C-SPAN Radio celebrating two decades in Washington
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There’s a big birthday happening in Washington: C-SPAN Radio is set to mark its 20th year in the nation’s capital.

“It’s 20 magic years,” Brian Lamb, C-SPAN’s founder and retired CEO says of its 90.1 -WCSP-FM.

“It’s probably the only 24-hour-a-day public affairs radio station in the country,” Lamb tells ITK. The commercial-free station “is the same long format that we have on television. It’s a place that you can be guaranteed that if you’re interested in the most important political event of the day, we’ll have it on that radio station from start to finish.”

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In an age of partisan politics and screaming talking heads on cable networks, ITK wanted to know: What’s been the key to survival for C-SPAN’s radio and TV operations?

 

Lamb credits business gurus who helped launch C-SPAN in 1979 acting “as citizens, instead of just for-profit businesspeople, and saying, ‘If we do C-SPAN, we’ll be doing something for this civic responsibility that we all should have.’ ”

“It sounds almost Pollyanna-ish,” says Lamb, “but that’s the way it happened.”

The 76-year-old TV vet also notes that unlike the cable news outlets, C-SPAN isn’t rated by Nielsen.

“If you’re working at a MSNBC, or Fox, or CNN, you have to build an audience. And what’s happened over the years is they have to build a narrative,” explains Lamb. “They have to build a storyline that brings [viewers] back to them day after day after day.”

“Based on our budget, we’re at the mercy of what the elected representatives and by and large what the political people in this town do — if they’re doing events that matter and are interesting, it’ll draw an audience.”

Lamb, who hosted C-SPAN’s “Booknotes” for 16 years, counts the late author Christopher Hitchens one of his favorite guests over the years. While he’s interviewed countless commanders in chief and lawmakers, Lamb expresses doubt that another president will be added to that list. 

President Trump only gave “one very brief interview during the campaign,” Lamb says.

“He tends to go where he meets a friendly voice and a friendly interviewer,” he adds with a chuckle. “I suspect we probably won’t see him.”

The Indiana native says he has no idea what C-SPAN will look like over the next few decades. The TV network and C-SPAN Radio, which is also available through online podcasts and a free app, “can’t help but change,” he says.

“It’s entirely possible that 20 years from now we’ll be a different kind of network.”

“People in this country are learning they can watch what they want to watch whenever they want to watch it. That’s a great freedom that when I was growing up you didn’t have,” says Lamb.

Asked about what he wants the legacy of C-SPAN to be, Lamb says his “goal from the beginning” was to offer viewers a choice in how they get the news.

“When you grew up back in the ’50s and ’60s, on the evening news shows, they were all the same. They came on at the same time and they reported the same stories, and the basic content was the same. My goal back when I got involved in all of this was to provide choices to people so they could get more in-depth information and they could decide for themselves.” 

And he says he can handle some good-natured ribbing about C-SPAN — at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, Seth Meyers called it the “official network for wide shots of empty chairs” — airing the sometimes-less-than-thrilling gavel-to-gavel proceedings of Congress.

“I laugh with the rest of them. That’s given us an enormous amount of visibility over the years. We have been made fun of almost from the day we started,” Lamb says.

“The only thing that’s bothered me over the years about people covering us is when they leave the impression that we are owned and operated by the government. We are so far away from that,” he says.

“A lot of people don’t understand that the cameras in chambers aren’t ours and the reason why it’s not exciting television is frankly because they won’t allow us to put our own cameras in there,” he adds.

“That’s been disappointing over the years and it’s not gotten a whole lot better, because in the end the members of Congress want their images under as tight of control as they can get it and so we’ve had to fight through that process from the very beginning.”