March 12, 1933—Franklin Delano Roosevelt began to establish himself as the dominant player in American politics for more than a decade with a landmark radio address that explained the reasoning behind his plan to stabilize the nation’s banking system.
Like the politician who influenced him the most, his fifth cousin, the Republican Theodore Roosevelt, F.D.R. was a masterful communicator who knew how to sway the modern media. T.R. started the Presidential practices of "floating trial balloons" and meeting regularly with reporters (the hyperkinetic chief executive did so, at several times, while he was shaving); FDR used an outgrowth of these interactions, the press conference, to introduce the concepts of “background” and “off the record.” But F.D.R. seized on another booming technology of the Twenties to become what the Radio Hall of Fame has called “the first great American radio voice.”
A CBS station manager, Harry Butcher, noticing that FDR would be speaking from the White House Diplomatic Reception Room furnished with a fireplace, came up with the phrase “fireside chat,” and the President’s press office immediately seized on the homespun term. Through 1944, FDR would deliver more than 30 of these, becoming, in effect, a kind of audio uncle to the average American family.
In a period that, as much as any other in our history, might be described as one of unrelenting crisis—pulling the nation through the Great Depression and the struggle against Fascism—FDR’s voice went against the grain. In these conversational addresses, he spoke more than 50 words per minute slower than the average person. Particularly in that first fireside chat, when events had seemed to be hurtling out of control because of a run on banks in the Depression, he set the nation at rest. His words assured Americans that, following a “bank holiday,” in which the nation’s financial institutions were closed to allow the Federal Reserve to create de facto 100 percent deposit insurance in the reopened banks, “No sound bank is a dollar worse off than it was when it closed its doors last Monday.” But it was his tone which confirmed that calm was being restored and there would be no more runs on banks.
Second, he was countering all the forces arrayed against him. Many newspaper owners were Republicans who were unalterably opposed to the massive experiment with government and the economy that the New Deal represented. FDR could, at his untelevised news conferences, enlist reporters—labor stiffs, if you will—against their bosses. But fireside chats allowed him to go directly over the news barons’ heads and to make news himself, without the intercession of even his own press office.
Third, FDR used simple language that anyone could understand and a device that virtually every one possessed. He might have been an Ivy League-educated patrician, but his words never conveyed distance from his audience. He included himself and his audience with the words “we” and “us,” and he used analogies and metaphors common to all. (Several years later, when he sought to circumvent isolationist sentiment to aid Great Britain against the riding Nazi tide, he likened Lend Lease to providing a garden hose to a neighbor whose house was on fire.) By speaking on the radio—a device that 90% of Americans owned at this time—he created an alternative to the newspaper.
Unlike predecessor Herbert Hoover, FDR was thoroughly comfortable with radio. He had been using it for the last four years, as governor of New York, to rally support for his programs. He was demonstrating that radio could be used not merely as a persuasive, but also an informative voice in American democracy. (During WWII, he would urge listeners to go to their globes or atlases so they could follow along as he explained where their sons would be going into harm's way.) Americans confirmed his belief in the efficacy of radio by sending letters pouring into the White House afterward, thanking him for his talks
Three years ago, Ken Mueller, a former curator at the Museum of Television and Radio (now the Paley Center for the Media), called FDR “the first Social Media rock star.” The President might not have been around for Facebook, Twitter and the like, but he sensed how new forms of communication could help him.