clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why C-SPAN’s quirky call-in show has endured for 40 years

A look at America’s on-air town hall.

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum speaks at a town hall meeting as it is broadcast above him on C-SPAN, on December 30, 2011.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The Senate had just rejected witnesses in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, and for those who had feelings about it, there was a phone number for “guilty,” another for “not guilty,” and another for “undecided.” Once the lines were posted, it didn’t take long for the calls to come in.

“They’re not going to have a fair trial. It’s just going to be worse for our country,” Mason, a caller from Chuckey, Tennessee, said. He finished with a warning about the fall of Rome: “That’s exactly what’s going to happen here.”

Rick from Willoughby, Ohio, said that “without a doubt,” Trump was “not guilty.” Then he hedged a bit: “He might be guilty enough but not enough to remove him from office or take him from the ballots.” Rick argued that all presidents want to help their reelections, and you can’t impeach them for that. “And for me,” he added, “Trump didn’t need to worry about 2020. He had it in the bag, anyhow.”

Eddie from Columbus, Ohio, texted in to say Trump was not guilty. Marco from Rochester, Michigan, called in to say he felt strongly that Trump was guilty. But before Marco could finish, his call dropped, so Yvonne from Caldwell, Idaho, jumped in to say why she thought Trump was guilty.

A C-SPAN clip from January 6, 2020, when Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer spoke on the Senate impasse over calling witnesses during President Trump’s impeachment trial.

This was impeachment, according to Americans, or at least the handful of Americans watching Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network — better known as C-SPAN — on a Friday night in January.

C-SPAN’s viewer call-ins are a staple of what has become a somewhat quirky institution: a cable network that broadcasts the full proceedings of Congress and other public affairs programming, like a nature cam streaming the raw footage of American politics.

The network was created in 1979, when cable television was just beginning to emerge as a new technology for media broadcasting. It was designed to be a public service, to provide “gavel-to-gavel coverage” of Congress “without editing, commentary or analysis.”

“Let viewers make up their own minds” was the guiding idea.

The world — and the media landscape — has changed dramatically in the four decades since then. But C-SPAN has largely stuck to those same principles.

C-SPAN coverage of Sens. Bob Dole and Joe Biden debating a circuit judge nomination on June 1, 1986.
Terry Ashe/LIFE via Getty Images
Sens. Bob Dole and Joe Biden on C-SPAN on June 1, 1986.
Terry Ashe/LIFE via Getty Images
Jeff Conrad and Francis Herbas, field technicians for C-SPAN, oversee camera operations on Capitol Hill on June 6, 2000.
Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images

On its shows, which are interspersed with its live coverage of Capitol Hill, politicians, public figures, authors, and academics appear, sometimes with distinctive ideological perspectives or opinions. But C-SPAN’s hosts don’t offer commentary or punditry. That, if it happens, comes from the viewers.

“I’ve never said my name on-air in the 20 years I’ve been on,” C-SPAN founder and now-retired CEO Brian Lamb told an interviewer in 1998. “We asked a question in our polls a few years ago to see if anybody knew who the interviewers are. Of the seven of us who are regularly on the air, about 2.5 percent of people in the United States knew anybody by name.”

“That’s been our goal all along — to have that kind of feeling for people, that they came in, told their story and we weren’t there to intimidate them or be stars,” Lamb said.

Brian Lamb, president and CEO of C-SPAN, on November 11, 1997.
Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

Washington Journal, the network’s morning program with a rotating slate of hosts, may be best known for its call-in segment. The show goes through the headlines, invites a guest on to discuss a topic, and then mostly lets callers talk or ask questions — about 60 calls during the three-hour program, which translates to around 400 calls each week, or 20,000 a year, according to the network.

But during the impeachment proceedings, which aired live on C-SPAN, the phones were often open throughout, punctuating the lull in the action on the Senate floor. The calls poured in from people around the country, all of them watching the same thing and sometimes each seeing something wildly different.

