“It is whispered by some that only by abandoning our freedom, our ideals, our way of life, can we build our defenses adequately, can we match the strength of the aggressors,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in the 15th of his “fireside chats,” delivered on May 26th, 1940. “I do not share these fears.”
In the days leading up to that particular chat, Hitler’s forces had marched into France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands, and it was Roosevelt’s intention to reassure the American people that the nation was prepared to defend itself, if it came to that, and also to lay the groundwork for a greater support of the Allied forces fighting the Nazis in Europe. It was far from the first time he had used the platform of radio for such ends, and it wouldn’t be the last.
Indeed, Roosevelt began his so-called “fireside chats” just eight days after he was sworn in as the 32nd president of the United States. In the first, he explained the logic and necessity behind the Emergency Banking Act, which sought to stabilize banks struggling in the midst of the Great Depression. Described as a “revolutionary experiment with a nascent media platform,” the chats continued from 1933 until June 12th, 1944, a year before Roosevelt passed away during his second term as president.
Often held on Sundays—and always in the evening—the “fireside chats” were intended to be something that Americans could listen to after a hard day’s work, gathered around the radio as around a fireside. “He looked for words that he would use in an informal conversation with one or two of his friends,” presidential advisor and speechwriter Samuel Rosenman recalled, describing the casual-yet-authoritative style of Roosevelt's fireside chats. Indeed, later analyses of the recorded chats has shown that some 80% of the words Roosevelt employed during these addresses to the American people were among the thousand most commonly used words in the English language at the time.
This direct and comprehensible approach helped to keep Roosevelt and his policies popular with the public, even during times of great national turmoil and distress. The fireside chats continued throughout the Great Depression, the implementation of Roosevelt’s famous New Deal, and during much of World War II. While the world around them often seemed to be crumbling, Roosevelt’s voice on the radio helped convey an air of self-assurance that many Americans found comforting and approachable.
When the Library of Congress included the fireside chats in the first batch of recordings inducted into their National Recording Registry, they were described as “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 President Roosevelt and the American people in 1933.”
Though it had been in development for many years, radio was still essentially a new technology in 1933, with the patent for the invention having been granted to Gulielmo Marconi in 1904 and the first clear transmission of human speech taking place as recently as 1919. Despite its relative novelty, however, by the time Roosevelt began his fireside chats, nearly 60% of American homes contained radios—by the time he stopped, that number was nearer 100%.
The development of radio and its widespread adoption throughout the United States meant that Roosevelt could directly address the electorate in a way that had been impossible for any other president before him—and a way that would become obligatory for most presidents who followed. The approach was seen as a necessity by the administration, as Roosevelt’s political opponents controlled many of the newspapers at the time.
“He and his advisors worried that newspapers’ biases would affect the news columns,” historian Betty Houchin Winfield observed of the rationale behind the fireside chats,” and rightly so.” It wasn’t just the immediacy of the format that made radio so appealing for Roosevelt, however. “It cannot misrepresent or misquote,” said Stephen Early, Roosevelt’s press secretary, in praise of the radio. “It is far-reaching and simultaneous in releasing messages given for transmission to the nation or for international consumption.”
This ability to address the nation in real time helped to build support for Roosevelt’s policies—after each of the fireside chats, legislators received hundreds or even thousands of letters on whatever subject the president had most recently addressed—and built considerable national confidence in everything from the country’s recovery following the Great Depression to our involvement in World War II.
In fact, beginning on Sunday, September 3rd, 1939, with the 14th of 30 total fireside chats delivered by Roosevelt during his two terms, the vast majority of the chats concerned the war effort, covering everything from war bonds and economic policy to the “Arsenal of Democracy” and the so-called “Greer incident,” when a U.S. naval destroyer fired on a German ship some three months before the country officially entered the war.
The fireside chats were heard by an unprecedented number of Americans. Indeed, radio audiences for the fireside chats during wartime averaged around 58% and sometimes reached higher than 70% of the total radio audience. Two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt delivered a fireside chat that is estimated to have been listened to by more than 62 million people.
Morale on the home front was boosted due to the fireside chats, and civilians were arguably more informed on the particulars of this war than any previous one in which the nation had been involved. When Roosevelt explained the reasons behind America’s involvement in World War II, he asked listeners to be prepared with a world map, so that he could explain the places that soldiers would be going, and the reasons for the conflict. “I’m going to speak about strange places that many of them never heard of – places that are now the battleground for civilization,” Roosevelt told his speechwriters. Sales for maps, atlases, and globes skyrocketed.
Since the overwhelming success of the fireside chats, every U.S. president has delivered occasional addresses directly to the American people, in one form or another—from radio, to television, to the extensive use of social media by modern politicians such as former president Donald Trump. While perhaps no other media engagement has ever met with quite the same success as Roosevelt’s radio addresses, there’s no denying that the fireside chats forever changed the way that Americans expected to interact with their president—and expected their president to interact with them.