David McCourt is the founder and CEO of Granahan McCourt Capital, a private investment firm focused on technology, media, and telecommunications in underserved areas of the world. In 1982, McCourt started his first company, McCourt Cable Systems, which became the first competitive phone company in America. His breakthrough methods for building and designing cable systems eventually became the industry standard. Most recently, McCourt has focused on spreading world-class video capabilities to the developing world, and creating ALTV to help find and develop creative video producers in the Middle East, North Africa, and Latin America. McCourt came to the University of Chicago Institute of Politics as the guest of IOP Fall Fellow Phil Revzin. As part of Revzin’s Fellows Seminar series, entitled “The Whole World is Watching,” Revzin and McCourt discussed the implications of Trump’s election for America’s global image and foreign policy. Before the event, McCourt sat down with the Gate’s Eileen Li to discuss his experience working for former House speaker Tip O’Neill, the challenges of starting his own company, and his vision for an independent third party.
The Gate: What was it like to start your own company in your early twenties?
David McCourt: I probably wasn’t smart enough to be afraid like I should’ve been. That’s the great advantage of ignorance. But it was great. We had a simple concept, that basically, more computers were talking to computers, so why not build a network around moving data, rather than trying to retrofit the old phone company’s network? That’s what we did. We built the first competitive phone company in America, and it was based on the concept that we could build a network more efficiently to move data than the phone companies could retrofit their networks, and then we were able to ride voice virtually free on that network, so it worked out great.
Gate: You mentioned in a previous interview that you used to work for Tip O’Neill, a Boston Democrat who was one of the longest serving House speakers in US history. What was it like working for him?
McCourt: It was fabulous, fabulous. Reagan was president when I worked for Tip O’Neill. I was sort of a low man on the totem pole, so I would always be in the office on Saturday, and he would sometimes come back from the White House and he would talk about how he and Reagan didn’t agree, but they would make some agreement. Tip would always say, “I’d rather have 50 percent of something I want, than none of something I want.” It seems like that’s lost in politics today. No one seems to want to take half and let the other guy have half—they want to take it all. And Tip would be happy if he got half, he would say, half is better than nothing.
Gate: What drew you to working for Tip O’Neill?
McCourt: I wanted to be a police officer, so before I went to college after I got out of high school, I worked a little while for the Watertown Police Department. Watertown is a suburb of Boston. I had applied for the police trainee program to become a cop instead of going to college, and they told me I had the job. But then they told me afterwards that they couldn’t give it to me because the jobs were set aside for minorities. I remember complaining to my father that it doesn’t seem right that I was qualified for the job, and they’re not going to give it to me because I’m white. My father, who was a contractor, said, “Look, I’m trying to eat dinner, if you want to complain, go down to your congressman’s office.” And I said, “Who’s my congressman?” And he said, “Tip O’Neill.”
I went down to Watertown Square and there was a little tiny office, a one-person congressional office with a guy named John Carver there and I had my hockey jacket on. When I went in to complain to Carver, he said, “Oh I see you played hockey for BC High,” and I said, “Yeah I did, I was captain of my team,” and he said, “I was captain of my team too at Harvard.” And I told him the story and he said “Look, why do you want to become a cop? Why don’t you go to Georgetown? You got into Georgetown, why don’t you just go to college?” And then he hand-wrote a letter, put it in an envelope, and gave it to me. He wrote “Dolores Snow” on the outside of it, and he said when you get down to Washington, go to Tip O’Neill’s office on Capitol Hill and give this letter to Dolores Snow. And I didn’t know what he wrote in the letter. I went to Washington, I went to Tip O’Neill’s office, and I went in and asked for Dolores Snow, and I gave her the letter. She opened it up and she said, “When do you want to start?” And I said, “Start what?” and she said, “It says here from John Carver that I should give you every courtesy to give you a job, so, when do you want to start?” And I said, “Monday’s fine.” That’s how I got the job and all the time I was at Georgetown I worked for Tip O’Neill.
Gate: How did your time in politics shape your outlook on your businesses?
McCourt: In the old days, with politicians, it was all about listening and compromising. Now, it’s all about fighting, hardline, and all-or-nothing and shutting down the government and gridlock. At the beginning, it was all about listening and compromising, and those are critical skills in business. In the old days, governments actually solved complex problems. Now, they don’t solve anything—they just create problems. The old way of governing had a lot of similarity with business. The new way of governing has no similarities with a successful business.
