On this day in 1977, the Dial-a-President radio program, featuring President Jimmy Carter and CBS news anchorman Walter Cronkite, airs for the first time. The brainchild of Cronkite and CBS, the March 5 show was a test-run to see if the program could be successful. (Carter’s official papers refer to the show as Ask President Carter.)
After a 20-minute practice session, Carter and Cronkite went live on the air with Carter answering calls from all over the country from his desk in the Oval Office. Approximately 9 million calls flooded the CBS radio studio during the first two-hour broadcast. Questions covered a range of subjects from Carter’s pardon for “draft-dodgers” to the Panama Canal Treaty to why Carter chose to let his daughter Amy attend a public school instead of a private school in Washington, D.C.
The informal nature of the show suited the equally informal President Carter, who frequently opted to wear comfortable sweaters instead of business suits while working. He appeared to enjoy the call-in session, agreeing to return for another show. Afterwards, he commented that the callers’ questions were “the kind that you would never get in a press conference. I think it’s very good for me to understand directly from the American people what they are concerned about.”
After the show, the president, Cronkite, CBS executives and radio technicians met in the White House’s Roosevelt Room for a follow-up assessment of the program; it was pronounced a success. Though it did not air again, a very accessible and genuinely interested Carter continued conversations via phone with two of the show’s callers in the days after the first airing.