Ninety years ago to the day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his first “fireside chat” to a young nation reeling from the Great Depression.
On March 12, 1933, FDR essentially reinvented the relationship between government and the people, which, up until that time, had remained very isolated from one another. But the emergence of radio as a common household luxury, paired with FDR speaking plainly and earnestly in his own voice over the airwaves, immediately revolutionized the way government officials communicated with their constituents.
When Roosevelt took office that same year, America’s economic future looked beyond bleak. The Great Depression had spread across the globe, and unemployment sidelined an estimated 13 million Americans — a staggering figure for the era.
In this inaugural, landmark “fireside chat” (a term coined by CBS radio’s Henry Butcher), FDR instilled confidence in a nation without much hope. The iconic line, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” emerged from this chat, as did a renewed sense of confidence in the government.
The National Archives notes that FDR’s tone of voice made a big difference.
“Those who might normally be tuning into programs such as the Manhattan Symphony Orchestra or ‘D.W. Griffith’s Hollywood’ sat rapt at their seats as the president spoke with them, not at them.”
Roosevelt’s first “fireside chat” radio broadcast drew thousands of letters and telegrams of support from Americans
Roosevelt also explained aspects of the economic situation is verbiage that the common man could undrstand.
“What, then, happened during the last few days of February and the first few days of March?” he pondered to the audience. “Because of undermined confidence on the part of the public, there was a general rush by a large portion of our population to turn bank deposits into currency or gold — a rush so great that the soundest banks could not get enough currency to meet the demand.”
He went on to explain why he closed the banks (“to prevent withdrawals from investors”), and assured the public that he would take banking more seriously: “Your government does not intend that the history of the past few years shall be repeated,” he said.
Over the next 12 years, FDR would continue speaking directly to the American people via radio, “forging a personal relationship with everyday Americans unlike any other president before,” says the National Archives. By the end of his three terms, FDR hosted around 30 fireside chats, using them as an opportunity to build support for the New Deal, WWII, and other large-scale endeavors.
“Roosevelt was a ‘trailblazer’ in using both technology and the media, and the impacts of his visionary approach are still evident today,” says the National Archives.