My five months interning at C-SPAN was an incredible learning experience that greatly expanded my horizons and reinforced my desire to work in news. It was my first time to live outside of Arkansas and I loved the pace and excitement of Washington, DC. I interned in C-SPAN's radio department, helping to produce a weekly program that aired on public radio stations nationwide. During my time there I developed an immense respect for the network's style of presenting politics and public policy in an unfiltered, unedited format.
It was a chance encounter that brought me to C-SPAN. On May 23, 1992, I was at a parade and rally in downtown Little Rock for then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton. After having him in office for much of my life, I was intrigued at the momentum he was building in his campaign for President and decided to hear him speak. While waiting for the event to begin, I noticed a C-SPAN camera crew also standing around. I had been watching the network quite a while by then and decided to go over to say hey and ask when the parade would be broadcast. I approached the friendliest looking of the three who was carrying a boom mic and sound equipment.
I didn't know it at the time, but he was Steve Scully, who was a political editor and host on C-SPAN. We talked a few minutes and at some point I mentioned that I was studying broadcasting in college. Steve asked what I was particularly interesting in doing and when I said news, he surprised me by saying that C-SPAN had a good internship program. I knew I wanted to do some kind of internship at some point, but hadn't really given it much thought. I told him it sounded interesting, so he gave me his business card and told me to give him a call. I did a few days later and he put me in touch with Susan Paley who coordinated internships.
I told her I was interested in interning with the programming department because I wanted to learn about how the network covered things. I sent her a letter and resume but didn't hear anything for several months. I also called and left messages for her but still didn't get a response. I assumed C-SPAN wasn't interested until that November when Susan left a message on my answering machine asking if, because of my radio experience, I would be interested in interning with their radio department. I didn't even know C-SPAN had a radio department and was disappointed that I wouldn't be learning more about the television aspect of the network, but was pleased to be offered the internship. I called her back saying that I was interested and started the process of getting it approved by my university.
Most internships were set up much more in advance and with a lot more involvement with the faculty at Arkansas State University. But Dr. Greg Pitts, the broadcast professor in charge of internships, said he was impressed that I had set this up entirely on my own and went out of his way to get it approved. I would have done the internship even without ASU's approval, but one of C-SPAN's requirements was that the student had to get credit for the program.
Even more important was making sure I could afford to take the unpaid internship. Washington, DC is an expensive place to stay and I, like most college students, had no savings. But my parents, realizing what an opportunity this was, were willing to give me a credit card to charge my expenses, which would be a hell of a chore to pay off later. I also saved as much as I could in my final two months in Jonesboro.
I began my 18-hour drive to Washington on a late Monday afternoon in January 1993. It was then that I started to get nervous, realizing that I was traveling far from home for the first time to a place where I knew nobody. After driving all night, including a few brief naps beside 18-wheelers in rest areas, I pulled into Washington at about 11:30 the next morning and started looking for the place I would be staying.
C-SPAN had referred me to a company that finds apartments for interns. I was staying at an apartment building called The Woodner at 3636 16th Street NW, along Rock Creek Park. I had also been set up with a roommate named Chris Carlson, who was from Minnesota and spending a month interning for Republican Congressman Jim Ramstad. We had talked on the phone a month before and based on that conversation figured we would be able to get along together. He turned out to be a great guy and we had a lot of fun that month as two people from different parts of the country experiencing Washington for the first time. He also had several friends from his college who were there, so I had an instant group of people to hang out with.
My first day at C-SPAN was Wednesday, January 13, the day after arriving. Just finding my way to the network's building near the Capitol was an adventure. I rode a subway for the first time that morning, joining the crush of rush hour passengers on the Metro, transferring trains once to get to Union Station. Then I had to wander around a little bit to find my way to 400 North Capitol Street, where C-SPAN's offices were located on the sixth floor.
I was one of about a dozen interns at the network that spring, although I rarely saw the others because we were all in different departments. Shortly after starting, we all met for an orientation with Brian Lamb, the CEO, Chairman and founder of C-SPAN. He was a familiar face to me because he was one of the most frequent program hosts. I developed great respect for him, not only because of his intelligence and ability, but also because of the effort he took in making sure all of us understood the mission of C-SPAN and how it operated. He was always happy to answer any questions and would often wander down the halls, talking to everyone along the way. He seemed to have a hand in everything that happened at the network. Brian Lamb started C-SPAN in 1979, airing live coverage of the U.S. House of Representatives. As a non-profit organization, it was funded by the cable industry as a public service. C-SPAN 2 was launched in 1986 when the Senate began allowing live coverage of its proceedings.
