The Motion Carries

With C-SPAN Radio, news is gavel-to-gavel even while traffic's bumper-to-bumper. And with the Clinton trial heating up the airwaves, its popularity may speed ahead.

January 12, 1999|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

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.

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