Eighty-two years ago today, March 12, 1933, was a Sunday. That night millions of Americans gathered around their radio sets in living rooms, diners, pubs and other places and listened to a crackly audio feed of their new President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, speaking from the White House. For many of them it was the first time they’d ever heard a U.S. President speak live on the air. With his surprisingly high-pitched but very calm and patrician voice, Roosevelt said, “My friends, I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking.” The tradition of what would come to be called the “fireside chat” had begun. You can hear the first nine minutes of the speech, as they heard it, in the above YouTube clip.
Things were very uncertain that Sunday when FDR took to the air. He had only been on the job eight days, and what an eight days. The country was in the deepest part of the Great Depression. Just a few days before Roosevelt took the oath of office, a new financial panic struck the nation as people began to fear a wave of bank failures would soon occur. There was a run on almost every major bank in the country. Strapped for cash and low on deposits, banks began closing their doors. Emergency orders at the state level temporarily closed many banks, and on his first day in office FDR declared a federal “bank holiday” closing down what few were still open. There followed an emergency piece of legislation, the Emergency Banking Act, which Roosevelt signed on March 9. The effect of the act was essentially to create 100% deposit insurance, backed by the Federal Reserve. The government was finally taking direct action to combat the Great Depression.
FDR spent much of his first chat explaining what had happened and why it was necessary. Beyond the technical details of the bank crisis, the fireside chats were a political masterstroke. Roosevelt’s New Deal brought the federal government face-to-face with ordinary people in a way few had experienced before, and to go along with this new form of statecraft, the fireside chats helped make Roosevelt himself a personal figure to Americans. Throughout his three (and partial fourth) terms as President, Roosevelt used these broadcasts to explain all manner of issues stretching through the Depression and eventually World War II. He gave a total of 30 of them, the last one being on June 12, 1944 to announce a new drive for war bonds.
But this is the first one. In an time when most of us think we hear the President’s voice far too often–regardless of who is President–it’s interesting to think back on the era when people first began to hear it on a regular basis.