Eighty years ago today, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered the first “fireside chat” evening radio address to the nation. By the time of his inauguration the week before, nearly all of the banks in the nation had temporarily closed in response to mass withdrawals by a panicked public. In the March 12, 1933 “fireside chat,” Roosevelt sought to calm the nation’s fears and outlined his plan to restore confidence in the banking system. As he would in future addresses, FDR used common language to explain the complex problem that had developed and what the administration was doing about it. Roosevelt told the nation:
I want to tell you what has been done in the last few days, why it was done, and what the next steps are going to be. I recognize that the many proclamations from State Capitols and from Washington, the legislation, the Treasury regulations, etc., couched for the most part in banking and legal terms should be explained for the benefit of the average citizen. I owe this in particular because of the fortitude and good temper with which everybody has accepted the inconvenience and hardships of the banking holiday. I know that when you understand what we in Washington have been about I shall continue to have your cooperation as fully as I have had your sympathy and help during the past week.
After explaining the problem and the administration’s actions, FDR made an appeal for the public’s sympathy and support, soliciting trust and contributing to a sense of national unity in confronting the crisis:
After all there is an element in the readjustment of our financial system more important than currency, more important than gold, and that is the confidence of the people. Confidence and courage are the essentials of success in carrying out our plan. You people must have faith; you must not be stampeded by rumors or guesses. Let us unite in banishing fear. We have provided the machinery to restore our financial system; it is up to you to support and make it work.
It is your problem no less than it is mine. Together we cannot fail.
In all, Roosevelt delivered thirty “fireside chat” radio addresses between 1933 and 1944. FDR used the new form of communication to reshape the presidency and the chats were a significant development in building a direct and intimate bond between the president and the public. The press would no longer serve as the only conduit of information to the public. Instead, FDR appealed directly to the public to make the case for his agenda and to explain actions his administration was taking. The chats also contributed to shaping the image of the president as the caretaker of the American people. In his chats, FDR would propose policies, contributing the growth of executive office duties not only in implementing policy, but also drafting it. Designing and crafting legislation, in turn, contributed to the expansion of White House staff and advisers to the president. Furthermore, the public responded. The White House received millions of letters from the public in response to the chats, which the administration used to pressure Congress to pass legislation the president had proposed.
Although every president since FDR has delivered regular addresses to the public via radio, television or internet, it was President Ronald Reagan who began the practice of weekly addresses to the public. Since taking office, President Barack Obama has delivered weekly internet addresses, which are available on YouTube and WhiteHouse.gov. Direct communication between the president and the public is now almost certainly taken for granted.
Listen to all of FDR’s “fireside chat” radio addresses in our archives here.