President F. D. Roosevelt- the OG of the social media platform.

Friends,

When I was drinking my morning coffee, scanning recent news articles, and thinking about the plot twist in Season 5 of The Last Kingdom on Netflix, I felt the appreciation and dread of instantaneous news.

If there had been cell phones and instant news, Uhtred could have stopped the battle between Edward and Sigtryggr with two phone calls and a text- and another favorite character wouldn’t have to die.

After about an hour of reading world news, I wondered why I was spending so much time reading it? 

It is rarely ever good news. 

Gas prices are rising, homes are becoming unaffordable, there are tensions in the UN, the people of Ukraine are being destroyed, and this war has brought the world to the brink of a food crisis. 

So what joy does it bring me? Does it help me make informed decisions for my family and myself? Will we sit as a family and discuss it over dinner? Will it give me the information to make appropriate changes to my lifestyle to succeed in the future? 

Rarely, as it is usually differing opinions on the same subject without agreement on what the federal or state government is currently doing. I am unsure if I am up to date on any events since it usually changes 5-6 times a day. 

What is the origin of this need for instant visual/audio news? 

That distinction belongs to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who began his ‘fireside chats’ on March 12th, 1933. Although he wasn’t the first President to broadcast on radio, that distinction belongs to President Calvin Coolidge when he delivered Warren G. Harding’s eulogy, he is considered to be the most gifted.  

At the time, radio served as the delivery platform, but what spoke to the American people was the concept of being informed by your elected official. The idea was that the person responsible for running your country, making major decisions that will affect your life, was approachable, understandable, inviting, and included you in the conversation.

Following Wall Street’s crash and the collapse of the economy, Roosevelt held his first fireside chat 8 days after he was sworn in. It was the lowest point of the Great Depression, and the country was experiencing unemployment of up to 33%. However, President Roosevelt acknowledged the fears, legitimized them, and offered a solution. Banks were to close briefly to stop the panicked flow of investors and reopen the following day. Afterward, he expressed his gratitude to the public for understanding and fortitude in implementing the ‘banking holiday.’

There was a calming effect on everyone who listened. There was enough clarity to alleviate fears and misunderstandings. Having just heard from the President, who had their best interests at heart, they were feeling optimistic. Together, the nation would make it through.

During his four consecutive terms as President, Roosevelt would address the American people during 30 radio broadcasts between 1933 to 1944. In spite of the fact that he inherited a country that was about to face its most troubling years- the Great Depression and World War II- Roosevelt committed to speaking to the nation personally about his actions.

At the time, 90% of Americans owned a radio, quickly overtaking newspapers as a news source because it did not require the ability to read. By addressing the nation as ‘Friends,’ Roosevelt explained complex theories with examples and analogies in simple terms. To make each person feel he was speaking directly to them, he would address the nation as ‘you’ and himself as ‘I.’  In order for everyone to have time to digest what he said, 70% of his speech contained 500 common English terms, and he spoke slower than radio announcers. 

“Novelist Saul Bellow recalled hearing a fireside chat while walking in Chicago one summer evening. “The blight hadn’t yet carried off the elms, and under them, drivers had pulled over, parking bumper to bumper, and turned on their radios to hear Roosevelt. They had rolled down the windows and opened the car doors. Everywhere the same voice, its odd Eastern accent, which in anyone else would have irritated Midwesterners. You could follow without missing a single word as you strolled by. You felt joined to these unknown drivers, men and women smoking their cigarettes in silence, not so much considering the President’s words as affirming the rightness of his tone and taking assurance from it.”  

The remarkable thing about these messages was that Americans heard the story directly from the horse’s mouth. Before Roosevelt, most Presidents were willing to allow reporters to relay their words, resulting in misquotations or editorial slants. Roosevelt understood there were miscommunications and his frustration with the press was evident when a reporter asked him if he would speak to the nation due to his recent conversations with Winston Churchill. Roosevelt responded with a chilling, “It’s up to you fellows. If you fellows give the country an exceedingly correct picture, I won’t go on the radio.”

In his Feb. 23rd, 1942 address, Roosevelt asked the nation to keep a world map at hand while explaining the main purposes of WWII. 

“I’m going to speak about strange places that many of them never heard of—places that are now the battleground for civilization,” he told his speechwriters. “I want to explain to the people something about geography—what our problem is and what the overall strategy of the war has to be. … If they understand the problem and what we are driving at, I am sure that they can take any kind of bad news right on the chin.”

The use of radio by Roosevelt was not without criticism, much like social media today. Some feared that his messages would alienate those opposing him or that the information might not be used properly. However, the fireside chats paved the way for direct communication from elected officials easily and straightforwardly. The resignation speech of President Nixon was broadcast on television, President Reagan started weekly radio broadcasts in 1982, and President Obama used Twitter for the first time in 2009 to address the nation.  

As always, my friends, I encourage you to do more research on how our elected officials use social media- I was surprised to learn how it is used by those who represent us. I am not going to judge those who use it and how they use it. As we have just learned, when used correctly, it can change the attitude of a nation. 

And remember…Be Great at something you are Good at!

8 Fireside Chats (F. Roosevelt) | The American Presidency Project (ucsb.edu)

Radio History FDR’s Fireside Chats (techwholesale.com)

Fireside Chats (loc.gov)

FDR’s Fireside Chat on the Recovery Program | National Archives

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