“We just let people have an open forum — you know, town hall on the air,” Michele Remillard, executive producer of Washington Journal, told me. “And we’re very much like the public because [some] people ... retreat to their corners and repeat talking points, and then there are others that are very well-informed and watch C-SPAN and read the materials and read from a variety of sources, and are still super divided.”

Americans themselves are super divided. Our politics tells us that. Our polls tell us that. On C-SPAN, you hear it, like one long, messy diary entry from the body politic. C-SPAN, as Remillard put it, is a refraction of the public: Republicans and Democrats and the disappearing middle all coming to the same forum, all working through it in real time.

And that’s why, even as the country feels more polarized than ever, the C-SPAN phone lines are still open, 40 years on.

“This is the first time we’ve tried this”

A couple of cameras were stuffed into a tiny room at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. At one point, the power blew, which led to a scramble to reset the fuses.

Five men squeezed around a table, barely fitting, their knees practically rubbing together. It was one of those plywood tables, the type dragged out from the storeroom for events. They draped a yellow tablecloth over it for the segment.

The set of the first C-SPAN viewer call-in show looked less like a news program than game night in someone’s basement.

It was October 7, 1980. Cable television was still in its infancy. C-SPAN was a little more than a year old. Only about 3.5 million households had access to the channel.

Chad Atkins talks with Gary Hart via C-SPAN from Smoky Hill High School, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on January 28, 1985.
Denver Post via Getty Images
Sen. George John Mitchell (D-ME) during a live telecast on Operation Desert Storm on January 17, 1991.
CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

But C-SPAN had a plan: It would interview Charles Ferris, then the chair of the Federal Communications Commission (who had just appeared at the National Press Club), live on the air and invite journalists who covered the cable and broadcast television industry to sit around and talk about it. And they’d open the phone lines to the public to see if they could get a reaction out of anyone.

And so began the network’s call-in show.

“Believe it or not, we probably did think this might be the start of something big, but the question was, how the hell are you going to pull this off?” said Patrick Gushman, now mostly retired, but then a journalist for Cablevision magazine which participated in that panel.

On-air that morning, seated at the table, Lamb gave out the phone number. He then admitted, “This is the first time we’ve tried this,” directing his guests to an earphone at their spot. He fumbled putting his own in.

There was some small talk and then a piercing beep interrupted. Bob Joffer, from Yankton, South Dakota, was on the line, wanting to know if he, as a private citizen, could build a satellite dish and put it in his yard to receive satellite broadcasts, and would it be legal to do so.

The panel punted the call to Gushman. “I was excited to have the call and didn’t want to call this guy a crook,” he said of his attempt to delicately answer the first-ever C-SPAN caller question.

But he, and C-SPAN, pulled it off. Gushman was right — it was the start of something big. Instead of just broadcasting to viewers, C-SPAN created a two-way conversation. It gave some power to the people, the chance to call up and talk to policymakers or experts or politicians, get something off their chest, or ask a question or two.

Eddie Aldrete, now a senior vice president at IBC Bank in San Antonio, Texas, was a college student studying broadcast journalism at Texas Tech University in Lubbock when he called in on October 7, 1980. He was around the fourth caller, and he asked a fairly prescient question about the future of broadcast journalism on cable news.

“I was halfway across the country, I was in a small city, and I was in college,” he told me. “You would think that I would have the least opportunity to be able to get that kind of access, and to be able to participate and get a response — which I did.”

“We just let people call”

When you call in to C-SPAN, a production assistant will do a basic screening: name, city, state. The phone lines are traditionally divvied up by party — Republican, Democrat, and independent, though the categories change depending on the topic up for discussion. Callers must wait at least 30 days before they can phone again. C-SPAN follows the honor system for political affiliation; it has a system to weed out offenders of the 30-day rule.

What the viewer sees, though, is the day’s host, newspapers spread out on the desk, with the Capitol looming in the background, saying something like, “Let’s hear from a caller in Roswell, New Mexico, on the independent line.”

If there’s a guest — whether it’s a politician, expert, or journalist — he or she will field comments or questions directly. If it’s an “open phones” session, meaning just a host and no guest, it can sometimes be rapid-fire calls, one after another in the order they’re received, regardless of party affiliation.

