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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Fireside Chats: Roosevelt's Radio Talks

The White House Speaks to America

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio talks connected Americans to the White House in a way no medium of communication had yet allowed.

Library of Congress

“The president wants to come into your home and sit at your fireside for a little fireside chat,” announced Robert Trout on the airwaves of CBS in March 1933. It was the first of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous radio talks addressing the problems and successes of the Great Depression, and later, World War II. President Roosevelt had not originally planned a title for these broadcasts, but the name “Fireside Chat,” coined by CBS station manager Harold Butcher in reference to the president’s conversational speaking style, stuck. During President Roosevelt’s twelve years in office, the Fireside Chats connected the White House to ordinary American homes as never before.1

Franklin Roosevelt took office at the start of the golden age of radio. When he was first elected in 1932, forty-one percent of U.S. cities had their own radio station. Five years into Roosevelt’s presidency, nearly ninety percent of the U.S. population had access to a radio. Radio was fast overtaking newspapers as America’s major source of news, as it did not require literacy to enjoy or even money to buy—just a friend or neighbor willing to let others tune in. Walking down the street in cities and small towns, one could hear music, radio dramas, comedy hours, or news drifting out of open windows. By the end of the decade, ninety percent of Americans said they would sooner give up movies than radio.2

The primacy of radio as a source of entertainment and news gave President Roosevelt an opportunity no U.S. president had yet had: to speak directly to broad sections of the American public without having his message filtered through the press. Presidents before him had always had to rely on newspaper reporters and editors to convey their words to the public, leaving their original message open to editorial slant or misquoting. Live radio, by contrast, left no room for misquotation.

Radio technology, and President Roosevelt’s own Rural Electrification Administration, brought the president’s voice all the way from the White House to remote areas like this beer parlor in Gemmel, Minnesota, 1937.

Library of Congress

Listen to the beginning of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's first Fireside Chat explaining the banking crisis.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

During his presidency, Franklin Roosevelt used periodic Fireside Chats to tell the public what government was doing about the Great Depression and later, the second World War. During the years of the New Deal, President Roosevelt addressed the nation on-air about twice a year, announcing each chat a week or two in advance to ensure a wide listenership. He defended government programs, answered his critics, expressed encouragement through difficult national times, and requested cooperation with his policies. 3

With the United States’ entry into World War II, President Roosevelt started to broadcast about every three months, feeling that it was important to update the public frequently on the progress of the war. His frustration with information provided by the press was constant throughout his time in office: a reporter once asked if he planned to discuss recent talks with Winston Churchill on air, to which the president replied, “It’s up to you fellows. If you fellows give the country an exceedingly correct picture, I won’t go on the radio.” 4

For many Americans, the Fireside Chats, delivered in President Roosevelt’s calm, measured voice, were a source of comfort—a reassurance that during the crises of the Great Depression and World War II, a steady hand was on the wheel. The first Fireside Chat, updating the electorate on what the federal government was doing to address the banking crisis of 1933, came just eight days into Roosevelt’s first administration, direct from the White House to half a million listeners. The sense of connection with the president was immediate. A flood of letters from citizens across the country inundated the White House Mail Room in the months after that first on-air address, most expressing strong support for the president’s words. One letter in particular summed up the general spirit of the response: “Think of having the president talk to us in our parlor…” 5

Workman John Frost and his daughter tune in to the radio in Tehama County, California, 1940.

Library of Congress

Listen to President Franklin D. Roosevelt compare the challenges of the Depression to the new challenge of World War II.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

President Roosevelt was not the first Chief Executive to make use of the radio, though he was certainly its most gifted presidential practitioner. President Calvin Coolidge had delivered the first ever radio address from the White House—his predecessor Warren G. Harding’s eulogy. President Herbert Hoover had campaigned on radio and given regular radio addresses, but his microphone presence sounded much more formal than conversational. Like most politicians of his time, President Hoover had treated radio broadcasting as a chance to give an official speech.6

President Roosevelt, by contrast, let his voice rise and fall naturally as he spoke on air. Even though each of his talks were fact-checked and re-written six or more times by a team of secretaries, speechwriters, and press specialists, his delivery still made them sound fresh. He had a gift for clear diction and simple analogies. Seventy percent of words used in the Fireside Chats were among the five hundred most commonly-occurring terms in the English language. He also spoke slower than most radio announcers of the time, using an average of sixty-five fewer words per minute. 7

President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a gift for connecting with the American public with his voice.

National Archives and Records Administration

Listen to President Franklin D. Roosevelt urge Americans to buy war bands during the opening of the Fifth War Load Drive in 1945.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum/NARA

Perhaps it was the informal, conversational quality of the Fireside Chats that made Americans want to chat back. Americans had never written to the White House in such vast proportions as they would under Roosevelt’s presidency. In one year the total number of letters and packages received at the Executive Mansion grew from about eight hundred items a day under President Herbert Hoover to eight thousand a day under the New Deal. By the end of Franklin Roosevelt’s first year in office the White House Mail Room had instituted its first-ever night shift. Though not all the letters were approving, many praised the clarity of his explanations of complicated events, or simply thanked the president for talking to them. “It made me feel as though you were really one of us,” wrote one typical listener.8

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ability to forge a bond with the electorate through radio may have contributed to his record-breaking four victories in presidential elections. Presidents since have continued to strive for a greater sense of connection with their voters. President Harry S. Truman converted one of the White House’s old kitchens into a Broadcast Room, though his aides encouraged him not to give planned radio speeches during his early days in office lest he invite comparisons to President Roosevelt’s “unusually fine radio voice that kept us through the years,” as the New York Times put it. Later presidents would be known for their effective (or ineffective) use of television and social media.9 Regardless of medium, words from the White House remain a powerful presidential tool.