Puttingthe FirstAnieridlncitt first Agency braved ci~-rights tensibn, war protests to promote speakers By Colleen Brosh NEWS BUSINESS WRITER
NEWTON - When Robert Walker launched his speakers' agency in the mid-1960s , he faced two challenges most new business owners do not need to overcome: defending the First Amendment and fighting prejudice.
years of business are a Who's Who of 20th-century history, from Andy Warhol to Mikhail Gorbachev. " Walker, who describes himself a First Amendment purist, saw an opportunity on college campuses to launch a lecture business and boost his most cherished American ideal, free speech, at the same time. "I have always believed if you have something to say, you should have a platform to say it," Walker said. "There was a lot more censorship in the '60s." First, he had to battle college ad- , ministrators to ailow students to pick the speakers they wanted. Then, once those speakers had their say, Walker was often bombarded ' with threats and hate mail. The hati! mail motivated him to keep going, he said. . Despite the obstacles, the busineSs took off quickly, adding more renowned speakers and more venues around the country. The timing of his business matched the growth of the civil rights movement and anti-war demonstrations o~ college campuses. "There were no agencies that STAFF PHOTO BY KEN MCGAGH were really doing what we were Robert Walker, chainnan and chief executive officer oflhe American Program Bureau, has arranged speeChes by doing. There was no one in the col- everyone from Dick Gregory to Mikhail Gorbachev. lege market selling lectures," Walker said. "We were always very issueoriented." ' But Walker left the busineSs for a ideals he startedwitIL HIs rrtissiort, and signed on to speak for the sions between college students and politicians like Ed Muskie. John while, selling it to a large company , he says, is to bring world leaders to American Program Bureau. "That's what's unbelievable about Kerry, and Gerald Ford, before he . 1980 th b . . b k ' . . the public so they can see and hear ,enlater. uymg It 'ac agam .' elf ' c'a'us'es an ' "d'I'd'eas ", ' firs"'"~-d:' '' this ' ' lfuSlrtess: I have , ' been able to de- was president. m several years UIdJ..l "I want to share with people these "I was tired. 1wanted to do someThis year, he created a speakers velop friendshipS with people like things that have been in my basething else," Walker said. "But 1 â€˘ forum at the temple he worshiJlS at Gorbachev," Walker said. ' in Swampscott to honor his parents, He nOw hopes to bring a taste of ment for the past 30 years. They are missed it. 1love the business." After a slew of other advent..ires: ' Nobel Prize ' laureates ArchbiShou th~e famous people to the public via history," he said. . Although he still has big plans for from bringing rock concerts to Desmond Tutu; Betty Williams and the Interne;:. Foxboro Stadium to pulling together ' Gorbachev all spoke. ' Walker's newest venture i:! re- the company, Walker is happy with a museum exhibit of Russianjeweis Walker counts Gomachevamoog launching the compa~y's World what he has accomplished already. "If I left this earth tomorrow, } and art from the czars, he returned his friends. His office is covered with , Wide Web site with video pieces of to ,the Am!lrican Program Bureau. photographs of Walker's family and the past. He plans to post old televi- would feel very good about what : Walker, 64, remains true to the the'GorbachevS, who met afterGor- sion footage his company shot in the have done," he said. "} have helped bachev left the Russian presidency 1970s of political roundtable discus- people by bridging gaps."
SMALL BUSINESS WOl'k in P,'o ress: Marketing,a new product At the height of the civil rights movement, Walker gave those championing the cause a platform to speak with hi~ new bu~iness . the American Program Bureau. The tiny company he and his wife Francine started from a two-room office in Boston organized some of the decade's most prominent activists to speak at college campusesbefore they were famous. Civil-rights activist Dick Gregory, feminist Betty Friedan and counterculture icons Abbie Hoffman and Timothy Leary were all part of his speakers' circuit. The speakers he has met and managed during his 30
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