The Exacting Art of Congress's DJ

Niraj Chokshi

In movies, important scenes are often paired with animated scores. In Congress, it's often the opposite.

If you were watching C-SPAN about an hour before the Senate started voting on the historic Dodd-Frank financial reform law three years ago, you would have been treated to some classical music—a piano arrangement that starts strong and fast, but quickly shifts to a slower pace.

You would be forgiven if you couldn't name that tune, though. In fact, that's kind of the point. The all-politics network strains for neutrality in everything it does, even in the pieces it plays during lengthy House votes and monotonous Senate quorum calls. And that sometimes means finding songs that may not be so familiar, says co-CEO Rob Kennedy, whose role spearheading the first major overhaul of the network's playlist in its 34-year history makes him a sort of DJ for the body.

Some might consider being picked a dubious honor: your music has to be deemed uncontroversial and unemotional enough for C-SPAN to air.

"Even some things that musically might fit, if they've been used in a commercial, an ad or a movie, like a lot of the familiar Mozart overtures, we don't use those," he says. Familiar arrangements can be too evocative, carrying along a meaning acquired in overuse. (Take Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra," which for many conjures ominous, eerie images from the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey.")

That's not to say the network hasn't made poor choices, though. In the late 1980's, for example, C-SPAN used a funeral march to accompany a vote on congressional pay raises that was destined for defeat. It was a mistake, but a rare one, The Wall Street Journal noted at the time:

Actually, lapses have been amazingly few. Once, the warlike battle strains of Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" soared forth during a House quorum call on a military-financing bill. And a viewer phoned in to challenge the use of Grofe's "Grand Canyon Suite" during a Senate vote on an Interior Department bill. But C-Span officials insist there have been only three such miscues in the network's 10-year history.

To minimize those mistakes, the network has made minor changes to its playlist throughout its history: "over the years, we pulled some things that clearly didn't fit," says Kennedy, who joined C-SPAN in 1987. And that desire—to play music with as few connotations as possible—led Kennedy two years ago to undertake the first-ever major overhaul of the network's music library, originally culled from CD's in the 80's and 90's. He's even launched a related Twitter account: @cspanMusic.

Rachmaninoff got the ax. (As a Romanticist, his music is "very emotional.") Schubert's unfinished symphony was dropped, too, lest listeners interpret it as an editorial comment on Congress's ability (or inability) to get things done. Familiar works such as Pachelbel's "Canon in D" and plenty of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart were removed, too.

And the song that played an hour before voting began on Dodd-Frank? It was Franz Liszt's "Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort" ("Sleepless! Question and Answer"), which you can listen to below. But don't expect to ever hear it on C-SPAN today. Liszt was one of the first composers Kennedy dropped during the overhaul.

"There is too much emotional 'ebb and flow' for the mood we try to achieve in our selections," he explained in an e-mail.

Even if an employee wanted to slip in an auditory pun—say, Edvard Grieg's "Wedding Day at Troldhaugen" during a gay-marriage vote—he would be hard-pressed to do so. The network's "playlist" is actually 60 hour-long files of music, chosen at random to fill dead air by the person in the control room. About 60 percent of the music has been replaced, though the process is ongoing. C-SPAN has even teamed up with music company PARMA Recordings to identify lesser-known works—either new recordings of old music or new music, too.

It may seem like a relatively minor concern, but the network has a broad, attentive audience. A C-SPAN-commissioned study earlier this year found the network had 47 million viewers, while a 2006 Pew Research Center survey found that one in five Americans reported watching C-SPAN "sometimes" or "regularly." Viewers have been known to call in (see The Wall Street Journal story above) and even prominent conductors have complained about the musical selection. Two years ago, as Kennedy began his overhaul, one shared his critique with Roll Call:

There are few, if any, American composers such as George Gershwin or Leonard Bernstein and no modern classical works. Jazz music, that great American invention, is nowhere to be found.


Emil de Cou, conductor for the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap, is critical of the current playlist.


"The endless Vivaldi concertos? My God, how many could there be?" he said. "It's like the musical equivalent of packing peanuts."

Kennedy is open to such criticism. In fact, there's potential for more American composers, thanks to the partnership with PARMA. Of course, some might consider being picked a dubious honor: your music has to be deemed uncontroversial and unemotional enough for C-SPAN to air.

At the end of the day, Kennedy said, it all comes down to the association pieces carry: "Music folks may debate this—I'd actually be interested in hearing from them on this—but a lot of that music does have some connotation, even if it's a connotation in the listener's mind."

Despite his role as chief arbiter of C-SPAN's classical arrangements, Kennedy's musical tastes are varied. He was nearly a music major, has played the piano since he was about seven years old, and still plays in the greater D.C. area on weekends with his rock-and-roll cover band, Girl X Band. (They play everything from classic rock to more modern fare like Maroon 5.)

And while some of the music on C-SPAN may be hard to identify, that's not always the case. If you held your smartphone to the screen during a roll call a few hours before the stimulus bill passed its final congressional hurdle in early 2009, the music-identifying app Shazam would have told you you were listening to the second movement of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, played "adagio, ma non troppo." That last phrase—ma non troppo—means "not to be observed too strictly," exactly as C-SPAN would have it.