities are there.

INTERVIEWER: You said nobody knows where this is going, but I imagine you may have interviewed some people who think they know where it's going. Do you have the same optimism that they do, that they know where all this is going?

SWAIN: Do you know the interesting thing is almost everybody that I've interviewed has the same answer. They're hedging bets, but this technology is moving at such a pace that there are an awful lot of wise people--and thank goodness I'm also not one of those who has to put money behind some of these ideas, but there are an awful lot of wise people who keep saying, boy, we think this is going to go in this direction, or, we've got to have a money in several different areas because so many of them offer the possibilities that the public will grab onto this. But even the wisest among the business people right now are amazed at the pace of all this. So I think this is a tremendous roller coaster ride, and we're on the uphill right now, and that's the fun part.

INTERVIEWER: Our industry is often described in two sides; the programmer side, and the operator side. Clearly, on the programmer side there are women CEO's all over the place. Do you think that women being in positions of power in that way contours the landscape of an industry in a way different than if men had been in those positions?

SWAIN: The question is whether or not women on the programming side have shaped the landscape of programming?

INTERVIEWER: Women in positions of leadership, if that has given a unique or peculiar landscape to the industry?

SWAIN: I guess I'm not really sure what it is that you're aiming at. Let's try it from another angle.

INTERVIEWER: Let's not worry about that question. I'll just ask the last question. The industry we are in, because of all of its changes, is very challenging and very demanding, and a lot of young people sort of looking at this industry as a place to leap into just like you did, may look at it and say, I need to make certain compromises in order to be successful. Do you feel you've had to make compromises in your personal life to be successful professionally?

SWAIN: I have not had to make compromises, because to me that suggests a bit of negativity. I've made choices. And I early on chose that I really wanted to help make C‑SPAN grow. It took a lot of hours, but I was really loving all of it. I am not a mom. I chose not to be a mom. I am single. But I don't feel like I gave anything up in the process of doing that, but that was a personal choice. I would also say that I think it is possible to balance out. We've got a number of very successful women within my company who are married and moms with two and three kids. And they are doing very well. They carve out time to get to soccer games and the like with their kids, and there's time to do both. I do think that life is full of choices, and that if you are going to make a choice to be a spouse and a parent that requires commitment. And that you need to belly up that there are going to be a lot of years where you're going to be stretched in a lot of directions. But I don't think one should give up, if you don't want to, because you want to do well in a career. Because I think it is very possible to do both. You just have to realize that both choices require a lot of hours.

INTERVIEWER: I'm sure you had expectations coming into this interview, questions we might ask. Were there any questions that you thought about that I didn't ask you that you wanted to sort of respond to yourself? Anything that we didn't cover that you wanted to cover?

SWAIN: I really don't think so. The thing that's interesting for me - I enormously respect the mentoring - are the issues that go on within this organization. My own personal philosophy has always been that I'm glad to help young women who come along, but I'm equally glad to help young men who come along. My bias is toward people who come and say, I really want to do X. How do I do it? How can you help me? Because that reflects my approach to life. And I think this organization is important because it provides a framework in which young women can see others who have been successful, and feel comfortable picking up the phone. By virtue of being a member, you're signaling your interest in helping others get places. And that's an important framework. For me, I have tried to be available to as many people as possible no matter where they are in the business. And I think that the best thing is that those of us who have had some luck and whose hard work has paid off, if we can always take time for the folks who are in the generation behind us that want to do the same, it pays enormous dividends. Our companies are all stronger as a result of that, so it's an important thing to do, to make time for.