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July 23, 2008 / Toby Dayton

A Great Story About FDR, Mass Media, And Daily Newspapers

Driving to lunch yesterday listening to NPR’s Talk of the Nation, I heard a great story from the author of a recently published biography on Franklin Roosevelt relating to the power of communicating effectively through mass media.

One week after being inaugurated in 1933, FDR spoke directly to the American people through the first of his now infamous his ‘Fireside Chat’ radio addresses. Most major metropolitan daily newspapers were severely hostile to FDR’s reformist agenda, and the President smartly decided that radio, a relatively new media channel at the time, was the most effective means by which he could communicate directly with the nation. FDR’s goal on the night of March 12th was to not only outline his policy agenda for the first 100 days of his administration, but more importantly to reassure the nation that the banks would be open the following day, as scheduled, following a ‘bank holiday’ that had been declared to stem the wave of bank runs that had swept the country.

The somewhat risky strategy of leveraging this new form of mass communication was enormously successful. During the next week, the White House received 450,000 letters from citizens who had heard the President’s radio address and felt compelled to write him to express support, provide ideas, offer encouragement, and relate their personal stories. Under Hoover, the White House had employed a single person to handle the mail coming into the White House. Beginning in that first week under FDR and extending throughout his 3 terms, the White House had to employ 70 full-time people in the White House mail room to handle the letters addressed directly to the President from the American people.

While FDR’s temperament and style of communication was vital to the success of his fireside chats, not to mention the content of his public addresses, there can be no doubt that technology and the somewhat new form of media itself gave the President an important new tool to leverage in his effort to lead the nation.