TODAY - Mike Wallace: A Television Retrospective - April 11, 2012 - Click for Details

"I never saw him - but I knew him. Can you have forgotten how, with his voice, he came into our house, the President of these United States, calling us friends..." - Carl Carmer, April 14, 1945.

In the midst of the Great Depression, America in 1933 was suffering. One-third of its work force was unemployed, every bank had been closed for eight days, and the public was barely surviving through a combination of barter and credit.

On Sunday evening, March 12, a troubled nation sat down by its radio sets to listen to their president. With his calm and reassuring voice, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt explained how the nation was going to recover from the current banking crisis.

That evening marked the beginning of the historic Fireside Chats, thirty-one radio addresses that covered issues like the renewed Depression and our role in World War II. In his Fireside Chats, Roosevelt shared his hopes and plans for the nation and invited the American people to "tell me your troubles."

Click here to listen to the first Fireside Chat.

All 31 Fireside Chats are available in the Archives.

Roosevelt took special care in preparing each aspect of his Fireside Chats and made his addresses accessible and understandable to ordinary Americans. In order to attract a peak national audience, the Chats were broadcast on all national networks around 10:00 p.m. Eastern time -- early enough that Easterners were still awake but late enough that even people on the West Coast would be home from work.

The Chats were relatively brief, ranging in length from fifteen to forty-five minutes. In addition, FDR and his speechwriters always used basic language when preparing the Fireside Chats. Eighty percent of the words FDR chose were among the 1000 most commonly used words in the English vocabulary.

He also relied on stories, anecdotes, and analogies to explain the complex issues facing the country. For example, he used a baseball analogy to describe the first two months of the New Deal: “I have no expectations of making a hit every time I come to bat. What I seek is the highest possible batting average, not only for myself, but for the team.”

The radio addresses strove to turn listeners into a unified nation of active citizens. FDR was confident in the programs his government put forth, but he reminded the American people that only they could ultimately bring about the desired results.

He believed the American citizens -- individually and together -- could bring about change. By referring to his audience in terms of “you” and “we,” FDR constructed a sense of national identity, encouraged individual participation, and forged an intimate relationship between the president and the public.

The success of the Fireside Chats is evidenced by the millions of letters that flooded the White House. Americans from all walks of life wrote FDR, and many of these letters were written within days, even hours, of hearing their beloved president over the radio. In these letters, people often wrote about how they felt during these radio addresses, as if FDR entered their homes and spoke to each of them.

They also expressed their praise, appreciation, and confidence in their leader and friend. People also wrote of listening to the speeches with a group of friends or relatives, illustrating their collective appeal. Through these letters, Roosevelt became better acquainted with the views of his public and became even more aware of the power of radio.

With almost 90% of all households owning radios at the end of his presidency, it made sense that Roosevelt would choose radio addresses as his means of connecting with the public. And FDR did connect with the public in a way no other president had before.

Not only did his Fireside Chats speak to the people on a personal level and encourage their individual participation, but they also made listeners feel part of a larger whole; a united nation that would overcome the tough times it faced.

A conversation between the people and their president, the Fireside Chats provide a portrait of America during one of its most difficult times and how its leader reminded us of our dreams, our hopes, and the promise of democracy.

- By Diana Mankowski & Raissa Jose, The Museum of Broadcast Communications

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