December 12, 2011

A few years back, Sarah Trahern turned on morning news coverage of the Iowa presidential caucuses one wintry day. Watching it, she flashed back to a previous job as a producer for the cable TV channel C-SPAN, and for a moment she missed being in the middle of a bustling political campaign instead of watching press coverage from afar.

Then she realized her job that day, as producer of a cable network special Country in the Rockies, involved riding a snowmobile with famous country musicians through scenic mountain passages near Crested Butte, Colorado

Trahern had left Washington, D.C., in 1995 to work in Nashville for entertainment cable TV, working her way up to her current position as general manager and senior vice president at the cable network GAC: Great American Country.

“I knew right then that I had made the right choice,” Trahern said.

The veteran TV executive reflected on her career as the 2011 honoree of the Louise Scruggs Memorial Forum, an annual interview program recognizing a music industry executive who, like the late Louise Scruggs, has had an indelible impact on country music.

The forum is presented annually by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the Gibson Foundation. Jay Orr, vice president of museum programs, hosted the evening, which also included remarks by museum senior vice president Liz Thiels and the president of Gibson Guitar Corporation, Dave Berryman.

In recognizing Trahern, Berryman said, “Your outstanding work is faithful to the passion and excellence that was Louise’s hallmark.”

Born in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, Trahern was a high achiever from an early age. She attended Georgetown University, partly because its District of Columbia location would put her in the heart of politics and media, where she wanted to work.

But she also loved country music and playing the banjo, recalling that while her college dorm roommate had a poster of Boy George on the wall, Trahern had one of banjo great Bela Fleck. She had played banjo since age thirteen.

“D.C. was also a great bluegrass market,” Trahern said of her years at Georgetown. “So I had the best of all possible worlds.”

Fittingly, Trahern counted Flatt & Scruggs among her favorite country acts, bringing two of the duo’s vinyl LPs with her to show at the start of her interview. The albums, weathered from frequent play, once belonged to her father, “but I stole them from him,” Trahern said with a laugh.

She also befriended many bluegrass and acoustic musicians, including dobro master Jerry Douglas and his wife, Jill, who attended the program. Trahern and the Douglases met while in their late teens, Jerry Douglas said afterward, and they all once participated in a memorable bus ride with the bluegrass band Hot Rize to a concert in Colorado.

After college, Trahern took a position as production coordinator at C-SPAN in 1987. She worked closely with Brian Lamb, C-SPAN founder, producing his Booknotes program for five years and helping coordinate coverage of presidential conventions and call-in news programs, which included booking guests and coming up with topics for guests to discuss.

On Booknotes, a showcase weekend interview program, Trahern felt pressure to come up with interesting books and authors on a weekly basis. Lamb, her boss, was the program’s host, and she knew he read every book before the interview.

“Brian was a voracious reader,” Trahern said. “Each week, we’d get a stack of books that I had to sort through and get it down to one or two that Brian would read. The responsibility as the producer—knowing my boss would spend ten to twelve hours, three days a week, reading a book—was that I better pick the right book. Otherwise I was going to hear from him.”

Trahern joked that, back then, she would read for work and play the banjo for relaxation. Now she listens to music for her job, and she tries to pick up a book once in a while when time permits.

Lamb preferred not to talk to his interview subjects prior to air time, because he was concerned a good story might be told off-camera that he would prefer to have on the air. So Trahern prepared guests for the interview, as well as doing make-up and getting the subject camera ready.

Among those she prepared for the program included former U.S. President Richard Nixon. Wanting to avoid talking politics with him, she brought up baseball, knowing Nixon loved the sport.

“I’m a huge sports fan,” Trahern said. “My dad was a college professor, so I was always around college sports. Since I’m from [southern] Illinois, I grew up with the Cardinals. So while we were hanging out in the green room, I talked about baseball. It got a little heated, because he is a Mets fan, and I’m a Cardinals fan.”

As for covering political conventions, Trahern compared it to producing a country music awards show. Indeed, she believes her experience with big-budget productions, such as the conventions, helped her get hired by TNN: The Nashville Network.

