AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — During President Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, he looked to calm nerves and explain policies by speaking directly to the American public through the radio.
He did this with “Fireside Chats”, designed as a way for the president to talk with listeners.
Between 1933 and 1944, President Roosevelt gave upwards of 30 fireside chats to the American public, with the first Fireside Chat being about the bank crisis.
“I think the first hundred days were, FDR was nothing if not a brilliant politician, and I think the first hundred days were important in that he got people believing in him. He did that primarily through what are called “Fireside Chats,” which is where he spoke directly into Americans’ living rooms through the radio and told them to gather around the radio and he would explain things, like the Emergency Banking Act and things he was going to do,” said Dr. Tim Bowman, head of the Department of History at WTAMU.
According to the University of Virginia, an estimated 60 million people listened to that first Fireside Chat.
|President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats|
|On the Bank Crisis||March 12, 1933|
|Outlining the New Deal Program||May 7, 1933|
|On the Purposes and Foundations of the Recovery Program||July 24, 1933|
|On the Currency Situation||October 22, 1933|
|Review of the Achievements of the Seventy-third Congress||June 28, 1934|
|On Moving Forward to Greater Freedom and Greater Security||September 30, 1934|
|On the Works Relief Program||April 28, 1935|
|On Drought Conditions||September 6, 1936|
|On the Reorganization of the Judiciary||March 9, 1937|
|On Legislation to be Recommended to the Extraordinary Session of the Congress||October 12, 1937|
|On the Unemployment Census||November 14, 1937|
|On Economic Conditions||April 14, 1938|
|On Party Primaries||June 24, 1938|
|On the European War||September 3, 1939|
|On National Defense||May 26, 1940|
|On National Security||December 29, 1940|
|Announcing Unlimited National Emergency||May 27, 1941|
|On Maintaining Freedom of the Seas||September 11, 1941|
|On the Declaration of War with Japan||December 9, 1941|
|On Progress of the War||February 23, 1942|
|On Our National Economic Policy||April 28, 1942|
|On Inflation and Progress of the War||September 7, 1942|
|Report on the Home Front||October 12, 1942|
|On the Coal Crisis||May 2, 1943|
|On Progress of War and Plans for Peace||July 28, 1943|
|Opening Third War Loan Drive||September 8, 1943|
|On Teheran and Cairo Conferences||December 24, 1943|
|State of the Union Message to Congress||January 11, 1944|
|On the Fall of Rome||June 5, 1944|
|Opening Fifth War Loan Drive||June 12, 1944|
WTAMU Associate Dean of Communication, Art, Theater, and Dance, and an expert on organizational crisis communication, Dr. Kristina Drumheller, said these chats provided transparency to the American public.
“In crisis communication, we would argue that is one of the best things that you can do, right? Is to be transparent, and let audiences know what is going on. What talk in terms of stakeholders, so who has a stake in the message that you are sending and for a president, you are talking about the whole country, but often a global message,” said Drumheller.
According to Christopher H. Sterling, the “chats” nearly always focused on a single issue, and as FRD described the problem and what the administration was doing about it, FDR used direct and simple language, with clear examples or analogies. He added that Roosevelt spoke slowly as well, typically 120 to 130 words per minute while the political norm of the time approached 175 to 200 words, and often for clarity and emphasis on key points, he sometimes spoke as few as 100 words a minute.
According to the Census Bureau, in 1930, approximately 40% or approximately 12 million households of the U.S. population owned a radio. When Roosevelt’s first fireside chat was broadcast on March 12, 1933, approximately 19.3 million households owned a radio. By the 1940 Census, 28 million households, or 82.8% reported radio ownership. By the time of his final chat on June 12, 1944, 32.5 million households owned a radio.
According to the University of Virginia, in 1916 wireless receiving sets were selling for between $35 ($1,033.26 in 2023 when calculated for inflation) and $200 ($5,904.35 in 2023 when calculated for inflation), but in the early ’30s, the cost came down to an average of $10 ($214.70 in 2023 when calculated for inflation).
“Now it didn’t necessarily help everybody, if you can’t afford to eat, you probably can’t afford a radio either, right? So there are limitations to what are messaging can do, especially through medium like that. So there are plenty that FDR did not reach and I think that is an important thing… But I think that an important question is ‘Who was hearing the message and who wasn’t?’ We do talk about two-step flow theory, it’s a little outdated now, but would somebody hear the message and then share the message with others who didn’t have radio and what did that look like? So that would probably be a way some people were sharing messages, but again did people who were the hardest hit by the Depression, were they hearing those messages? He was assuring some people, there was a lot of people who probably didn’t care because he was too far removed from their experience,” said Drumheller.
The Fireside Chats legacy would continue after FDR with nearly all presidents using radio, television, and even social media to speak to the nation.
“When you can use the radio well when you can use TV well, because TV was the same thing, when TV came out, it started ‘oh, you have to look good if you are come across well, right? So that changes the way you are going to do your message, right?… Social media, I only have 144 characters or 260 characters or whatever each level gave you, how do I create that message, how do I give a short blip that is effective,” said Drumheller.
Sterling added the term “Fireside Chat”, comes from CBS broadcaster Harry Butcher on the occasion of the second one.
During the first “Fireside Chat, the broadcast was from the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room with President Roosevelt actually sitting next to a fireplace.