“We just let people call,” Remillard said. “As long as they’re on topic, and you can understand them, and there’s a clear connection, and they’re sober — let’s hear their voices.”

C-SPAN now has a line for text messages, a recognition that viewers are communicating in different ways since the show began in 1980. C-SPAN also broadcasts on YouTube. And Facebook. And Twitter. And Instagram.

But, even if they’re a bit old-fashioned, the phone calls remain king. “We still emphasize callers because that’s where you get the emotion. That’s where you get their stories,” Remillard said. “It just makes a better show.”

It makes the show a grab bag of the American map, different cities and different accents. And it all comes through with little interruption from the hosts, who absorb whatever blasts through the telephone with a preternatural unflappability and calm.

It is the art of professional listening. Pedro Echevarria, a current host on Washington Journal, told me. He said when he started at C-SPAN, Lamb, the founder, told him that in a three-hour show, there was a lot going on, but listening was the one thing the hosts really had to accomplish.

C-SPAN host Pedro Echevarria fields answers on the prompt “Are White House briefings worthwhile?” on May 31, 2018.

“Because in listening to people, they will give you clues about what they’re saying and why they’re saying it,” Echevarria told me. “And if you pay close enough attention, you’re going to pick up things.”

Libby Casey, the on-air politics anchor for the Washington Post who worked as a host on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal from 2009 to 2013, said that during her tenure, people would sometimes call her by a different host’s name or recognize her as “the C-SPAN lady.” “And it was like, that’s cool — because it really was,” she said. “It’s not about the host; it’s not about you. You are the conduit.”

“It’s actually active listening, active facilitating. And then get out of the way and let it happen,” she added.

C-SPAN host Libby Casey fields answers on the prompt “How have you been affected by the recession?” on June 12, 2012.

Letting it happen can sometimes mean the hosts come off as dream Thanksgiving guests — sitting silently as someone gets to blissfully deliver their political talking points to someone who won’t argue back. Other times, the hosts are a bit like a school principal, trying to keep their guests from swerving off topic or efficiently dispatching a wacky call.

But the hosts do engage. They make what seems like on-air small talk — they’ll ask a high school student if they’re studying impeachment in civics class, or they’ll pick up on a biographical detail a caller slipped in. They’ll also ask callers where they got their information or how they arrived at their opinion.

“It’s compelling television if you listen to it,” Echevarria said. “Not only for me sitting in that chair but for everyone else watching television. There’s going to be a segment of the population that’s like, ‘Yeah, I agree with that.’ There’s going to be a segment that says, ‘No, I don’t agree with that.’

“But when they find out why, they may learn something about their fellow man or woman, about how they arrived at that,” he added. “And I think that’s the interesting part of it.”

It is also why Americans who watch Fox News and Americans who watch MSNBC can both still see C-SPAN as, well, on their side. Remillard said the show strives for this impartiality and credibility, and it takes it seriously. Hosts do not challenge the callers, or judge them or their opinions. They create, as a few C-SPAN callers have described it to me, a kind of safe space.

There is a careful line between letting callers express themselves and letting misinformation go unchecked, though. Which is why when callers scream about Hillary Clinton selling uranium to the Russians, the host will chime in and ask politely, “Tell me, how do you know that?”

“One of our hosts called it ‘running back into the burning house,’” Remillard said. “You know, where’d you get that information? So they say, ‘Oh, well my sister-in-law told me,’ or, ‘I read it somewhere on the internet.’ It gives information to the viewers at home.”

It can seem somewhat quaint to ask a caller how they know President Trump is a Russian agent, but it manages — in a way that talking heads on cable often can’t — to at least try to understand something about our political moment and the people who are fiercely responding to it. It’s vetting the fake news in real time, a signal to other viewers that maybe don’t trust the guy who says no, actually, it was Adam Schiff who was colluding with the Russians because he read it on a message board.

