President Barack Obama has extolled his energy policy five times in the past eight weeks during his weekly radio address.
But was anybody listening?
At first glance, dwindling audiences for the president’s radio address make the weekly ritual seem as anachronistic as Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats. Roosevelt’s radio contact with the public morphed into a weekly tradition under President Ronald Reagan and continued even as audiences flocked to TV and then the Internet.
While the speech has lost clout among the general public, the four-minute remarks still serve as an important political tool for the White House and other Washington insiders.
Jim Farley, vice president of news and programming at WTOP — an all-news station that averages 680,000 listeners over a weekend — said his decision to play Obama’s remarks at 6:30 a.m. every Saturday is largely driven by a sense of obligation to be Washington’s “radio station of record.”
“If WTOP was not in Washington, D.C., I’m not sure I would run the whole thing,” said Farley. “I don’t have a sense that people outside the Beltway care to hear the whole thing.”
As part of its new-media outreach strategy, the Obama White House has attempted to reach a bigger audience by adding a video component to the weekly remarks. Archived on the White House website and on YouTube, the videos of Obama reading his address also appear on online news sites, and snippets trickle onto TV news. On most weeks, the number of hits for the weekly address on YouTube range in the tens of thousands — a minuscule viewership compared with the millions who flock to videos of cute puppies that go viral.
Yet the target audience of the address is no longer the news consumer but politicians and policy advocates who determine what drives the conversation in Washington, according to communications experts.
“The weekly address is not actually for the public; it’s essentially become a policy statement that gets picked up and repurposed,” said Clay Shirky, an interactive telecommunications professor at New York University. “Although it doesn’t and never will again have the effect that FDR had with radio, the weekly address turns out to be effective as raw material for political uses.”
Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s press secretary, said White House speechwriters use the address to emphasize talking points. “Despite the small audience, it’s very useful for sending signals, announcing shifts and indicating emphasis for future direction,” Fleischer said. “It was always a part of the strategy of setting the tone for the week.”
On Capitol Hill, the address guides Democrats and Republicans who are formulating their positions. When the topic is politically charged, like offshore drilling, Republican staffers stand ready with scalpels to dissect Obama’s every word.
“[We] look for factual errors, misleading claims about our position, misleading characterizations of the president’s record on an issue or just general nonsense,” one House leadership aide said in an email. “If pushback is needed, we ship a staff quote and/or a set of facts over to reporters at the major news outlets who we know will be writing on the president’s remarks.”
Interest groups also monitor the remarks. “We certainly quote the president and are always excited when he talks about clean energy — they don’t call it a bully pulpit for nothing,” said Joshua Freed, director of the clean energy program at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way. “The president is able to elevate an issue by simply talking about it.”
Twice in the past two months, Obama took his clean-energy message on the road. His first address in April was taped at a UPS customer center in Landover, Md., where he encouraged companies to upgrade their fleets to clean vehicles; he delivered May’s first address from a hybrid vehicle transmission company in Indiana.
“Whenever the president actually goes to these places, … that sends an incredibly powerful message,” said David Foster, the executive editor of BlueGreen Alliance, a labor-environmental partnership dedicated to expanding green jobs.
One challenge for the White House communications team will be to keep finding ways to add creative touches in the address in an ever-changing media environment.
As Joe Lockhart, a former spokesman for President Bill Clinton, put it: “Anything you do once a week, 52 weeks a year, four years in a row — you have to be creative about the way how you deliver the message.”
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