John Lawson knows well that all politics are local. He has translated that knowledge into a wide-ranging career that landed him atop the Association of Public Television Stations last April. There, he hopes to use his political skills to turn APTS "into one of the most efficient advocacy organizations in Washington," he says.
That means, focusing staff resources "on the nuts and bolts of advocacy, including lobbying and communications, around our agenda. Above all, we have to develop our grass-roots potential. We have almost 5 million Americans who regularly contribute dollars to public broadcasting. If we could systematically mobilize even a tiny fraction of them around our policy agenda, we could have a lot more clout in Washington than we have today."
Although he started his education with other plans in mind, Lawson's roots are in grass-roots lobbying. "I was interested in a career in the Foreign Service or the CIA and had taken the written exams for both successfully," he says, "but I ended up working in the campaign of an obscure state senator who had a disability and 3% in the polls in 1978."
That politician was Richard Riley, who became South Carolina's first two-term governor and went on to serve as Secretary of Education for Bill Clinton's two terms in office. Lawson won the job—initially, a volunteer gig—because his mother sent Riley a letter the candidate remembered. Lawson began his political career organizing voters in Orangeford County: "probably the most politically hopeless county in the state," he says.
Riley ended up winning "one of the great upsets of South Carolina political history," Lawson says. That got Lawson a job in the state's energy office, which soon led him to become executive director of the Energy Research Foundation, a non-profit funded by a South Carolina textile heiress concerned about the federal government's using South Carolina as a nuclear dumping ground.
Working for Riley, Lawson gathered some high-level politicians into his network early on, including current Governor Jim Hodges.
"It was clear 20 years ago, when I first got to know John that he was destined for big things," says Hodges. "He had everything: intelligence, wit, energy, personality and a great analytical mind. He also has wonderful home-grown Southern charm. South Carolina's loss is Washington's gain. I tried to entice him back home about a year ago, but he seems to have extended his roots deep inside the Washington Beltway."
Lawson broke into television in 1986, becoming director of public information for the South Carolina Education Television Network. It was a lucky strike: He had no previous television experience and had just finished his graduate degree in international studies. "I still don't quite know why the hell they hired me," he says.
Actually, why became pretty clear during his first week on the job. His political experience and skills with grass-roots organizing came in handy when the local TCI cable system knocked the Columbia public-television station off the basic tier to make room for cable channels. He went out and riled up the grass-roots—local cable subscribers—and, "within a few weeks, they restored our station to the basic tier," he says.
The experience Lawson gained at SCETV eventually took him to Washington, where he worked for the then-named National Association of Public Television Stations. He was brought in to do the same thing for public broadcasting on a national level, using the grass-roots approach, that he had done in South Carolina.
That approach still serves Lawson today, as he works to guide public broadcasters through the digital transition and the potential legislative pitfalls that accompany it.