This system isn’t perfect. Echevarria said it’s kind of a gut check to know when to cut off a call. People veer off topic; they ramble. There is no shortage of videos on the internet of C-SPAN prank calls or racist rants or people just saying truly wild things.

In 2016, C-SPAN instituted a three-second delay to provide a slight buffer in case it needs to bleep out obscenities, but they still happen. That’s pretty much all C-SPAN bleeps out, though — everything else is allowed to air live on television, at least until the host catches on. And you kind of can’t help take a tiny bit of joy from a caller asking the staid, suited C-SPAN host, “Do you respect Howard Stern’s penis?”

These mishaps were always going to be unavoidable in a show that posts a phone number and asks people to call in and say how they feel. They’re also the exception because the people who regularly watch C-SPAN are, well, people who watch C-SPAN. There are regulars who call as soon as their 30 days are up. They’ll correct each other on air, or challenge the opinion of a previous caller.

“Our show is animated through the caller,” Echevarria said. “It gives it its life.”

C-SPAN is a safe space, even in these strange political times

In August 2016, Garry Civitello was in the bathroom of his hotel room in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, when he heard someone talking on the TV in the other room.

It was Heather McGhee, then the president of Demos Action, a progressive activist organization. She had been invited on as a C-SPAN guest. McGee is black, and in listening to her speak, Civitello, a disabled Navy veteran in his 60s, decided he needed to get something off his chest. He called.

Civitello, once on the air, said that he was a white man and he was prejudiced. He had fears, and he wanted to learn. “What can I do to change, to be a better American?”

McGhee thanked him for his honesty. “[Saying,] ‘This is what I have, I have these fears and prejudices, and I want to get over them,’ is one of the most powerful things we can do right now in this moment in history,” she responded, before offering some advice on how to help shift his perspective.

Unscripted, earnest, and a little bit awkward, it was one of those rare C-SPAN segments that went mainstream. There have been a few such moments in the program’s history: the time the mother of two political consultants, one for Democrats and the other for Republicans, called in to chastise her sons, who were the guests on the show, or the time someone called in during a policy discussion about Iraq and it turned out to be Cher.

The reason these viral moments even happen is because this call-in show exists, day in and day out, with its legion of devoted viewers — of which Cher actually does seem to be one. Even if weeks-long impeachment hearings might increase viewership beyond the norm, there is a kind of nerdy, benign cult of C-SPAN.

“People who call in are still passionate about what they’re calling in about, and most of them will call themselves ‘C-SPAN junkies.’ It’s kind of the term they use for people who watch the program a lot,” Erika Barger, a 31-year-old attorney in Ormond Beach, Florida, told me.

Barger only called in once, in March 2004, responding to a Stanford University professor who had gone on C-SPAN to talk about Americans’ history knowledge. About a year later, when she was 17 years old and a senior in high school, she wrote about the experience and won a C-SPAN essay contest in honor of the 25th anniversary of the viewer call-in show. Barger got a trip to Washington, DC, where she got to sit behind the C-SPAN desk and read her essay on the air. One of her cousins called in during the show.

Kathy O’Donnell got a black C-SPAN duffel bag for her 25th-anniversary essay submission, one she still sometimes uses for overnight trips. And she still calls in every once in a while. A family attorney in Keene, New Hampshire, O’Donnell says she’ll often watch Washington Journal as part of her Sunday morning ritual: paper, coffee, C-SPAN.

Since O’Donnell lives in New Hampshire, she’s called in to comment on the 2020 Democratic primary, both to express her opinion and, she’ll admit, to try to persuade people. So much media descends on New Hampshire in the lead-up to the primary, she told me, and the reporting can be incomplete, selective. On C-SPAN, she can correct the record.

“And I really do think, truly, that most people inherently want to feel like they’re being fair, even if they are biased,” O’Donnell said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’s town hall in in Rindge, New Hampshire, on February 10, 2020.

This is the appeal of C-SPAN: Even if your mind is made up, you feel like you’re going to be heard. The hosts won’t argue with you, except maybe to correct a fact. And unlike a right-wing talk show or even NPR, there really is a cross-section of people. “Anybody,” O’Donnell said, “can call in.”