The department I was interning in was responsible for producing a weekly, hour-long public radio program called "C-SPAN's Weekly Radio Journal." Fed to stations on late Friday afternoons, it was meant to run on weekends as a look back at the past week in national politics. The show also tried to follow the C-SPAN format of long-form programming by using long segments of audio for each story, with the anchors only giving enough information to set up the audio without offering any kind of analysis or opinion.
AUDIO: The closing of "C-SPAN's Weekly Radio Journal," January 29, 1993, the first full episode I worked on, getting a production credit at the end of the show, runs 1:43. Download as MP3.
I was part of a small department comprised of two people: Audio Networks Manger Beth Talisman and Producer Tom Patton. Beth had been with the network several years by this time, working in a number of different positions. Tom had most recently worked for Voice Of America and had been with C-SPAN a year or two by that point. Most days I worked beside Tom as we selected cuts for each story and did the technical work of getting the show ready for production, which typically meant recording and chopping reel-to-reel tape. We also had technical assistance on Thursdays and Fridays from engineer Chris Montgomery. The photo to the right comes from a contact sheet, showing Tom and Chris outside C-SPAN during a visit more than a year after my internship in 1994.
On most Mondays Tom, Beth and I would meet with company Vice-President Susan Swain to look at what events C-SPAN was planning to cover that week and what guests were scheduled for network programs. We would then determine which of these would be of interest for the radio program and could then make a rough layout of what issues and stories we would address on that week's show.
The first few days of each week would then be spent gathering audio. After the TV programs were broadcast, we would get the videotapes, find an interesting segment and dub that audio over to reel. Or we would roll on C-SPAN's live coverage and make note of interesting sections. By each Wednesday, Tom would begin writing the script for the show, which would be revised after being read by Beth and Susan. On Thursday afternoons, with the assistance of engineer Chris Montgomery, Beth and Tom would begin recording their segments as hosts of the show and the hour-long program would slowly come together.
Final production, mixing the narration with the raw segments of the program, was usually started on late Friday mornings, with dubs made and a courier picking up the final master reel, which was taken to NPR's uplink facility and transmitted to radio stations at 5 PM. Some carried that feed live, but most taped it for later broadcast over the weekend. Even though the program was uplinked by NPR, it was not an NPR program. C-SPAN paid to use its uplink services since most stations that carried the show were public radio stations. However there were a handful of commercial stations that also aired it. This was the routine every week that I went through for five months. It always started off kind of slow and picked up, sometimes moving to a frantic pace toward the end of the week as we worked to get everything together. In particular, if something we wanted to include was happening on a Friday, it would push production to the last minute.
It was a very fascinating and exciting time to be in Washington as President Bill Clinton took office a week after I arrived. I went to his inauguration, but couldn't get anywhere close enough to see him take the oath of office. But a little while later I did at least get to see him ride by during the inaugural parade. I was very idealistic about politics at that moment, thinking we were on the verge of a new era in our nation. Before my internship, my minor in college had been political science. But spending five months in Washington and being surrounded by politics left me rather disillusioned. A good part of it was the partisan tone things took in Washington immediately after Clinton was elected. It seemed Republicans were looking for every opportunity to tear the President down. Each week while working at my internship I was hearing the nasty tone of confirmation hearings for Clinton's appointments. His opponents worked hard to make him as divisive and controversial as possible, with gays in the military among the first issues thrown at him. But I also saw a degree of arrogance from the Clinton administration that turned me off.
The internship for my roommate Chris was only a month long, so in February I moved to Alexandria, Virginia, where the same roommate matching service had hooked me up with three people who were interning in Washington's public defenders office. Alexandria was much different than living in the district because I could get around easier by car. There were actually parking lots in front of places. But I still took the Metro in most days and really grew to appreciate having a good mass transit system. The train ride became a bit longer, about 45 minutes most days from Alexandria, but I would buy a copy of the Washington Post outside the station and would devour that as I'd ride in. Also, because I would board at the starting place for the Blue Line, I could secure a seat for me ride in. Most times when I was boarding in the middle of the district during rush hours all the seats would be taken and I'd have to stand.
I really enjoyed the higher caliber of news I was reading in its daily and weekly newspapers, hearing on its commercial news and public radio station and seeing on TV. Also, it was my first time to be in a top 10 radio market and, having been reading industry trade papers for a few years by then, was constantly scanning the dial to hear what the different stations were doing. In particular, I immediately became a huge fan of WHFS-FM 99.1, a legendary progressive and alternative rock station that served both Washington and Baltimore. Having done an alternative show on KABF, I was excited to hear a 24 hour commercial station playing that kind of music. I also recorded some of WHFS. Below is audio from an old cassette that I saved all these years.
AUDIO: An aircheck (scoped) of WHFS from the evening of February 9, 1993, runs 31:14. Download as MP3.
