Olentangy Valley News

Screen legend: Cable trailblazer honored

Powell's Tony Swain named Cable Television Pioneer for 44-year career

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JOSHUA A. BICKEL/THISWEEKNEWS
Tony Swain poses for a portrait in his Powell home July 18. Swain recently was inducted into the Cable Television Pioneers.
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By ThisWeek Community News  • 

Tony Swain doesn't just remember what it was like to have only five television channels to choose from.

Beginning as a technician and working his way up to president for various cable providers, the Powell resident has had a hand in making the 200-plus TV channels available today a reality.

For his 44 years of work in the industry, Swain was inducted into the Cable Television Pioneers organization at a banquet last month.

"Being a member of the Cable TV Pioneers is really an honor," said Matt Polka, president of the American Cable Association. Polka was a lawyer who represented cable providers when he met Swain in 1986. Polka has been a member of the Pioneers since 2009.

"Being part of the group recognizes that you've really made a distinctive impression on the industry through your commitment and your effort, and Tony has certainly done that.

"He was one of the first people who really helped to teach me the cable TV business and he is someone who I've looked up to for many years," Polka added.

Swain, 64, never intended to build the first two-way cable systems in the country. When he graduated from Columbus Technical Institute -- now Columbus State Community College -- he had never even heard of cable.

His first job out of technical school was as an electronic journeyman with Squires of Ohio. After three months on the job, the owner of the company asked Swain to follow him to Jackson, Ohio, to wire cable television. It would bring subscribers 12 channels at a cost of $4.95 per month.

"I asked him a few questions: What's cable TV and where is Jackson?" Swain recalled.

Swain believed in the cable concept and tagged along. When the company was bought out by the late Robert Tudek and Everett Mundy, Swain's mentors and the co-founders of Tele-Media Corp., his career in cable took off. Since joining the industry, he's traveled to 27 states and countries, wiring some of the first cable systems at each stop along the way.

"Really, since that point, it's been a whirlwind of building cable TV systems and rebuilding cable systems over the entire East Coast of the United States," Swain said. "We planted poles, built systems, built towers and microwave systems and developed everything."

During his travels, he changed the way millions of people received entertainment, met his wife, Pamela, and was promoted to president of Tele-Media Co.

Swain said his most memorable moments on the job are when he worked to create local programming. He recalled working to strike up deals with PBS and Ohio State University to record and rebroadcast the Buckeyes football games in the mid-1970s and developed television production classes in northeast Ohio schools so they could provide programming.

Something he called "the original MTV" was one of the most successful programs Tele-Media created. The Northcoast Review allowed viewers to listen to the newest records while a host reviewed songs and read Rolling Stone articles.

"People enjoyed seeing their town on TV, and it didn't have to be perfect," Swain said. "There are things that we've done that I wish we had old videotapes of, because I'd love to have them just for archives."

Swain said back then, the pioneers of the cable systems were responsible for creating their own content on public-access channels, because programming from networks such as ESPN and HBO was expensive, and the signal couldn't reach just anywhere.

Until 2007, when the Lancaster native and his family moved back to Ohio and settled in Powell, Swain had the luxury of free cable. Although he knows enough to wire his own system, Swain said he takes full advantage of Time Warner's offerings to catch some of his favorite shows such as Game of Thrones and Dexter.

"It's hard to believe that this all comes back to a time where people in Columbus at one time had only ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS stations, and they went off the air at 1 a.m.," Swain said. "Now, we can't live without our 200 channels and our DVR."

From his home, he acts as chief operating officer of Beyond Broadband Technology, president of Tele-Media Broadband Co., and chief operating officer of Buford Satellite Systems.

At Beyond Broadband Technology, Swain has developed a technology called the BBTSolution, which could simplify the way cable providers deliver signals to customers.

"He not only was proficient as a cable operator, but also what distinguishes Tony is that he's like so many cable pioneers in that he's a true entrepreneur in spirit and in practice," said Rick Michaels, who sponsored Swain for induction into the Pioneers organization. Michaels, CEO of the Tampa-based Communications Equity Associates Group, has been a member of the Pioneers since 1985 and first met Swain in 1970.

Michaels said Swain's recognition as a Pioneer was "long overdue."

Although many of his peers were inducted into the group nearly two decades ago, Swain said he didn't feel he was ready.

"I looked at my mentors (Tudek and Mundy) and thought, man, they were the real pioneers," he said.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the two being inducted at the annual banquet in Washington, D.C.

"Both of them are no longer here, and it is a special anniversary year, so I figured we should continue the legacy and I should get into the group," Swain added. "Being a pioneer is a badge of honor for certain."

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