WASHINGTON — It evokes an image of President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivering one of his fireside chats to a rapt radio audience. Or a bygone era when families motored to the country on a Saturday morning, tuning in to the official word from the White House.
In nostalgic defiance of today’s hyper-drive news cycle, the tradition endures as the Weekly Presidential Address.
While historians and current White House officials fiercely defend this packaged political ritual, there is evidence that the address has faded into near-irrelevance. It generates far less news coverage than it did when it began three decades ago, and it is so under the radar that no one is tracking its listenership — or even which stations are carrying it.
“Is he even still doing them?” asked Peter Lydotes, director of operations at WBUR, a major public radio outlet in Boston.
He is. Almost every Friday, President Obama retreats into a quiet chamber of the White House — most often the Map Room or Roosevelt Room — and sits before the microphones and a video camera for several minutes. He will reflect on the past week. He may wish you a happy holiday. Sometimes, the address is jovial, other times somber. For Christmas, his wife will be by his side.
“Hey, everybody!” a chipper Obama says to start most of them.
Although the current White House took the address into the video age — with recordings they hope will go viral on the Internet — in essence it’s the same format as Roosevelt pioneered in the 1930s. It harkens to an age before news was digested and spit out in 30 seconds.
“It is a little old-fashioned,” said White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. “To just have it be a two-minute, direct message from the president — it is something that probably does leave some people nostalgic for a different era. But in some ways that’s what also makes it stand out. That’s why people notice it. And that’s the virtue of it.”
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Although Roosevelt was known for his fireside chats, spoken to an America still recovering from the Great Depression, his speeches were fairly sporadic. It wasn’t until 1982 that President Reagan launched a weekly address, delivered every Saturday morning.
“He loved radio, so it seemed a natural thing to do,” said presidential historian Martha Joynt Kumar. “And they found they were good in terms of not necessarily the amount of people who [heard] them but rather it could set a story line for the Sunday programs.”
Before recording his address in 1984, during the heart of the Cold War, Reagan uttered in jest what is now an infamous sound check. “My fellow Americans,” he said. “I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”
Watch: Obama’s address for Independence Day
George H.W. Bush all but abandoned the weekly addresses, but they were resurrected by President Clinton. His first, delivered inside an empty Oval Office, was considered “kind of flat,” so aides turned it into a production, having him perform before a live audience of staffers, federal workers, and their families.
“He just punched the hell out of it,” an aide told Newsweek in 1993.
President George W. Bush kept up the broadcasts. For eight years he never missed a Saturday.
“It was routine for his White House and staff,” said Trey Bohn, who was White House director of radio media.
Democrats were producing a weekly opposition response during Bush’s presidency, something that Republicans have continued to do under Obama. But the arc of Bush’s presidency coincided with the rapid fragmentation of the media. By the time he left office, the importance of the weekly radio spot had waned.
“I always joke with my students, how many of them listen to AM news radio on Saturday mornings?” said Gerhard Peters, who helps run the American Presidency Project, which examines various aspects of the presidency. “I think about life back in 1982. . . . The Saturday radio address back then really appealed to the styles of American life.”
These days, no one appears to be tracking how many stations still carry the address, which is released through syndication and available to most stations each week.
C-SPAN shows them, and the White House puts them on its website. Since 2010, the NBC-owned WRC-TV in Washington has been playing the address on Sundays just after “Meet the Press.”
Washington’s all-news radio station WTOP stopped carrying the address when Clinton started going up to 10 minutes (cutting into weather and traffic reports). When Clinton agreed to keep his address under five minutes, preferably three, WTOP started airing it again.
“From my many years in network radio I learned the dirty little secret: Practically NO stations in the United States carry it,” said Jim Farley, who held top positions at WTOP as well as NBC and ABC news and was part of several informal radio station surveys.
A study conducted by professors at Texas Christian University and published in 2008 found that the amount of media attention given to the weekly addresses had fallen significantly. The New York Times, for example, covered 73 percent of Reagan’s addresses, while only covering 29 percent of George W. Bush’s.
“The increasing lack of novelty seems to have taken its toll,” the report concluded.
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Arun Chaudhary, a videographer who had followed Obama during his presidential race, used videos during the campaign as a quick, easy, and cheap way to reach supporters.
So when he arrived at the White House in January 2009 with Obama — perhaps the best communicator since Reagan — adding video to the weekly address seemed a natural step.
“I knew this was something President Obama was good at, but also was going to be a huge pain. . . . We’re actually agreeing to make a movie every Friday night,” Chaudhary said.
The tale of the Obama presidency, in some ways, can be told through his weekly addresses. He said “health care” 116 times in 2009 as the administration was pushing his signature legislation on the subject, but he said it only four times in 2012 when he was running for reelection.
“Jobs” and “economy” have always been a frequent topic, while “immigration” was rarely, if ever, mentioned until 2013, when Obama referred to it 39 times.
But the viewership numbers, at least online, are low. During the first six months of this year, his addresses averaged just 38,000 views each week on YouTube. A kitten jumping on a rug got nearly 400,000 views last week.
Obama doesn’t even have the most-viewed presidential address on YouTube: First lady Michelle Obama does, during a week when he turned the show over to her. Her address on Mother’s Day, which she dedicated to speaking out against the kidnapping of girls in Nigeria, has been viewed 1.3 million times.
Chaudhary left the White House in 2011. He said there was a novelty to Obama’s video addresses — his first has drawn 1.2 million YouTube viewers — but it wore off. Still, he can’t imagine not having it.
“It’s almost the week-in-review section of the paper re-imagined: You’re explaining what happened this week, as president,” Chaudhary said. “It does have the feeling of slow news, and I think people hunger for that. . . . The antiquatedness of it actually speaks to the usefulness of it.”
“As fast and crazy as the 24-hour news cycle is, there is this mysterious object of time called the week,” he said. “And we still sort of take it seriously.”
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Every Saturday morning, WBZ-AM in Boston will faithfully play the president’s address at 6:06 a.m., and then the Republican address, an hour later.
“I don’t know if people set their alarm and say, ‘I gotta go hear the president,’ ” said Ben Parker, an anchor at WBZ who for several years has been playing the addresses. “But I don’t think it chases people away, either.”
When asked what the addresses usually entail, Parker was succinct.
“The president said the Republicans are jerks and the Republicans said the president is wrong,’” he said. “That’s usually it in a nutshell.”
Until next week. . .
Watch: Playlist of Obama’s weekly addresses