I even attended WHFS's 25th birthday bash concert on April 29, 1993 in Baltimore, featuring the Ramones and Bob Geldof. That's the program from the show to the side, which I saved all these years. I was sad to read that 12 years later in 2005, its owner changed formats, killing the station. I also listened a lot to WJFK-FM 106.7 and for the first time heard the much talked about Howard Stern. I didn't become much of a fan, but still listened quite a bit just because he was so much more brash than what I had always heard on the radio. I enjoyed hearing his interviews, but didn't really care for all his stuff with strippers or when he was just bitching about stuff. The Greaseman was on in the early evenings and I really liked his long, rambling stories and bits.
A month or so into my internship at C-SPAN I sent a letter to my buddy Doug Clifford, who had given me my first radio position when he was program director at KABF in Little Rock. By this time, to be near his young daughter, he had moved to the central Florida town of Ocala and was hosting the morning show on WOCA-AM 1370, a news and talk station. He was intrigued that I was in Washington and asked if I wanted to join him on the air once a week to discuss what was happening in national politics.
For the next few months I would join Doug, usually on Friday mornings as WOCA's Washington correspondent, talking for a few minutes about the top political story of the day. I would also join him on the mornings after important events or speeches. I tried to localize national stories, sometimes by including details like how Senators and Representatives from Doug's area in Florida had voted on specific legislation. The reports certainly weren't incredibly exciting, but helped me get used to ad-libbing on the air about news stories, as I would eventually do regularly as a reporter.
I wasn't being paid anything for my reports on WOCA, but was happy to help Doug and figured it would give me a little more real news experience to put on my resume or include in a demo tape. Indeed the news director at my next employer, which was at a news station in Little Rock, took note that I had done this while in Washington. Years later I would again join Doug on the air periodically while covering big stories in the Miami, Florida area while he was working on another station, WSKY-FM 97.3 in Gainesville, Florida. I also always tried to stop off and see Doug whenever I'd be driving through Gainesville. He was a good friend and I was glad to see he stuck with radio.
AUDIO: Talking with Doug Clifford on WOCA, April 23, 1993 about the fallout in Washington from cult group stand off and President Clinton's economic battles, runs 2:28. Download as MP3.
C-SPAN really went out of its way to make the internships rewarding for us. Toward the end of each semester Brian Lamb would invite interns to appear with him live on the morning call in show he hosted. I was fortunate that one of the two guests was someone I was familiar with from Arkansas. Senator David Pryor had served as Arkansas Governor during the 1970's and was at that time the state's junior U.S. Senator. You can see about three minutes from that show on the video. The first question I asked was about his health. He had undergone triple by-pass surgery the year before and I was curious how he was doing and whether the health problems had affected his plans for the future. I was stunned to learn from my parents the next day that his response generated a story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. With the headline, "Heart may not be in it for the next race," the story detailed how Senator Pryor, appearing on C-SPAN, said this might be his final term. It was apparently his first public comments about that and indeed at the end of that term he would retire, as his son Mark Pryor began his political career.
With my five-month internship winding down, my last project with C-SPAN was helping to represent the network at the annual Public Radio Conference being held in Washington that May. We had a booth, alongside other program producers, handing out brochures and demos of C-SPAN's Weekly Radio Journal to people from radio stations across the country. It was interesting seeing the process of trying to pick up as many affiliates as possible. I had already done my part shortly after starting at C-SPAN by getting the show added to KASU, my school station at Arkansas State University. The conference proved to be a fascinating experience. The many session that I saw were interesting. I also met lots of interesting people there, including Ben Fry, who I later worked for twice at KUAR in Little Rock.
I was sad when the internship finally came to an end. I had gotten to know so many people at C-SPAN and had especially come to love big city life in the northeast. I vowed that I would soon return. In fact, in my final months I had gotten a part-time job working as a waiter at a Bennigan's restaurant near my apartment in Alexandria. I was thinking of not even returning home, but staying, doing whatever I had to, to be near Washington. I had sent tapes and resumes to some of the radio stations I was listening to and even talked to a few of the program directors, but didn't get much interest. So at the end of the internship, I decided to go back to Arkansas to finish my degree, with the plan of eventually returning to Washington. There was one change however. After getting an A for the internship, I transferred to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock for the fall semester. I had grown restless in Jonesboro, a town of about 50,000 people where Arkansas State University was located. After living in Washington, I couldn't take going back to rural northeast Arkansas so I transferred to the Little Rock school.
My experience with C-SPAN was very productive and helped to impress the News Director of KARN in Little Rock, leading to my first real news job. C-SPAN proved to be an invaluable learning experience and I am very grateful to the network and particularly to Beth Talisman and Tom Patton for their patience and all they taught me. I also have up most respect for Brian Lamb and legions of people who have been there for so long and have built C-SPAN into one of the most respected entities when it comes to the coverage of U.S. politics.