Saturday, October 08, 2005

C-Span's 25 Years of Call-In Shows

I am currently in the midst of watching the 25-hour C-Span call-in marathon, being held in honor of the 25th anniversary of their first call-in show. (Their first caller, as you probably know, was from Yankton, South Dakota. Must have been with CFR.)

C-Span is simply the best overall experience on television. Its visionary, poker-faced founder and CEO, Brian Lamb, is a great American and my personal hero.

My main man.

Sorry ladies, he's taken.

I had the pleasure of visiting C-Span's facilities once about 10 years ago. I was in the Washington area on vacation, and I asked a (non-Spanhead) aunt of mine who lived near there if she wanted to stop at the C-Span building for a while before heading on to the Smithsonian. All I had to do was call and say that I'd like pay a visit, and one of their staff took the two of us, as well as another Spanhead (a septuagenarian New Dealer from San Francisco whom I had never met) and his nephew on a tour of the place.

So we got upstairs, and the two tag-alongs were acting politely interested, while Grandpa NewDeal and I were floating around like first-time Hadjgoers in Mecca. (By the way -- the old guy was the one who made the first comment about what a hottie Susan Swain is -- he beat me to it! And I know that he and I aren't the only ones who feel that way.) I look over and see a modest office with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on all the walls, and guess who walks out? The main man himself. He invites us into his office and just kind of hangs out with us for a while, chatting about what we do, why we're here, what was in the news that day, how C-Span works, etc. Can you even imagine Brian Williams or Ted Koppel or somebody like that just dropping what they're doing to chat with two people who walked in off the street? I looked at the books on the shelves in his office and realized that those were the books used for his now-dear-departed Booknotes program. I asked if I could look at a few and he was like "Sure - be my guest." and inside I was like "Yessss!!" but outwardly I was just like "OK, thanks." Sure enough, the shelves housed every book used for Booknotes, with the notes he made in the margins about things to discuss with the authors during the interviews. (Unlike many who conduct book interviews, Lamb actually reads the books prior to the discussion -- take a look at the books in the photo above.)

Here's the great thing about Mr. Lamb -- He has interviewed every president since Nixon, all sorts of world leaders, all sorts of big media types, practically everyone who has been in Congress in the last quarter-century, etc., but he treats the opinions and insights of regular old whomevers with the same attention and respect as he treats those of world leaders, even though it often requires the patience of a kindergarten teacher. C-Span democritizes without being populist.

As to the call-in show(s) in particular, they can sometimes try one's patience, but in the aggregate are fantastic. Even though we get to hear all sorts of interesting assertions about the Trilateral Comission, the Bilderbergers, and so on, we also get to hear from people around the country who hold the experts' feet to the fire. You get some historian who wrote an article about a certain battle, and then get three (unscreened) callers who were veterans of that battle who correct him, support him, denounce him, or whatever. Conspiracy theorists and talking-points faxees are tolerated so as to allow viewers to share their legitimate expertise in all sorts of areas.

As far as the guests go, they run the gamut. There are five basic types of guests that I can identify, although certainly all guests do not fit into these boxes:
  1. The Used Car Salesman. (Ed Gillespie, Ann Lewis, et al.) These are people who have a specific, scripted message to get across, who want you to buy what they are selling, and are expert in deflecting logical deconstruction of their assertions. My least-favorite kind of guest.
  2. The True Believer. (Pat Buchanan, Rep. Martin Frost, Mona Charen, Patricia Schroeder) These people have a core set of beliefs that are unlikely to change; They are usually on the program to tell you what the fill-in-the-blank view is of whatever is in the headlines that day. With practice, you can predict what any given True Believer will say on a certain issue or news story with pretty decent accuracy. There is certainly overlap between this group and Group #1.
  3. The Expert. (Senate Historian Richard Baker, Defense Correspondent Tony Capaccio, Sen. Sam Nunn, assorted biologists, engineers, and international journalists) These people may or may not have opinions, but their mainstay is fact-based explanations of their specialties for the intelligent layman. These are some of my favorites.
  4. The Renaissance Opinionated. (Christopher "Are You Still a Socialist?" Hitchens, Sen. John McCain, Stanley Crouch, Thomas Sowell, Camille Paglia, most of the staff of Reason Magazine) These are people who have a wide range of interests, and who are certainly not afraid to have opinions. However, they are much harder to stick into one box or another than group #2. These are also among my favorites.
  5. The Observer. (Howie Kurtz, Joan Biskupic, the entire staffs of Roll Call, The Hill, and CQ) The people who keep track of those listed above -- lots of inside-baseball stuff. I like them too.

Interviews with Mr. Lamb and others about the origins and various stages in the life of C-Span here, here, here, here, and here.

So happy anniversary C-Span, and I wish you well for 25 more.

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