U.S. Presidential Fireside Chats

By | March 12, 2020

[March 12, 2020]  Rudyard Kipling once said that words are the most powerful drug used by mankind.  He was talking about how communication is the peak human achievement, and our use of it is unimaginably powerful.  Many decades ago, beginning in the Great Depression, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt used the new radio medium to connect to millions of Americans.  We know them today as fireside chats.

On this date, March 12, 1933, and eight days after his inauguration, President Roosevelt (or FDR for short) gave his first national radio address.1  Called fireside chats, FDR began them with the phrase, “I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States.”  His first fireside chat was about banking and his explanation of his recent decision to close the nation’s banks to stop a surge in mass withdrawals by panicked investors.

At the time of this first radio announcement, the U.S. was at the lowest point of the Great Depression, with nearly a third of the workforce unemployed.  FDR used the fireside chats as a method to ease fears and to inspire confidence in his leadership.  He delivered more than 30 of these broadcasts between March 1933 and June 1944.  His broadcasts reached nearly 90 percent of American households that owned a radio.

Broadcast journalist Robert Trout coined the phrase “fireside chat” to describe Roosevelt’s radio addresses.  By doing so, it invoked an image of the president sitting by a fire in a living room, speaking earnestly to the American people.2  FDR took great care to make sure each address was accessible and understandable to ordinary Americans.  He did this regardless of their level of education.  He used folksy anecdotes to explain the often complex issues facing the country.  Current U.S. President Trump uses Twitter to do something similar to get his message across.

FDR strove for unequivocal clarity in what he was trying to say.  When leaders speak and take action, it is done in a clear, concise, and vigorous manner.  There is no room to be misunderstood or for distorting what is said.  While lessons from FDR’s fireside chats may be obvious, being unequivocally clear can be difficult.  A good leader is focused, ethically grounded, and possess a good understanding of human psychology.

Nothing is more important to humans than the spoken word.  When leaders talk, people listen, and only by the speaking can a leader do those things required.  The spoken word is like the oil that lubricates a machine; it allows the entire mechanism to function correctly… like the organizations in which people work.  And, from the unity of communications, comes increased morale and esprit de corps – the knowledge humans have that tells them they are not alone and supported by others.

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  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fireside_chats
Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

19 thoughts on “U.S. Presidential Fireside Chats

  1. Bill Sanders, Jr.

    One of the most difficult of problems any senior leader has had to overcome in the past and today is the bias inflicted thru corrupt ideologies. Today it’s communism and socialism. These ideologies have been around a long time and their destructive power is evident wherever you look. But they persist. That is why leaders must verbalize using all means why they don’t work.

    Reply
    1. Doc Blackshear

      I never really thought of it that way, Bill, so thanks for bringing this up. Ideologies are both destructive and hard to get rid of. Just look at the flatearth society and how it continues to hang on despite centuries of proof to the contrary.

      Reply
  2. Joe Omerrod

    Interesting that you would pick US President Roosevelt’s fireside chats as a modern equivalent to leveraging “modern” technology for the purposes of better communication. This idea that the more communication the better is a modernistic concept and I don’t think all that satisfactory in the ‘old days.’ For example, the leader’s intent (or whatever they called it back then) was all that mattered. Too much was at stake to have such a topdown structure like we have today. Any way, just my thinking.

    Reply
    1. Ronny Fisher

      Crazy!
      Get out the popcorn.
      People are freaking out.
      Is this the end of days? Well, of course not.
      👍👍👍👍

      Reply
    2. Big Al

      Travel bans grow amid warnings viral pandemic will worsen
      Interesting times. Better have enough toilet paper (ha ha ha). Oh, that’s not so funny when you have to —– well, you know.

      Reply
  3. Valkerie

    Enjoyed today’s article General Satterfield. Thank you. Now I have something to talk about at work.

    Reply
  4. Max Foster

    A few years ago, I had a boss that used typing paper to get his message across to us. Each morning when I came to work, there laying on my desk and the desks of others, a message handwritten that gave us each an idea of where he thought the company was going and how we were part of it. I thought he was just an old foggie but after I left, I actually missed his ideas. Just goes to show us that adopting new technology is not always the answer but that old fashioned was also work just as well. We just have to use it.

    Reply
    1. Santa Fe Mae

      Maybe that’s why newspaper are still refusing to die as a communication medium. They still work! 👍

      Reply
    2. Lynn Pitts

      Yep, thanks Max. I think we often overlooked what has happened in the past successfully because we think we are so much smarter and better than ‘those people’ in the past. We are just the same with the same wants and desires.

      Reply
      1. Mark Evans

        Lynn, your right and we are not smarter than those of the past and in fact I would argue we are less “educated” from an academic perspective. Today’s public education system is dumbed down to the lowest denominator.

        Reply
    3. JT Patterson

      Thanks for sharing this story. I’m sure that many of us can relate to what you’re saying here. But the message that any means to communicate is acceptable even if old or new. If it works, use it.

      Reply
  5. Kenny Foster

    “Unequivocal clarity” what better way to say it. If you want to be a leader then use all means to get your message across, do it repeatedly, and keep it simple (the KISS principle).

    Reply
    1. Georgie B.

      Kenny, correct but not so easy to do. Easy is not the leaders path, the path a leader takes is one that is often lonely and deviates from the norms of the day. Too bad we don’t have that kind of persona today with our ‘elite’ politicians who are more interested in their political party’s power than in the American people.

      Reply
    2. Nick Lighthouse

      Yes, good article on communication and HOW to get ‘er done!

      Reply
  6. Harry Donner

    FDR is famous for many things but the fireside chats on the new medium of radio is what really got him to get so well known and liked. Just like Trump, he used a new technology to his advantage to connect to the people.

    Reply
    1. Jerome Smith

      The only thing that FDR didn’t do was use the radio more to get more info across.

      Reply
    2. Greg Heyman

      Right Harry. Pres Roosevelt was a great strategist (although I don’t like all what he did like welfare forever). Using radio was a strategic decision and he should be recognized for what he did with it. Radio became a dominant force in America until television arrived but has remained a major factor in our lives.

      Reply
      1. Yusaf from Texas

        That is what leadership does when applied appropriately.

        Reply

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