Drive time. Prime time.
Brand name? C-SPAN.
You can listen in the car, on the computer, or while shoveling snow. You can put it on a Walkman. Now, as easy as you roam the beltway, hear the unfiltered, raw material of government. Untouched by journalists. Listen, unaware of what color of tie Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon is wearing. Listen, and hear people clearing their throats, stuttering and, later, actually completing their thoughts. No antsy host butts in to commandeer the conversation.
Since C-SPAN, the radio, took to the air just over a year ago, it has fast become the local medium of choice for people who can't or won't watch television. These people -- of unknown number but definite passion -- are delighted at the chance to hear taped versions of the day's live events on the drive home.
In the next few weeks, with the historic trial of President Clinton about to begin, that audience is poised to grow: Radio fans may discover public affairs radio in the same way television audiences discovered CNN in '91 during the Gulf War -- in a search for information during a crisis.
The programs on C-SPAN Radio (90.1 FM) are largely C-SPAN television product -- unfettered coverage of public affairs 24 hours a day. But the coverage is packaged in and around rush hour so people can catch the day's key events on the drive to and from work.
To C-SPAN's founder, radio offers fewer distractions than television to people who like information. "You hear a lot more on radio than you do on television," says Brian Lamb, 57, who founded C-SPAN television in 1979 and C-SPAN Radio 15 months ago.
As gripping as the Senate trial may be, though, live coverage of looming national events like impeachment is not when C-SPAN Radio shines, says Lamb, who also is host of C-SPAN's popular weekend "Booknotes," an hourlong show devoted to authors, books and publishing.
"Where we really do our job is when nobody else is doing it," he says. For example, two weeks ago when mainstream media was doing saturation coverage of impeachment and Monica, C-SPAN Radio chose to cover a Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing at which the Joint Chiefs of Staff pleaded with Congress to reverse Clinton policy and increase the defense budget.
That level of detail bores traditional radio or television audiences, which left the defense budget to print media to sum up in next-day stories. But that's what appeals to C-SPAN addicts. Depending on the listener's point of view, the program is either an amazingly up-close look at how government works or a real yawner.
Never before has it been so easy to be a citizen.
Word of mouth
In the 15 months C-SPAN Radio has been on the air, its chief beneficiaries appear to be Washington insiders -- the Washington talk-show circuit, Hillary Clinton, George Will and the like. Former Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry is a fan -- he was forced to watch television every Sunday morning until C-SPAN Radio began re-airing the talk shows Sunday afternoons; now McCurry can listen outside while weeding in the garden.
But ordinary people in the region are finding it, too, by word of mouth and advertisements in a few local newspapers. C-SPAN Radio doesn't have to rate itself since it takes no advertising and it knows little about its audience, intentionally -- but the 50,000-watt station can be heard as far south as Richmond, as far west as Gettysburg, Pa.
But from anecdotes and letters, Lamb says people who don't watch C-SPAN are listening to C-SPAN Radio, and like it. He says he doesn't know where it will go, but he's happy simply thinking about one day connecting with the 4 million automobiles in the D.C.-Baltimore-Annapolis triangle alone.
Beyond its broadcast capabilities, the station's 6,000 annual hours of public affairs programming are simulcast on the World Wide Web.
By next year, because of a revolution in the radio business, C-SPAN Radio may reach a bigger audience than the 22 million people who watch C-SPAN television every week. That is because C-SPAN Radio will be one of the first channels to be delivered by satellite to markets across the country.
At the urging of Lamb, whose first love is radio -- he started broadcasting for his Lafayette, Ind., high school station at age 14 -- C-SPAN has purchased space on two new radio broadcast satellites. This is pay radio -- for perhaps $10 a month, subscribers may choose from among as many as 100 stations that won't fade in and out on the drive across the country.
C-SPAN, short for Cable Satellite Public Affairs Network, is now 20 years old and established enough that its headquarters at 400 North Capital St. is on the official Washington tour. It is still a shoestring operation, established by cable executives in exchange for Congress granting permission for its affairs to be televised. Lamb, who was working for the cable industry's trade publication, convinced cable executives to give him the $25,000 to start it.
