- The Washington Times - Friday, October 7, 2005

Behold the viewer with a view: In 25 years, 500,000 people have called C-SPAN to applaud, condemn, analyze or mock American politics and policy — all of it telecast straight off the telephone line, for better or worse.

There was that first brave caller from Yankton, S.D., who dialed the public-affairs network on Oct. 7, 1980. Over the years, former President Ronald Reagan, Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and entertainer Cher have been among the famous folks who phoned in and patiently waited their turn to speak.

C-SPAN is celebrating its silver anniversary by surrendering the entire broadcast to viewers, staging a 25-hour call-in marathon from Friday to Saturday night.

“The idea of a 25-hour call-in program may seem a little crazy. But call-ins are the essence of C-SPAN. We couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate a format that’s given a voice to the public and helped shape the political debate,” said Brian Lamb, chief executive officer of C-SPAN, seen in about 90 million households.

The network doggedly highlights that public debate each morning on “Washington Journal,” fueled by tenacious viewers eager to harangue public officials, lawmakers and journalists. The calls air at the rate of about 20 an hour, according to Executive Producer Peter Slen.

“We focus on the callers. They are not a sideline for us. They are the focus of everything we plan,” Mr. Slen said.

Viewers are politically savvy, up to speed on events and have honed sharp opinions, he noted.

“I don’t know if you’d call that journalism. What’s amazing about our viewers is that we could have the speaker of the House on, and our viewers don’t go, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ They launch into their questions. They see our forum as their forum,” he said.

The call-in forum tends to be a great equalizer as well, a common ground.

“That time when Ted Kennedy called, and Cher. They didn’t say ‘This is so and so,’ they waited their turns in the queue like the rest,” Mr. Slen added.

This weekend’s marathon features 30 guests, including Tony Blankley of The Washington Times, Pat Buchanan, Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, New York Times columnist Frank Rich and Phil Donahue, who C-SPAN credited with “pioneering” the call-in program during his own television show back in 1967.

In keeping with their viewer-centered mantra, C-SPAN is showcasing 17-year-old guest host Erika Barger, who will sit opposite Mr. Lamb this evening while Mr. Kristol and Mr. Rich quibble over the war in Iraq. Miss Barger won her slot by writing an essay about the call-in as a cultural force.

“What we really enjoy is when C-SPAN is learning something new, and the viewers are learning something new. We’re in it together,” Mr. Slen said.

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