Gate: In terms of the way politics has changed over the years, what are your thoughts on the two major political parties in the United States?
McCourt: It’s ridiculous, right? And we’re all to blame for where we are now. The media is partly to blame. People who didn’t vote are partly to blame. People who don’t read and understand the ramifications of what politicians are talking about are to blame. We all are partly to blame. It has gotten so ridiculous now that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could have both done the same thing wrong and people would say, “Oh I can’t believe Hillary did X, Y, and Z, she should be in jail,” and if they were Trump supporters and Trump did the same thing, they’d say, “Oh that’s just part of being in business.” If they were Hillary supporters, they would say “Oh, that’s just part of being in politics, what Trump did is more wrong.” They live in this echo chamber. It’s just crazy.
There’s no sensible middle anymore. No one wants to go to the sensible middle. They’re just taking a ridiculous position and getting nothing accomplished. I would say that 80 percent of what Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton said was unimplementable. They just said it. No one calls them out on it. You have Hillary saying, “Obamacare is great, let’s keep it,” and then you have Trump saying, “Let’s just throw out Obamacare.” It’s both bullshit. It’s neither perfect, nor should it be thrown out. Everyone should have healthcare, but there are flaws in it that need to be fixed. So why can’t these politicians act like big boys and girls and fix the flaws, instead of this all-or-nothing bullshit game that they’re playing? It’s crazy.
That’s why Trump got elected. You know the media would make you think that the sixty million people who voted for Trump are just America’s sixty million hateful, racist people, but that's not the case. A lot of those people, maybe even a majority of those people, voted for the line that they saw that said, “I’m pissed off at all you assholes,” and that’s why they ticked off Donald Trump. “I’m pissed off because you guys don’t get anything done.” And until the politicians and elected officials address the fact that they’re not getting anything done, our economy is growing at half the rate it has since World War II. We don’t have a coherent foreign policy. We haven’t fixed the Social Security problem. We haven’t fixed healthcare, and the insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies are ripping us off. We haven’t fixed the educational system, and we haven’t come up with a coherent immigration policy. We have $2.7 trillion of underinvestment in infrastructure. We haven’t solved any of those problems and that’s what people are pissed off at.
Gate: In addition to your work in the domestic sphere, you have also worked abroad, collaborating with Carlos Slim in Mexico and bidding for the National Broadband Plan in Ireland. How would you compare your experiences working with governments abroad with your experiences working with government here in the United States?
McCourt: Some are easier and some are harder. Some developing-country governments are just incompetent, so it’s very hard to get anything done. Some are corrupt and at least in large part, our government, they don’t get anything done, but they’re in large part competent and in large part honest, and that’s not the case all over the world. We’re still the greatest democracy in the world, although there’s been people protesting all night about a fair election, which it’s crazy that the media would even cover that. It’s the most ironic thing I’ve ever heard of in my life, that people would protest a democratic election. They should use that energy to build up an independent party, which I think is one of the things that would help this country.
In small countries, like Ireland, it’s easier because the country is so small. You can really get stuff done in small countries. In big countries, it’s just as hard as the United States, and then there are big countries that are very nationalistic, and as an outsider it’s hard. There are some countries that very much favor people from that country, so in those countries, it’s very difficult. But in general, for small countries, if you’re offering something that they want, they’re pretty easy to get along with.
Gate: You mentioned the protests going on after the election. What do you think about those people who are frustrated with the government? Where does the country go from here?
McCourt: Like I said, we’re all to blame. People like to watch combative sports, so people liked to watch this foolishness between Hillary and Donald during the election, and the media liked to cover it. In the debates, they didn’t get to policy questions right away. The media tried to ask all these gotcha questions on both sides to try to create a combative environment. Media covering protests after a democratic election is crazy.
Where do we go from here? The politicians better realize that sixty million people have just said, “I don’t think you guys are getting anything done, and you better get something done.” There’s nothing that I can think of that Donald Trump said, off the top of my head, that I agree with, but I have to recognize the facts, which are that sixty million people ticked off a box that said, “I’m really pissed off because you guys aren’t getting anything done.” So, we have an obligation to start getting stuff done.