From day one, nonpartisan, gavel-to-gavel coverage of both houses of Congress has been the station's mainstay. C-SPAN television also airs White House briefings, press conferences, political conferences, journalists reading the morning paper, funerals and, since September, a weekend "Book TV," on which nonfiction authors discuss their work at length.
C-SPAN Radio, also funded by the cable industry, is about as small as a radio station can be, taking up only $1 million of C-SPAN's annual $30 million budget. Its staff of seven is self-sufficient; each knows how to edit his or her own tapes, direct, produce, announce events and make the coffee.
Like their counterparts on television, C-SPAN Radio announcers exist solely to help the listener understand what is happening. They neither identify themselves on the air nor characterize any of the proceedings.
Unlike television, where it's possible to prepare scripts well ahead, a live radio broadcast requires announcers to fly by the seat of their pants. The announcer must keep the listener informed about what is happening, identify politicians, explain procedure, and find something interesting to say during long pauses or receiving lines of the sort on the air last week when the House of Representatives elected a speaker.
"There's not a whole lot of down time," says station manager Bob Spence, a Hagerstown native who joined C-SPAN as a television announcer in 1994 after 18 years in commercial radio around the country. "No one is sure what the speaker will say next."
Most of his staff is experienced in radio, but not Nancy Calo, the weekday morning host.
She was a former night-club singer and did freelance commercial voice-overs in Washington; sometimes she finds herself scanning the same hotel convention rooms where she sang. For a time, she was even a warm-up for Mark Russell, the political satirist. "That was my introduction to politics," she says.
The rest she learned on the job when she began working as an off-camera announcer for C-SPAN television three and half years ago.
"I am the luckiest person alive," Calo says, her eyes glued to C-SPAN monitors for the simulcast proceedings of the House speaker vote this day. "Every day it is like going to school."
Her pleasant, even-toned voice gives her immediate authority. "There is House Speaker Dennis Hastert going down to the House floor to address the representatives ...," she tells listeners as the speaker leaves the podium.
As producer-announcer, she decides what to air during the day when the news on the floor of the House and Senate is not earth-shattering. She uses a daybook, and counts on feeds from C-SPAN television crews or outside services.
Every five to six minutes, at a natural break, she identifies the station. "This is the Speaker-elect Dennis Hastert. We are live on C-SPAN Radio."
In the past week, the radio audience has heard the congressional prayer breakfast, the inauguration of Jeb Bush in Florida, as well as U.S. House and Senate proceedings.
C-SPAN Radio is pioneering oral history on radio, too. On Saturday, the station featured tapes of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson planning the Tonkin Gulf incident off the coast of Vietnam and worrying with his advisers about whether his civil rights program would pass the Congress. The LBJ tapes are being played as fast as they can be released by the LBJ Library.
Conversations of President John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Mississippi school desegregation case of James Meredith were aired last month. The Nixon tapes are coming, along with such treasures of history as Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "fireside chats" -- radio broadcasts the former president used to comfort Americans during the Great Depression. "There are all sorts of things out there just waiting to get on radio," Spence said.
The radio studio, on the first floor of the C-SPAN building, is also considering creating its own call-in shows to complement those it relays from TV. But with the volume of public affairs events available, there's no need for anything fancy, Lamb says.
On Saturdays, for one hour, the station airs a vintage U.S. Supreme Court oral argument and ends by telling listeners what the justices decided. This has never before been done on radio, although C-SPAN television broadcasts live arguments with pictures of the justices on screen.
Wherever listeners are, they are evidently happy, judging from the thanks they give when calling in on television lines to comment.
After she found the station in February, Karen Hinson listened to C-SPAN Radio for up to 15 hours a week as she drove from her home in Stoneleigh to courses at a Johns Hopkins campus in Washington. Now she listens each day as she drives to her job as a teacher at Western School of Technology and Environmental Science in Catonsville. "It provides the entire public an easy way to stay informed," she says.
Patrice Jeppson, a D.C. resident who began commuting to Baltimore County in September, was delighted when she found she didn't have to give up her pre-commute habit of turning on C-SPAN television's "Washington Journal" -- a live call-in show in which viewers (and listeners) can question policymakers or journalists -- several mornings a week. It is simulcast on radio beginning at 7 a.m.
She wrote a note to the radio station: "I hope that someday C-SPAN on radio will be an option to Americans everywhere."
Pub Date: 1/12/99