You, Me, and the Lecture Business: A Short History

by Bernie Swain

The lecture industry!  Most of what you know concerns famous names and reports of speaking fees.  But it is an industry that, every year, provides us with new thinking and ideas that are so vital to the prosperity of our American culture and world civilization.  Just look at the new visionaries it offers today in the likes of business futurist Dan Pink, Harvard’s Amy Cuddy, or NYU’s innovation guru Luke Williams.

As the founder of Washington Speakers Bureau, I will always feel a deep personal respect and admiration for the industry. Here is some of its rich history.

  • Aristotle’s lectures some 2300 years ago inspired the American Lyceum Movement in our post-Civil War era; its goal was to shares ideas by bringing Abraham Lincoln, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson and others to local stages.  One day, Charles Dickens complained about the complexities of tours.  James Redpath was within earshot; his response was starting America’s first lecture agency in 1868.  Soon Redpath represented legends like Mark Twain, Fredrick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, Susan B. Anthony, P. T. Barnum, Walt Whitman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Arthur Conan Doyle.
  • By the 1940s, competitor W. Colston Leigh controlled 80% of the market; he represented speakers like Eleanor Roosevelt, Indira Gandhi, James Michener, Jim Thorpe, and Will Durant.  Polish immigrant Harry Walker entered the industry, at first providing organizations with “an endless parade of chefs, flower arrangers and inspirational speakers.”
  • By the 1960s, Harry’s nephew Robert Walker formed the American Program Bureau which focused on the college market; thanks to the campus activism of the times, APB quickly became the hottest agency in the country.  Today, Robert runs APB with son. 
  • Meanwhile, Harry Walker changed his focus to business and government; he soon dominated the industry with speakers like Gerald Ford, Alexander Haig, and Henry Kissinger. Today, Harry’s son Don Walker runs the agency, representing speakers like Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Dick Cheney.
  • In the late 1970s, Harry Walker famously said, “I don’t have any competitors.” This prompted three of us to start Washington Speakers Bureau in 1980. My co-founders are Harry Rhoads and my wife, Paula.

The rest, as they say, is history.  In just eight short years, WSB was the number one agency in the world—where it has remained.   Over the last thirty-five years, we have represented 3 U.S. presidents, the last 4 Prime Ministers of Great Britain, 5 Secretaries of State, countless American and world leaders, business visionaries, journalists, and sports legends. I am fortunate to call many of these high-impact leaders my friends. 

The next time you’re in an audience, listening intently to a compelling speaker, remember that the great traditions of the American lecture industry date back to the Civil War—and be curious about who and what you’ll hear next.

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Bernie Swain captures answers to life’s questions and more in an inspiring, practical collection of true-life stories for leaders today. What Made Me Who I Am – Available on Amazon  – is a terrific gift book for graduates and others who are just starting out in life.


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