Celebrating the First Fireside Chat

By William A. Harris, Deputy Director

With water at the ready and microphones arrayed before him, the President prepares for a radio address, 1934. (FDR Library, 47-96 1783)

This week marks the 88th anniversary of FDR’s first “Fireside Chat.” Though not identified as such on March 12, 1933, the President’s address to the nation marked a key moment in his new Administration. He would speak directly to the American people over the airwaves about the banking crisis. And he would come to them not in the formal setting of an inauguration or a conference, but in a more personal manner. He would join them by radio in their homes, after dinner, and speak frankly, in plain terms, about the crisis and and his Administration’s efforts to stabilize the financial system and move forward.

FDR had already begun to fashion his radio style through statewide addresses to the citizens of New York during his gubernatorial years, 1932. (FDR Library, 09-1712M)

Not a distant or aloof leader speaking down to his subjects, FDR opened his remarks with “my friends,” and proceeded to engage listeners on terms that made sense to them. Those who might normally be tuning into programs such as the Manhattan Symphony Orchestra or D.W. Griffith’s Hollywood sat rapt before their sets as the President spoke with them, not at them. That these talks became known as “Fireside Chats” is easy to understand in listening to the March 12th broadcast. Here was a President in complete command of the medium–engaging, stalwart, respectful, and altogether confident that his hosts, the American people, who’d invited him into their homes, would join him in tackling the issues at hand.

FDR’s remarks to the American people on the banking crisis, his first “Fireside Chat,” March 12, 1933. (FDR Library, 65-9:2(1-2) [dig]. RLxA-4)

The President’s radio remarks had been publicized beforehand in newspapers and on radio. Carried by all major networks at the time (NBC Red, NBC Blue, and CBS), he spoke from the White House promptly at 10:00 Eastern Time. The White House had yet to organize the radio and newsreel setups with the efficiency that would come later through experience, but the broadcast proved a success, judging from coverage in the press the following day and from mail and telegrams that poured into the White House.

In this 1930s photograph, the complexities of broadcasting live from the White House are readily evident. Announcers and technicians crowd along the wall in the Diplomatic Reception Room before a “Fireside Chat.” (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Harris and Ewing Collection)
Don’t forget the newsreels. Usually after the live radio broadcast, the President filmed a portion of his remarks for newsreel cameras. This 1930s view of the opposite side of the room from the previous photo evidences how crowded the room would get with equipment and personnel. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress, Harris and Ewing Collection)

The address had an immediate impact in terms of instilling confidence in the banking system and the Administration’s executive and legislative program. Over the next twelve years, FDR would continue to go directly to the American people by radio, forging a personal relationship with everyday Americans unlike any other President before. He was a trailblazer in harnessing the power of technology and media to achieve his goals, and the impacts of his visionary approach are still felt today.

FDR used this RCA model 4-A-1 carbon condenser microphone, now in the Library’s collection, to deliver some of his Fireside Chats from the White House during the 1930s. (FDR Library, 5-7-MO-1997-10)