Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
Brian Lockman sorting through a stack of submissions for PA Books. PHMC/Photo by Don Giles

Brian Lockman sorting through a stack of submissions for PA Books. PHMC/Photo by Don Giles

PA Books is a weekly television series that has been running on the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN) for 20 years. Brian Lockman, president and CEO of the Harrisburg-based network, has hosted the program from the beginning, interviewing authors of books related to Pennsylvania. He does 35 to 40 new interviews a year, and PCN reruns past programs frequently. A recent survey indicated that PA Books attracts 525,000 viewers per month.

Lockman was one of the original employees of the Washington-based C-SPAN, where he directed coverage of national political conventions and served as executive producer of presidential election programming. Having grown up in the Philadelphia area and with previous experience working in cable TV in Allentown, Lockman was induced to return to the Keystone State in 1994 to head up PCN, a public affairs network seen as a Pennsylvania iteration of C-SPAN.

Lockman has published his own Pennsylvania books. He was coauthor of Pioneers of Cable Television (McFarland, 2005), the story of how the cable industry grew from roots in Pennsylvania, and compiler of World War II – In Their Own Words (Stackpole, 2005) and World War II Reflections (Stackpole, 2009), both collections of oral histories from Pennsylvania’s veterans.

What inspired your program? How did it begin?

I worked at C-SPAN for 15 years, 1979 to 1994. During that time Brian Lamb started Booknotes and I became an avid fan. When I came to PCN I really wanted to do a shameless knockoff I did the first one in the summer of 1996 – the first time I ever interviewed anybody. I got in touch with publishers, and books started coming in. And they have never stopped.

You mostly feature nonfiction. Why is that?

I really like nonfiction because there’s more to talk about. I have had some fiction authors on, if [their books] had some kind of Pennsylvania hook, like Lisa Scottoline. She writes legal thrillers [that] take place in an all-woman law firm in Philadelphia. But our network is geared to having viewers learn more about their home state. The book show is geared to that too. I want people to learn more about the culture and the history and the people and the business and the politics by watching the show. I try to have some sort of aspect of learning about Pennsylvania. I’m lucky being in Pennsylvania that it has the history that it has. Our history goes back pretty far by American standards. There’s lots of really important American history that’s Pennsylvania history at the same time.

How do you choose what books to feature?

I go through and try to pick themes like African American history or presidents during February, things like that. Probably 1 pick one out of five books. Some of them come from the publishers. Some of them are totally inappropriate. There are only so many Gettysburg books I can do in a year so I get a little picky. I read Publishers Weekly. I go on Amazon and look at the catalogs from the publishers to see what’s coming out.

What’s your notion of the absolute perfect book for your program?

I would think the biography of some interesting Pennsylvanian. One of my favorites of all time was called The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency [by Robert Kanigel]. Taylor was the first efficiency expert in the world. Up until he came along, a factory was like taking 50 different individual craftsmen and putting them in one building. Taylor broke every job down into a small element and found the most efficient way to do that one element and added all the elements together so you could get it done faster, and then made every one of the craftsmen do it exactly that way. It sucked a lot of the soul out of the people doing the work, but it transformed American manufacturing. He did most of his work in Pennsylvania.


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Who were some of your favorite guests?

One I brag about all the time is John Updike. Probably no one on the planet had written more about James Buchanan, so when I heard he was going to be at the Free Library of Philadelphia to give a talk, I tried to get him to do an interview. He didn’t have the time, but I got a postcard in the mail from him hand-signed, saying, “Sorry I couldn’t do the interview.” Well I kept renewing the request for 10 years. Finally, when he came [to Harrisburg] to do the Speaker’s Millennium Lecture, I interviewed him the afternoon before and he was just great, charming and patient, and told stories about James Buchanan and told stories about writing.

One of my favorites ever was MK Asante [who grew up in Philadelphia, author of Buck: A Memoir]. I didn’t know anything about him. We got the book in the mail and then a link to a rap video that he had done to promote his book. Well, that was a first. He was only about 30, a college professor at Morgan State. I thought, this sounds interesting. He ended up being a treat – such energy and creativity and positivity.

Another one of my favorites is Charles Blockson. He wrote a book called African Americans in Pennsylvania, Above Ground and Underground: An Illustrated Guide. He was warm and charming and loves local history. Anybody watching that would want to know more about their local history and their family’s history.

PA Books gets people on the network we might otherwise never get. Arlen Specter used to turn down our interview requests all the time until he had a book out [Passion for Truth]. I said, “Can we interview you about your book?” and he said, “Oh, sure,” and after that he was available to us all the time. Tom Ridge never came on as governor, but he came on when he wrote his book [The Test of Our Times].

An advantage that Brian Lamb had [was that] people are much more likely to be passing through Washington, D.C., than Harrisburg. I go to Philadelphia a lot. We have a bureau in Philadelphia, and I do a lot of the interviews there and a lot of them in Pittsburgh. People from out of state – I usually end up getting them in Philadelphia.

How do you prepare for the author interview? Do you read each book or just skim?

I read each book, not word for word, but cover to cover. Life is not long enough to read every word. In the beginning when I was a rookie interviewer I wrote out the questions. I wanted to go chronologically through the book, and I wanted to try to hit all the points in the book that I thought were interesting. At some point I just gave up. Nobody really wants that; they just want an interesting discussion. “Now I make a note of keywords that want to ask about. Then when the guest brings up that keyword, I want to be ready to say, “Tell me more about that.” I have all these individual bullet points I want to ask about and then I let the guest direct as to when to bring them up. So if it wanders aimlessly around and it’s interesting to listen to and makes a person want to go out and buy the book, that’s great.


Lockman at work, reading a book and preparing for an interview.. PHMC/Photo by Don Giles

Lockman at work, reading a book and preparing for an interview. PHMC/Photo by Don Giles

Is there a Holy Grail, a book you’d most like to read and discuss on your program?

There is, and it doesn’t exist and I don’t understand why it has not been written yet. The book I would love to read – in fact, if I had the time I would love to write it – is one of those big, 800-page, David McCullough-type biographies of William Penn. There are loads of books that I get about William Penn and they’re all like 14 pages, heavily illustrated for 10-year-olds. William Penn is one of the most fascinating characters I have come across. I hope, if I keep mentioning there is no biography of William Penn, someone of quality will write it. He’s got a great story. I can picture it as a miniseries, starting off with him being thrown in jail in England and reconciling with his father on his father’s deathbed. It’s a great story.

Do you get feedback from your viewers?

I have talked to lots of people who have bought lots of books as a result of watching PA Books, which is really heartening. It’s interesting that sometimes there is a fascinating book that’s a lousy interview, and sometimes it’s a boring book that’s a good interview. If it’s a really good interview and an awful book, I sort of feel bad about that because people might go out and buy it.

Any end in sight?

Brian Lamb did 801 book shows and then he stopped. I talk to him every couple months and he always asks what number I’m up to. We’re getting close. Right now, its up to 721. My goal is 802.


Don Sarvey of Harrisburg, Dauphin County, is an independent writer, editor and consultant. He has worked for several newspapers, including the Boston Herald Traveler and the Harrisburg Patriot-News.