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Radio History FDR's Fireside Chats

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) became president in 1933, he probably had no idea he was about to steer the country through some of the most difficult times in US history. He was president during the Great Depression in the 1930s. The Great Depression was a time of very high unemployment and banks were struggling to survive. People stood in line to get food or to find work. FDR was also president during World War II (WWII). The war lasted from 1939 to 1945. FDR's fireside chats were created to give Americans a sense of reassurance about the future of the country. The following offers some additional details about FDR and his fireside chats.

The 32nd president of the United States overcame some serious personal obstacles to achieve his goal of entering into politics. In 1921, twelve years before FDR was elected president, he contracted a disease called polio. Due to this paralyzing disease, he had to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life. But, this didn't stop him from achieving his goal of serving as the governor of New York in 1928. A few years later, he was nominated by the Democratic Party to run for president. He ran against the incumbent, President Hoover. President Hoover got 16 million popular votes in the 1932 election while FDR received 23 million. With the rate of unemployment growing and banks failing, many American voters were looking for a change in the direction the country was going. It was up to the new president to reignite the spirit of America.

Many changes took place during the first hundred days of FDR's presidency. For example, he put what was called a 'bank holiday' into effect. Banks were closed during this time and inspected by federal officials to determine whether they could serve the public if they were opened again. In addition, he created emergency banking legislation to help banks to keep their doors open. He was working on something called the New Deal; a program that would give the government a larger role in people's lives. FDR also gave a famous speech during this time that included the memorable line, "..the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." This new president was trying to communicate a sense of optimism for the future of America. FDR used the power of his words once again when he went on the radio to speak to the American people on March 12, 1933. In the 1930s, radio was as popular as television is today. FDR had the ears of millions of Americans as he spoke his message.

During the first fireside chat on March 12th, FDR spoke to Americans about the banking crisis. He complimented them on how they were dealing with the difficult economic times as well as the 'bank holiday.' Americans responded to the encouraging and inspiring words. Oftentimes, the president would bring to mind famous figures in American history such as Abraham Lincoln and George Washington who fought their way through extremely tough circumstances. Instead of making a grand speech with a lot of complicated words, FDR spoke to listeners as if he were talking to a next door neighbor. In fact, he would use the word you when referring to listeners so they would feel he was issuing a personal message. He even chose to play The Star Spangled Banner at the end of each message as a way to emphasize his meaning. Not surprisingly, FDR's approval rating as a president was very high partly as a result of his fireside chats. This was a president who would hold the office for four consecutive terms!

Finally, the name fireside chat refers more to the tone of the president's message than where he was sitting while he spoke. In truth, the president wasn't sitting beside a roaring fire, though many listeners may have imagined that scene. A reporter for CBS named Harry Butcher was the person who referred to the president's message as a fireside chat. The name caught on and contributed even more to FDR's efforts to inspire the American public during the 1930s.

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