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The fireside chats were a series of 30 addresses by President Franklin D. Roosevelt broadcast nationwide on radio in the 1930s and 1940s. Roosevelt was not the first president to be heard on the radio, but the way he used the medium marked a significant change in the way presidents communicate with the American public.
Key Takeaways: Fireside Chats
- Fireside chats were a series of 30 radio broadcasts by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which he used to explain or promote a specific government action.
- Millions of Americans tuned in to the broadcasts, yet listeners could feel the president was talking directly to them.
- Roosevelt's innovative use of radio influenced future presidents, who also embraced broadcasting. Direct communication with the public became a standard in American politics.
The political rise of Franklin Roosevelt coincided with the growing popularity of radio. A speech Roosevelt delivered at the Democratic National Convention was broadcast in 1924. He also used the radio to speak to his constituents when he served as governor of New York. Roosevelt seemed to sense that radio had a special quality, as it could reach millions of listeners, yet for each individual listener the broadcast could be a personal experience.
When Roosevelt became president in March 1933, America was in the depths of the Great Depression. Drastic action needed to be taken. Roosevelt quickly embarked on a program to rescue the nation's banking system. His plan included instituting the "Bank Holiday": closing all banks to prevent runs on cash reserves.
To gain public support for this drastic measure, Roosevelt felt he needed to explain the problem and his solution. On the evening of Sunday, March 12, 1933, only a week after his inauguration, Roosevelt took to the airwaves. He began the broadcast by saying, "I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking… "
In a concise speech of less than 15 minutes, Roosevelt explained his program for reforming the banking industry and asked for the public's cooperation. His approach was successful. When most of the country's banks opened the following morning, the words heard in American living rooms from the White House helped restore confidence in the nation's financial system.President Roosevelt delivering an early Fireside Chat. Getty Images
The Depression Broadcasts
Eight weeks later, Roosevelt delivered another Sunday night address to the nation. The topic, again, was financial policy. The second speech was also considered a success, and it had a distinction: a radio executive, Harry M. Butcher of the CBS network, called it a "Fireside Chat" in a press release. The name stuck, and eventually Roosevelt began using it himself.
Roosevelt continued to give fireside chats, usually from the Diplomatic Reception Room on the first floor of the White House, though they were not a common occurrence. He broadcast a third time in 1933, in October, but in later years the pace slowed down, sometimes to just one broadcast per year. (However, Roosevelt could still be heard regularly on the radio through broadcasts of his public speeches and events.)
The fireside chats of the 1930s covered various aspects of domestic policy. By late 1937, the impact of the broadcasts seemed to decline. Arthur Krock, the influential political columnist of the New York Times, wrote following a fireside chat in October 1937 that the president didn't seem to have much new to say.
After his June 24, 1938, broadcast, Roosevelt had delivered 13 fireside chats, all on domestic policies. More than a year went by without him giving another one.
Preparing the Nation for War
With the fireside chat of September 3, 1939, Roosevelt brought back the familiar format, but with an important new topic: the war that had broken out in Europe. The remainder of his fireside chats dealt mainly with foreign policy or domestic conditions as they were impacted by America's involvement in World War II.
In his third wartime fireside chat, broadcast on December 29, 1940, Roosevelt coined the term Arsenal of Democracy. He advocated that Americans should provide weapons to help the British fight the Nazi threat.
During a December 9, 1941 fireside chat, two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt prepared the nation for war. The pace of the broadcasts accelerated: Roosevelt gave four fireside chats per year in 1942 and 1943, and three in 1944. The fireside chats came to an end in the summer of 1944, perhaps because news of the progress of the war already dominated the airwaves and Roosevelt had no need to advocate for new programs.
Legacy of the Fireside Chats
The fireside chat broadcasts between 1933 and 1944 were often politically important, delivered to advocate for or explain particular programs. Over time they became symbolic of an era when the United States navigated two monumental crises, the Great Depression and World War II.
Roosevelt's distinctive voice became very familiar to most Americans. And his willingness to speak directly to the American people became a feature of the presidency. Presidents following Roosevelt could not be remote figures whose words reached most people only in print. After Roosevelt, being an effective communicator over the airwaves became an essential presidential skill, and the concept of a president delivering a speech broadcast from the White House on important topics became standard in American politics.
Of course, communication with voters continues to evolve. As a January 2019 article in The Atlantic put it, Instagram videos are "the new fireside chat."
- Levy, David W. "Fireside Chats." Encyclopedia of the Great Depression, edited by Robert S. McElvaine, vol. 1, Macmillan Reference USA, 2004, pp. 362-364. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
- Krock, Arthur. "In Washington: A Change In Tempo of Fireside Chats." New York Times, 14 October 1937, p 24.
- "Roosevelt, Franklin D." Great Depression and the New Deal Reference Library, edited by Allison McNeill, et al., vol. 3: Primary Sources, UXL, 2003, pp. 35-44. Gale Virtual Reference Library.