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Fireside Chats

FIRESIDE CHATS

During his twelve years as president, Franklin Roosevelt delivered thirty-one radio addresses called "fireside chats," a name coined in May 1933, immediately before the second of them, by Harry M. Butcher, a CBS radio executive. The public, the press, and Roosevelt himself adopted the homey appellation, and the label stuck. These speeches were intended to be relatively brief and informal reports to the American people, delivered in a conversational tone and in simple, unadorned language. Roosevelt, who had experimented with this use of the radio when he was governor of New York, was a master of that form of communication; he had a clear, bell-like voice and developed an unpretentious and good-humored style that endeared him to millions of Americans across the country.

The first fireside chat was given on March 12, 1933, only a week after Roosevelt's inauguration. It addressed the banking crisis, and the everyday language and easy tone of the opening sentences set the pattern for all the fireside chats that were to follow: "My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking—to talk with the comparatively few who understand the mechanics of banking, but more particularly with the overwhelming majority of you who use banks for the making of deposits and the drawing of checks. I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, and why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be."

The first thirteen of these radio talks (aired from March 1933 through July 1938) were devoted to domestic policy, explaining aspects of the New Deal and asking for political support for his various programs. The final eighteen talks (aired from September 1939 through January 1945) addressed the issues and dangers raised by the war in Europe and, once the United States entered, reported on the progress toward ultimate victory. Although Roosevelt occasionally shared bad news in the fireside chats, their prevailing tone was patriotic, inspirational, and upbeat—the president of the United States trying, in his neighborly way, to encourage optimism, pride in America, and confidence in the future.

Most of the fireside chats were delivered by Roosevelt from the diplomatic reception room on the first floor of the White House, seated at a table loaded with microphones from the major radio networks. About a third of the talks were given on Sunday evenings. Normally the president invited a small audience to be present—twenty or thirty friends, civil servants, and houseguests, all seated on folding chairs. The president would be wheeled into the room about ten minutes before airtime, carrying his reading copy and smoking the usual cigarette.

Roosevelt had the benefit of a team of talented speechwriters. Some of them were political operatives with other duties, advisers such as Samuel Rosenman, Harry Hopkins, Rexford Tugwell, Adolph Berle, and a half dozen others. The wartime fireside chats had the additional advantage of two legendary American writers, Robert Sherwood and Archibald MacLeish. But the accounts of all the participants agree that the president himself was an active participant in the speechwriting process. He would dictate initial versions of certain passages, review each draft meticulously, require changes and rearrangements, and practice speaking the sentences until he had the material just the way he wanted it. He also sometimes changed words here and there as he delivered the speech.

The impact of these talks on the American people would be difficult to overestimate. The first fire-side chat was carried by around 150 radio stations and entered an estimated twenty million homes (reaching perhaps sixty million Americans). By the late 1930s, around five hundred of the nation's eight hundred radio stations were carrying the speeches, and estimates of the audience range as high as one hundred million. It was not unusual for the White House to receive forty thousand letters from around the country after a broadcast. The picture of a family gathered around the kitchen table listening to the president on the radio, became one of the enduring images of the 1930s and early 1940s.

See Also: COMMUNICATIONS AND THE PRESS; RADIO; ROOSEVELT, FRANKLIN D.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Braden, Waldo W., and Earnest Brandenburg, "Roosevelt's Fireside Chats." Speech Monographs 22, no. 5 (November 1955): 290–302.

Buhite, Russell D., and David W. Levy, eds. FDR's Fireside Chats. 1992.

Levine, Lawrence W., and Cornelia R. Levine. The People and the President. 2002.

Michelson, Charles. The Ghost Talks. 1944.

Perkins, Frances. The Roosevelt I Knew. 1946.

Rosenman, Samuel. Working with Roosevelt. 1952.

Sharon, John H. "The Fireside Chat." Franklin D. Roosevelt Collector 2 (November 1949): 3–20.

David W. Levy

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