Among the C-SPAN watchers and callers I talked to, there was a charming incongruity. They see the network as neutral, independent, without slant, or bias — and yet a given hour can showcase some of the most bitterly partisan views.

“The hosts, I can still see their faces. They were just very comfortable, with the newspapers, and just the way they handled all the callers,” Krystal Reyes, the chief resilience officer for the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, told me. She, too, was a finalist for the C-SPAN essay contest in 2005, though she’d never called in except to read her essay. “It was just a neutral, safe place to absorb information,” she said of C-SPAN. “I guess even 15 years ago, we all needed that, too.”

When I asked Civitello why he chose to unburden himself on C-SPAN, he seemed surprised. “It’s a safe place to express your political views,” he said, echoing Reyes. “I say ‘safe.’ It’s because C-SPAN doesn’t have an agenda. They really cared about, you know, me — just a regular person out there.

“It’s a really good American program,” he added. “I think it does more to bring us together than tear us apart.”

C-SPAN in the age of Trump

Elaine from Rawls, Texas, thinks from the very beginning they were going to impeach him and he has done nothing good for America. Garland from Euclid, Ohio, thinks it’s a travesty and hopes Republicans are voted out in November. But Susan from Florence, Kentucky, says Trump is not guilty. “That,” she says, “is all there is.”

C-SPAN, again, takes calls as they come — but watching a few minutes of open phones can give you whiplash, swinging back and forth and back and forth between pro-Trump and anti-Trump, Republican and Democrat. A call comes through on the independent line and you hold your breath: Could someone perhaps, maybe, actually be undecided?

Those who work on C-SPAN told me that people are not usually calling C-SPAN to be convinced. Their opinions are formed; their minds are made up. But this, they insist, is what’s great about it. It is, for better or worse, a forum of ideas — which is, underneath it all, the network’s mission.

“Even for the ones that are most polarized in their opinions, the sense that they have the ability to express it and they have the ability to debate it — maybe not to debate it directly on the show — but at least the ability to put their ideas out there compared to other people’s ideas, it really has been a great thing to watch,” Echevarria told me.

Admittedly, it can feel like not such a great thing to watch when every American seems completely convinced in the rightness of their particular view. If C-SPAN is a refraction of the public, the gulf between citizens can at times seem overwhelming, unfixable.

Those who work at C-SPAN told me they definitely notice a partisan intensity — but, to be fair, America just went through an impeachment trial and is in the middle of a presidential primary, with a general election coming soon.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tears up President Trump’s State of the Union address on February 4, 2020.

Echevarria started at C-SPAN in the early 2000s. He went through the Bush years and the Iraq War, and everything that came after. The debates were different but fierce then, too.

If anything, Remillard told me, one thing she and others have noticed, beginning in 2016, was this disillusionment with politicians and government. During that election, callers phoned in, confused over whether to support Trump or Bernie Sanders. In the studio, the thought was, “Huh, what?” But soon the results started to bear themselves out: Voters wanted to blow up Washington. That fury and frustration is still palpable among callers.

And maybe it doesn’t matter so much what Americans are saying but that they still believe there’s value in saying it. C-SPAN callers still find reasons to express their opinions, to participate in some version of civil discourse. Aldrete, the early C-SPAN caller who’s also been a guest in the years since, pointed out that on the network, you can’t really hide behind an anonymous post, which is why he says C-SPAN “maintains a sense of civility and decorum you don’t always find on social media.”

It can sound a bit corny, but we can say that, because this is a story about C-SPAN, after all: There’s something nice, and just a little bit hopeful, about all picking up the phone and going to the same place to fight it out.

“It’s called Washington Journal — you can see the Capitol in the background,” Remillard told me. “But it’s not a Washington show. It’s about people, at home.”


The South Carolina primary is a joke. It tells us something deadly serious.


How US conservatives fell for two of Latin America’s most controversial leaders

World Politics

Netanyahu’s postwar “plan” for Gaza is no plan at all

View all stories in Politics

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.