The White House confirms the weekly presidential radio address — a fixture for decades — is on indefinite hiatus.
“We received quite a few comments and a lot of feedback that the weekly address wasn’t being used to its full potential,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in response to a VOA question during Monday’s daily briefing.
“We’re looking at different ways that we can revamp that and make it where it’s more beneficial and gets more information out,” added Sanders, who declined to elaborate on whether the radio tradition is fading out permanently.
Trump’s last recording
The last time the White House released a weekly radio recording made by President Donald Trump was on Oct. 13. During the first nine months of his administration, he had regularly taped the messages.
Sanders is not the only one raising issue with the relevancy of the broadcasts and whether they have much appeal for the current president, who frequently prefers an unscripted format as well as Twitter, his favorite social media platform.
“In our increasingly fast-paced news cycle in which a president can make and shape news with a few flicks of his fingers via Twitter, you can argue that the president’s weekly radio address is less relevant and timely,” according to presidential historian Mike Purdy. “A scripted weekly radio address doesn’t allow him to get his message out as he’d like.”
Roosevelt’s ‘fireside chats’
Regular presidential radio addresses began with the “fireside chats” of President Franklin Roosevelt during the depth of economic depression in 1933.
Roosevelt had begun using radio to reach the public as governor of New York state at a time when radio broadcasting was a technological revolution.
The tradition was revived by President Ronald Reagan in 1982, a veteran radio announcer and actor, who started the Saturday audio-only addresses from the White House.
“The soothing and assuring voices of Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan were ideally suited to radio,” Purdy told VOA. “John F. Kennedy’s good looks, wit, and charm made him into our first television president. The reasoned, professorial, and calm voice of Barack Obama came across well on radio and television.”
Although Purdy contends the weekly radio speeches remain a relevant presidential communication tool, “President Trump will not highlight its use or be as consistent in using it since he has other methods more in sync with his personality.”
Little interest from radio stations
VOA contacted numerous information-oriented radio stations across the country, in large and small markets, but found few still airing the Saturday brief presidential speeches.
“We haven’t received any reaction about the missing addresses. Not by phone or email. That is in some contrast to feedback from listeners in prior years who feared we might not choose to carry the new president’s remarks, especially when there was a change in parties,” said Steve Butler, the longtime program director at KYW in Philadelphia.
KYW has been on the air since the era of Roosevelt’s fireside chats and “we have always carried the addresses in the modern era, since President Reagan started them,” Butler tells VOA.
“We thought about [airing] it in the past,” said Todd Brunner, operations manager for KCLI-FM and four other Wright Broadcasting System radio stations in southwestern Oklahoma. But because the presidential remarks were of no fixed length and due to contractual obligations for syndicated program they proved too much of a challenge to insert into the lineup, according to Brunner.
Since Reagan, all presidents have regularly done the weekly radio broadcasts, although George H.W. Bush recorded only 18 in the two-year period between November 1990 and November 1992.
Historian Doug Wead, who worked on Bush’s senior staff said, “I remember thinking that they were pretty expensive in terms of invested time and effort, while there was great risk if the president said the wrong thing.”
Reagan’s red scare
It was a controversial unscripted warm-up quip from Reagan which ironically gave the weekly radio broadcasts their most memorable moment.
During an Aug. 11, 1984 sound check, meant only for an audience of audio technicians, the president — during a time of heightened Cold War tensions — said: “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
The Soviet Union was not amused and reportedly issued a war alert, for a brief period of time, to a portion of its military.
Wead says Reagan used the weekly radio tapings effectively “partly because it was a way to speak directly to the American people, without the filter of commentary that bracketed his television appearances. But I suspect that part of it was his nostalgic memories of Roosevelt and his famous fireside chats.”
But with the advent of the internet and more sophisticated messaging strategies, “I’m surprised they lasted as long as they did,” said Wead.