Cover Story

Taking Viewers to 'Church': Susan Swain ’76, H’99

C-SPAN’s co-CEO and president, who is experiencing one of the more hectic news cycles of her career, helps ensure that her network is ‘on’ at all times.

Susan Swain ’76, H’99
Susan Swain ’76, H’99

Nearly two years ago, Susan Swain ’76, H’99, co-chief executive officer and president of C-SPAN, felt comfortable in her job. She’d reached a high point in her career, though she would never be the one to say that. She had been promoted to co-CEO a few years earlier.

The drumbeat of Washington news kept Swain on her toes (along with a book about first ladies and various other projects including hosting the network’s weekly “Newsmakers” program). She was anticipating a big presidential election cycle in 2016, or her team’s “Olympics,” as she calls it. There were a record number of presidential candidates, and her network’s role was to “give a voice not only to the top-tier candidates but to the secondary and tertiary candidates,” she said.

But what she could not anticipate, she said, was that the presidential primaries were just the beginning of what’s become a nonstop news cycle.

“The past 18 months have been one of the busier cycles of my pretty long career in Washington,” she said in a June 2017 interview. “And it seems to have no end in sight.”

The quickening pace is good for the network, of course, but because C-SPAN is a public network, there are no viewership numbers and no ads (which is “enormously freeing from an editorial standpoint,” said Swain). However, she and her team are aware of the heightened interest in their programming.

“A columnist once wrote that C-SPAN is a bit ‘like church.’ Some folks want to access it all the time; for others, it’s there when they need it.’ For those who want to watch a (James) Comey hearing, a (Jeff) Sessions hearing, a congressional debate on health care — we are there,” she said. “With all that’s been going on in the national scene the past two years, it seems like a time when more people are wanting to go to ‘church.’”


Swain began working at C-SPAN in 1982 as an associate producer and now oversees programming and marketing for their three television channels, and C-SPAN Radio. Nearly 5,000 of Swain’s on-camera interviews are logged in the C-SPAN video library. In December of 2016, she began serving as an independent director at Discovery Communications. She also is a director of the C-SPAN Education Foundation. A two-time winner of the Vanguard Award, the cable industry’s highest professional recognition, Swain also has been recognized by her industry as a Cable TV Pioneer.

Swain is no stranger to “pioneering.” She was one of the first women to enroll at the University when it became coeducational in 1972. And her colleagues call her a sort of tech pioneer, even though she gives lots of credit for innovative use of technology to others on her team.

“Susan helped develop the C-SPAN mission in the early years of the network,” said her co-CEO, Rob Kennedy. “Her experience has been invaluable as we’ve navigated this most extraordinary past 18 months.”

When the Democrats staged a sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives in June 2016, and cameras were shut off by Republicans, Swain and the network’s programming VP Terry Murphy sprang into action by ensuring that C-SPAN used social media to record and air the protest, said Kennedy.

“Because Susan is focused on us being innovative and nimble about how we use new technology to capture what is going on in government and public affairs, we were ready to put that stuff on the air,” said Kennedy.

After the congressional baseball shooting almost exactly one year later, Swain, with a small team, helped get the game on TV, even though C-SPAN had not covered the representatives’ annual game in more than 30 years.

“After the shooting, the game took on important symbolism. We had to be there,” she said. “We had 24 hours to find a way to get a signal out of the ballpark. Ultimately, our production quality may not have been great, but we were there to televise this moment of national unity. That’s what mattered.”

Telling History

Swain’s passion for storytelling has not only helped shape the programming of C-SPAN, it has offered viewers an important historical perspective during a time when citizens are recognizing the impact Washington can have on individuals’ lives.

She was instrumental in creating “American History TV,” which airs “All Weekend. Every Weekend” on C-SPAN3. And her project First Ladies: Influence and Image featured interviews with historians and biographers to depict the biographies of “every first lady from Martha to Michelle.” In addition, the idea for a series about 12 landmark Supreme Court cases came from hearing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg talk about the “real people’s story” behind Loving v. Virginia.

“History provides important context. There have been two polarizing elections in a row. There is a big health care debate, ongoing wars, and international terrorism and our response to it,” she said. “As the country goes through the current turmoil, we have to remember that there have been equally tumultuous times in the past and, well, we’re still here. The system survives.”

Paying it Forward

Swain not only has a commitment to the past but to the future, especially when it comes to Scranton students. She was excited that the C-SPAN Bus, an interactive, multimedia learning center focused on bringing coverage to communities nationwide, was able to make an election-year stop at the University. C-SPAN did a live show from campus in November 2016, giving students a behind-the-scenes look at how the news is made. Swain also mentors business students (she was recently inducted into the Kania School of Management’s Business Leader Hall of Fame) and hires Scranton graduates, two of whom are now close colleagues.

“I feel a very positive sense of wanting to pay it forward to the University. It certainly changed my life and helped me develop a set of values that guide my life,” she said. “Being involved with students is enormously energizing. And it gives me lots of confidence that the country will be in good hands when it’s my turn to hand the torch over.”

Read what Swain has to say about America's first ladies in the web exclusive here.

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