On this day in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt holds the first of his radio-broadcast fireside chats. FDR used the informal radio addresses to explain his policies to the American public.
In an era before television, cell phones and iPods, FDR used the most immediate and intimate means of communicating with the public available at the time: the radio. During the 1930s, approximately 90 percent of American households owned a radio. Capitalizing on this, FDR used the medium for his fireside chats 31 times between March 1933 and June 1944, discussing a range of topics from New Deal economic policies to aid for Europe in the fight against fascism to reporting on the military and domestic fronts during World War II. While listeners could not actually see him and he was not actually next to a fireplace–photos show FDR at his desk surrounded by microphones and wires–the phrase fireside chat was coined by a journalist and evoked a comforting image during a time of great national anxiety. As one listener recalled, it was like the president with his voice, came into your house, calling us friends.
In his first fireside chat, Roosevelt explained his recent decision to close all banks for an extended holiday. The stock market crash of 1929 left the American public and banks nervous and susceptible to rumors of impending financial disaster. In February and early March 1933, investors worried about bank failures created panics by rushing to cash out their deposits for currency or gold. FDR stepped in and forced the closure of all banks beginning March 6 until the rumors were dispelled and the situation could be stabilized. During the March 12 broadcast, FDR thanked the public for the fortitude and good temper with which everybody [accepted] the hardships of the banking holiday.
Not everyone cheered FDR’s bank closure. Some saw the action as an indicator of FDR’s eagerness to invoke executive privilege. However, the bank closure did avert yet another financial panic and FDR’s management of the crisis and his reassuring fireside chat boosted the public’s confidence in his leadership.