Cable’s Soapbox Turns 25

C-SPAN celebrates letting Americans talk

When Carole Troll of Woodhaven, N.Y., suffers from insomnia, she flips on C-SPAN. “My husband thinks I’m insane,” she says. “But that’s just me—and don’t ask me why I started doing it.”

Troll, a professional actress, may not be nuts, but she is crazy about politics. She volunteers for campaigns, goes to political speeches and invites her friends over for political discussions. A true political junkie, C-SPAN is her cable network of choice.

“Unless you know some of the decisions that are being made, then you can’t completely participate in the process,” Troll says. “I don’t think you can be informed if you just watch TV news, especially cable news. It’s just a lot of noise, shouting, and back and forth. C-SPAN is unfiltered, so what you see is what you get.”

Enjoying the Give and Take

To express her appreciation for C-SPAN and its viewer call-in shows, Troll recently submitted a 200-word essay to the channel on why she loves C-SPAN’s call-in shows so much. The call-in programs celebrated 25 years on the air last weekend with—what else?—a marathon 25-hour call-in show.

“Every morning, I get to play 'Representative Troll,’” she wrote. “Sometimes I become so animated I am moved to call. When I can’t get through, I enjoy the give and take from other callers. Your moderators exude discipline and patience,” she wrote. Hers was one of the 25 winning essays.

The contest’s grand-prize winner, Erika Barger, is a senior at Sea Breeze High School in Ormond Beach, Fla. Her reward was getting to co-host with C-SPAN founder and President Brian Lamb during the marathon.

Lamb admits, “I asked those three for a very simple reason: If it worked, they were part of media world and they would write about it. If it didn’t, they would criticize it. But I instinctively knew it would work.”

Today, viewer call-in shows are the lifeblood of C-SPAN, allowing its loyal fans to participate in the political process, which is why Lamb founded the network in the first place. “I didn’t really look at it as a format as much as how important it was that the audience got a chance to talk back,” he says. “The power both in television and in politics is a one-way street in many ways. Call-in shows were a natural evolution of everything we were trying to do.”

Over the past 25 years, about a half-million people have called in to C-SPAN’s various programs, including the flagship Washington Journal. Some 12,000 guests have appeared on the show, and nearly 500,000 people have called in to voice their opinions, whatever their political leanings.

While many callers are calm and articulate, some swear and get angry and others attack C-SPAN guests. The network’s hosts stay neutral and composed. But they zap meandering or hostile callers, too.

“My thought is that I will listen to you once, but the minute you start repeating yourself, you start wasting my time and that of other people,” says Connie Doebele, senior executive producer of C-SPAN 2’s Book TV and a regular host of Washington Journal. “So I’ll say 'Thank you very much’ and move on. It’s also pretty easy to keep moving when a person starts to get personal or starts using bad language. My friends used to ask me how I got rid of someone so fast if they said a bad word, and I would tell them that I have the fastest finger in the West!”

Through it all, Lamb continues to believe that airing the political process in an unfiltered form is one of the best ways to involve Americans in their dense political process.

“We are part of the checks and balances,” he says, “and you have to have that, or the people with power and money will run away with the entire train.”