While still at C-SPAN, Trahern purposefully focused on finding a job in Nashville. While plenty of work existed in television in Washington—she turned down an offer to produce the PBS public-affairs talk show The McLaughlin Group—she wanted to combine her passion for country music with her talents for producing television.

“I woke up one morning and said, ‘If it takes me three months or three years, I want to live in Nashville,’” she said. “I had a lot of friends in bluegrass and acoustic music. My parents were from Clarksville. My cousin Jane, who is my best friend, was here. I knew Nashville was where I wanted to go.”

Eventually, after getting turned down a few times, Trahern wrote TNN executive Brian Hughes, leading to her getting a post as “manager of specials.” Working at TNN meant shifting from a non-profit network to one that relied on ratings.

“When you work for a commercial network, you get ratings every day, and it’s like a report card,” she said. “You’re up, you’re down. It’s very nerve-wracking.”

One of Trahern’s first projects at TNN involved producing the Marty Party, a music variety show hosted by country star Marty Stuart—who was managed by Bonnie Garner, 2010 Louise Scruggs Memorial Forum honoree.

Trahern stayed at TNN through three different corporate owners, up until Viacom Media Networks changed the network to Spike TV and moved its headquarters to New York. Trahern decided to leave Viacom and stay in Nashville.

“I wish there was something like TNN today,” Trahern said. “I think it was a network that was taken for granted because it was here, because it was all the time.”

Trahern started her own company, Sterling Productions, producing specials for CMT, Scripps Networks, and others. A highlight was the Johnny Cash Memorial Tribute concert, even though the labor-intensive special came during the time she was studying in pursuit of her MBA degree from the prestigious Owen Graduate School of Management. She received her MBA, and the special is considered an outstanding moment in country music television.

After doing freelance work for Scripps, Trahern was hired as a producer for the Scripps-owned Shop at Home networkCalling the job “a challenging year and a half,” Trahern was considering other job opportunities when Scripps bought the cable network GAC: Great American Country in the fall of 2004. Trahern accepted a job at GAC in early 2005.

“It’s been a wonderful six years,” she said.

In discussing the difference between GAC and CMT, Trahern explained, “One of the great things about Scripps is they embrace lifestyle networks,” she said. “They really gave us space to be country all the time.”

That focus allowed the network to do groundbreaking programming, such as the short-form feature Short Cuts, which focused on giving exposure to developing country music acts. GAC devoted one series of vignettes to Taylor Swift before she released her first album.

“Taylor and her mom, Andrea, came in to audition for us in our editing room,” Trahern said. “She played two or three songs. I remember she brought out this twelve-string guitar. A little fourteen-year-old with a twelve-string guitar—it amazed me that she could actually play it. It was the perfect marriage for our short-form TV show.”

Trahern spoke of other GAC highlights, such as airing a benefit concert for Nashville flood relief in May 2010 on short notice, and a Country Music at the White House special in 2009 pulled off with only eight-days notice. Trahern, whose father was in the audience, choked up as she wished her mother could have seen the broadcast, since she was an Obama supporter. Her mother died shortly after Obama’s inauguration.

“For me, it was one of the most personally satisfying shows I’ve ever worked on,” Trahern said.

That theme—the importance of family—came up repeatedly for Trahern, who married three months before the Louise Scruggs Memorial Forum. Known for her hard work ethic, Trahern obviously draws strength from her familial relationships, a topic that merges well with her role in presenting country music to the world.

The audience, full of colleagues and other music industry executives who came out to support her on her big night, proved that she also has formed close relationships and bonds in her professional life as well. Indeed, in sixteen years in Nashville, Trahern has become an integral part of the music community—as supported by her recent election to board chairman of the Academy of Country Music.

During the program, Trahern recalled an early confrontation that occurred shortly after she relocated to Music City USA. She and a TNN audio engineer clashed over a production idea she had. She insisted they could pull off a tricky element she wanted in the program. The engineer disagreed, snapping at her, “Well, I’m still going to be here when your carpetbagging ass is back in Washington.”

As the crowd laughed, Trahern quipped, “Well, my carpetbagging ass is still here.”

—Michael McCall

Learn more about the Louise Scruggs Memorial Forum and its other honorees here.