In today’s world, it would be extremely hard for Americans to set aside a portion of their weekend every Saturday night to sit and listen to the president talk about the struggles of the nation. Considering all the issues that are happening in our so-called modern world, most Americans could not be bothered to do so. However, in the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) persuaded America to tune in to the radio to listen to him talk about what the government was going to do to help during the Great Depression. These “fireside chats “made FDR a media genius long before anyone else grasped the concept of using the media to connect directly with the American people on a regular basis.
When Roosevelt took office on March 4, 1933, unemployment was at an amazing 25%. One in 12 Americans were homeless and the stock market had lost 87.5% of its value over the previous four years. In his inaugural address said that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Roosevelt has always been considered to be a pragmatic president. He was willing to try anything to help get the American people back on their feet. Some of those plans didn’t work, and some of them did. Some of the programs in what was called the New Deal are still in effect almost 90 years later. Social Security, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and the FDIC are just a few institutions still working from the 1930s.
However, the simple concept of using the media to reach out and talk to the American public about the issues facing the country had never been done to the extent which FDR wanted to use the medium. For Roosevelt to do so was a big gamble. Americans needed to feel as though the government was doing something to help them in those rough times.
For Roosevelt, in his own mind, he thought he had the mandate to try almost anything to get the country back going. He was overwhelmingly elected in 1932 with one of the biggest landslides in electoral college history. After Hoover and his laissez-faire economic policy was shown the door by the American electorate, Roosevelt and his pragmatism were now in charge.
Roosevelt chats with the American people were dubbed fireside chats by CBS reporter Harry Butcher of CBS Radio. Here is the actual opening paragraph of FDR’s original 13 minute “chat” from March 12, 1933.
I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking—with the comparatively few who understand the mechanics of banking but more particularly with the overwhelming majority who use banks for the making of deposits and the drawing of checks. I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, and why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be. I recognize that the many proclamations from State Capitols and from Washington, the legislation, the Treasury regulations, etc., couched for the most part in banking and legal terms should be explained for the benefit of the average citizen. I owe this in particular because of the fortitude and good temper with which everybody has accepted the inconvenience and hardships of the banking holiday. I know that when you understand what we in Washington have been about I shall continue to have your cooperation as fully as I have had your sympathy and help during the past week.
The ending of the speech really tied in the message FDR wanted to get across to the American people in the chat. That moral was that they were not alone, that there were others like them, and that the government heard their pleas. If the US was to get through, the government and the people would and could do it together.
“Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work. It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.”
When you think about the actual construct of that chat, Roosevelt is assuming his audience, a.k.a. the American public, are an intelligent bunch who can clearly understand banking policy. As far as the American public was concerned, they clearly understood why fixing the banks was an important part of the New Deal considering many banks closed and life savings were lost.
There was more to the chats than that.
The words FDR were carefully chosen for those events. It is estimated that 70% of the words he used were actually some of the 500 most commonly used words in the English language. He also spoke at a measured pace for most people to process what they were hearing. His pace came out to be about 65 words a minute.
With an estimated audience of 60 million, about 30% of the entire US, tuned in when he was saying on the radio. Roosevelt also had a hand in crafting his chats whose purpose he called, “for the benefit of the average citizen.”
But that was not the only chat that Roosevelt gave. In fact, Roosevelt made over 30 of them throughout the 1930s. . Most of the chats were between 20-30 minutes with a few extending in the 40 minute range. And he would continue to make them throughout the course of World War II.
Historian Christopher Sterling wrote this about FDR’s chats for the Library of Congress
While these talks sounded informal, they were as carefully prepared as any of Roosevelt’s more formal public appearances—their informality of wording and phrase was built into the text. The President appeared to talk with his listeners rather than lecturing at them. The “chats” nearly always focused on a single issue. In describing the problem and what the administration was doing about it, the President used direct and simple language, and clear examples or analogies, just as would two people in a face-to-face conversation. But while he sounded conversational, he actually had a script with that conversational tone built in.
Looking back at the impact of these “chats, the Library of Congress states that they were “an influential series of radio broadcasts in which Roosevelt utilized the media to present his programs and ideas directly to the public and thereby redefined the relationship between the President and the American people.”
Other Presidents would follow as masters of media. John F. Kennedy’s performance in 1960 in his TV debate with Nixon is seen as a watershed moment. Probably the only president who could compare to FDR’s media savvy is Ronald Reagan. A master joke teller and former actor, Reagan actually was the President that started a weekly address to the nation via the medium that is still done today. However, 30 million Americans do not tune on the radio today.
But back then, in those hard times, FDR’s chats to the nation had a calming and informative effect on a weary nation. They also help explain why he became so popular and was elected another three times to run the country.
Transcripts of each speech
Allen, Frederick Lewis. Only Yesterday and Since Yesterday: A Popular History of the ’20s and ’30s. New York: Bonanza Books, 1986.
Tindall, George Brown, with David E. Shi. America: A Narrative History. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1992.