Sunday, May 28th 2000, 2:12AM

Bernard Shaw remembers vividly what it was like when CNN went on the air 20 years ago.

"Carpenters and painters were still working on the set of the D.C. bureau," says Shaw, who is probably best known for anchoring much of the network's special-events coverage. "We were hiring people after we went on the air. There was the challenge of getting newsmakers to know who we were, and to get them to come in and do interviews."

Ted Turner's all-news-all-the-time brainchild has certainly come a long way since June 1, 1980. A measure of its success and impact can be seen Thursday and Friday at 9 p.m., when CNN celebrates its anniversary with a two-part special revisiting key news events.

"[CNN] changed the whole world of news," says Larry King, whose nightly phone-in talk show has been on the network since 1985. King will host the specials and interview past newsmakers.

The all-news network "changed the playing field," he says. "It's become the place you turn to. Others have come along, but basically CNN has retained that image."

"We made news on demand a reality, regardless of the hour or the day," adds Shaw. "We have caused people to have less reaction time to breaking news, and this has affected not just world leaders but corporate leaders, local, state and national officials."

It certainly has been an eventful 20 years. CNN has covered everything from the 1982 Falklands War to the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall, from the 1993 World Trade Center bombing to last year's shootings at Columbine High. Along the way, the network became famous not only for the speed and depth of its news-gathering but for its expertise at staying on the air with a story for however long it takes to cover it.

According to Shaw, that kind of exhaustive coverage has been a CNN hallmark almost since the network's inception. "One of the signal moments [in CNN's history] was John Hinckley's [1981] attempt to assassinate President Reagan," he says. "We stayed with that story for 48 hours. It was the mere fact that we were on top of the story live, completely from the moment it broke."

Shaw points to two other stories that helped make CNN's reputation: the 1985 disarmament talks involving Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan, and the 1989 summit between Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping, which took place shortly before the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.

But for pure drama, it's hard to beat CNN's you-are-there reporting from the streets of Baghdad as the city was being bombed during the Gulf War. Although Shaw doesn't necessarily think it was the network's most important story - just its most immediate one.

"I don't think one particular story made CNN," he says. "And I chafe when they say the Gulf War made CNN. We had been on the air for 10 years. More than a billion people were watching our coverage around the world [at that point], and they were watching a war in real time."

No matter what CNN's most significant moment has been, there's little doubt the network has in many ways become the 500-pound gorilla of the news business. An entity that began with only eight domestic bureaus offering coverage to fewer than 2 million households now boasts 37 bureaus, nearly 80 million potential households and all sorts of offshoots: Headline News, a financial network, CNN in Spanish and others.

What's more, CNN's influence has been incalculable.

"We take a camera to a place where we didn't see a place before," says King.

Adds Shaw: "I think our coverage has caused people watching it to realize how interconnected we are, and how much the globe has shrunk. It has widened people's knowledge and understanding of what is happening in the world. Covering the AIDS crisis, world economic problems [and other issues] has helped people understand how interconnected we are."

Twenty Years of Stories: This Is CNN, Thursday and Friday at 9 p.m. on CNN

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