Wednesday, November 15, 2017


This year C-SPAN Radio [link] is celebrating 20 years of service. But it appears that the folks who run it haven’t figured out what it is doing. Is C-SPAN Radio a repeater of C-SPAN’s video coverage? Is it a radio station? Is it an online audio portal? I think it is a little bit of all of these but it certainly not “radio” as we know it.

Brian Lamb - Media Visionary
Disclosure: I am a big fan of C-SPAN’s cable TV and online services. They provide valuable public service. C-SPAN has made many positive contributions to our nation’s democracy. 

My favorite program on C-SPAN is Q & A [link], a Sunday evening (8pm ET) interview show on C-SPAN 1 hosted by retired C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb. Each week Lamb talks with authors, some famous such as David McCullough and Tom Ricks, and some who are obscure like Scott Greenberger, the nation’s foremost authority on President Chester A. Arthur.

C-SPAN Radio began in October 1997 when the Cable-Satellite Public Affairs Network (“C-SPAN”) purchased WDRU 90.1 FM, a Jazz music station then owned by the University of the District of Columbia. The owners of WDRU were contemplating selling the license to Salem Broadcasting, a highly partisan, publically traded, religious broadcaster based in California.

A bidding war broke out between Salem, C-SPAN and others that led to C-SPAN paying $13 million for WDCU. The price was big news within the public radio community because it seemed to signal that C-SPAN might want to compete with NPR in its home market.

But that never happened. After WCSP 90.1 FM signed on it repeated raw feeds of programming on C-SPAN’s cable channels. Few people seemed to notice.

Kate Mills

Then, in the mid 2000s WCSP began creating some separate programming when Kate Mills [no relation to Ken Mills] became General Manager. 

Mills had worked at C-SPAN for several years producing interviews and call-in programs such as Washington Journal.

WCSP, C-SPAN Radio’s flagship, has one of the best signals in the market (WCSP's coverage map is on the right).  

C-SPAN Radio’s 24/7 programming is also available on SiriusXM and several streaming audience vendors.

However, I have not seen any hard evidence that anyone actually listens to WCSP on any platform.


C-SPAN TV and radio do not subscribe to the Nielsen ratings. But, Nielsen does have unreleased measurement data that is proprietary. I asked one of public radio’s best audience researchers (who asked not to be named in this article). The researcher told me that in the past 20 years he/she has not seen any trace of listening to WCSP in Nielsen or Arbitron's raw data.

The researcher told me that WCSP’s non-appearance in Nielsen’s published or unpublished data means either (a) WCSP does not encode their signal for Nielsen measurement, or (b) WCSP’s listening audience is so small it doesn’t meet Nielsen’s minimum criteria.

I made several inquiries about audience metrics to Kate Mills and C-SPAN’s press department but they did not respond.

However, C-SPAN does have plenty of information available about its cable TV audience. According to the document 2017 C-SPAN Audience Profile which is available on C-SPAN’s website [link] there is ample information available about the TV viewers. For instance, C-SPAN’s three cable TV channels and on-demand services reach 9.5 million people in a typical week. C-SPAN viewers are evenly split by gender, tend to be a bit younger than the population as a whole and represent all political ideologies.

But, C-SPAN’s report says nothing, not a single word, about who listens to WCSP radio.


Please keep in mind, I am only talking about listening to WCSP 90.1 FM and the simulcast on SiriusXM. C-SPAN Radio, which should be called C-SPAN Audio, has an impressive selection of podcasts, on-demand programs and special series such as The LBJ Tapes.

But on the broadcast radio platform they are disappointing. You can hear it “live” here

Consider these attributes:

C-SPAN Radio has no “radio heartbeat,” the rhythm of host/curator mixed with other programmatic elements, that make radio a companion unobtrusive [thank you Rush]. It sounds canned and mechanical.

• C-SPAN’s television audio doesn’t work well on radio during breaks in the action. When I watch live events on C-SPAN TV I like the downtime moments during or after an event.  On TV it is fun to see and hear people talking to others informally. On WCSP radio, these moments seem like someone fell asleep at the control board.

• Events drone on for long periods of time without speakers being identified.  Voices come and go without context. As a listener I feel excluded rather than included.

• Audio levels are not consistent and ambient room noise muddies the ability to understand what is being said.

C-SPAN Radio often takes clips from events and edits in a hosts’ voice to simulate a Q and A interview. This technique often sounds haphazard.  In one program I heard the interviewee refer to the TV host by name but someone else was the host of the radio version.

The best program I heard on C-SPAN Radio was during late afternoon drive – Washington Today. The host, who I never heard identified, had a nice radio presence. The editing is sharper. But, the show moves at a slow pace and boredom settles in. (I later learned that the host was Steve Scully.)

Here is my point: C-SPAN is not using the radio platform to its advantage. Broadcast radio is far different than cable TV. C-SPAN should create programming specifically for the radio medium. Warmed over TV audio doesn’t cut it.

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