And they’re easy wins. There’s an expression: how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. We have a problem that’s the size of an elephant, but we can start taking bites at it and solve some of these problems. We’re just kicking the can down the road on all the big problems and solving nothing and saying things on both sides to incite the bases, as opposed to trying to solve the problem. Journalists, the media, students, young people, everybody needs to focus around people who are in the sensible middle that actually want to get something done. And that’s who young people have to support to get this country back growing the way it has since World War II. Otherwise, we’ll have the two ends of the parties—we’ll have these crazy conservatives in the Republican Party who want gridlock and government shutdown, and very liberals in the Democratic Party who want fanciful social programs that we can’t afford—nothing will get done, instead of just coming together. As Tip O’Neill used to say, let’s just get half of what we want. We each get half and move forward.
Gate: As for the role of the media, you have also done some film and television production. You were the executive producer of a documentary series called “What’s Going On?” which focused on children caught in the midst of wars and conflicts around the world. Were you drawn to TV and film because you felt like the media wasn’t covering the important things?
McCourt: I think you’re right, the media wasn’t covering the important issues. The media industry is, as I knew it growing up, fighting for survival because social media is kind of taking a big bite out of their bottom line. So they’re trying to get even more soundbite-ish and less in-depth, and more incendiary and more polarizing. Now, Fox will lean one way, MSNBC will lean the other way, so you have to sort of watch both of them to have any idea of what really happened in the world. You have to read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to have any sense of what really happened. It’s crazy. It’s not unbiased anymore. Social media, by its very nature, is an echo chamber because the algorithms in social media encourage more people that view what you like and more friends that like what you like, so the algorithms just keep on putting more of the same into your life. It creates a bigger echo chamber, so that doesn’t help any.
Gate: You are also involved in bringing video capabilities to young people around the world. What drew you to video producing in particular?
McCourt: On one end of the spectrum you have YouTube and on the other end you have BBC or CNN or ESPN, which are very professionally produced, and there’s a big space in between. And we saw that big space in between, and we said we’d fill that space. And most people who try to fill that space went to YouTube and said I’m gonna be a curator, I’m gonna go into YouTube and I’m gonna find content that people will like to watch. They became curators of multichannel networks. Most of them haven’t made any money, and I think that’s a flawed model. That model assumes that I know what an Asian person wants, what a gay person wants, what a Syrian person wants, so it assumes that I know what other people want, which is a flawed assumption.
What we’re doing is saying, how do we fill that space in between BBC, ESPN, CNN, and YouTube, with professionally produced content on one end and YouTube on the other? We have a model where we are going to go around the world and find creative people. We’re going to give them the tools to produce content. We’re going to give them the best tools that the global world has to offer and let them produce content that their local community wants to see and then we’ll go sell advertising and give them their piece of the advertising instantaneously. We’ll give them the tools, they can produce the content, and we’ll sell the ads against it, and then they can download on the phone the next day and they’ll get their money for their ads. Instead of us curating content, we’re going to try to find creative people and give them the tools to produce content, so it’s a different model than other people are looking at, and I think a more interesting model.
Gate: Where would you direct students who are interested in exploring this initiative or the video content?
McCourt: ALTV is up and running. In ALTV, you can download the app or go to ALTV.com. Right now, we started in the Arab world. French content comes out for North Africa at the end of this month, and then Spanish will come out. It’s going to go Middle East to Africa to South America. It’s going to be all over the developing world. Right now it’s mostly a “view app,” and there is a functionality on there for user-generated content, but we’re adding more and more functionality. The world-class tools we’re working on and the world-class payment systems all come out on the first of the year.
Gate: Do you have any concluding remarks for students interested in media or politics?
McCourt: Well, hopefully, the readers of your publication will use this election to be motivated to support the independent party because that’s one thing the country could use—a party that is not tied to the Republican establishment, which is getting more and more conservative, or the Democratic establishment, which is getting more and more liberal—but the sensible middle. Hopefully that can happen, and hopefully students will support an independent party, because I think that’s where the sensible middle is going to live. Students are our only hope to fix this; the old guys have already messed it up. The existing system is not repairable: it just needs a whole new system, an independent party, and hopefully young students will insist on the sensible middle and insist on a solution that doesn’t cause 60 million people to tick a box that says, “I’m really pissed off.”
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
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