FDR’s Use of the Radio

Project team

Ray Anaya, Daisy Zhou, Yuan Hsiao, Shendy Kurnia



We attempt to investigate FDR’s use of the radio and compare our findings with Obama’s use of the internet. Our main research question is how did FDR’s use of the radio contributed to his political career success. Our approach is twofold. First we analyze distinct characteristics of the radio compared with other media. Second we analyze how FDR made use of the radio.

Our main argument is FDR used the radio to facilitate an “imagined community”. An imagined community means that people don’t personally know each other. However, in the minds of people lives the image of their communion, and have a sense of communion.

We found out that the radio media itself has the following advantages: First, it can address to a much larger scale of receivers than any precedent media. Second, the speech is sent directly to the mass. It prevented alteration by newspaper editors or local politicians. Third, the radio could address people who were illiterate or lived in areas not served by newspapers. Therefore, it supplemented the use of the newspaper.

Besides advantages of the media itself, FDR used the radio in a way that could facilitate “people’s imagination of belonging to a community.” We call this rhetorical power. When talking through the radio, rhetoric matter as much as the content itself. FDR made use of rhetorical power in the following ways: First he spoke in Standard English that could be understood by anyone, regardless of class or race. Second, he spoke in a much slower tone. While people speak at a tone of 175-200 words per minute, FDR spoke in a much slower 120 words per minute pace. This helped convey his messages clearly. Third, he used everyday analogies, stories and anecdotes to explain his thoughts rather than using complicated statistics or professional words. It helped make his points clear. Fourth, he spoke in a confident and family-like tone as if he were a confident, elderly family member. This helped people to identify with him. FDR made full use of rhetorical power.

The mass could give feedback to FDR through letters. They complimented FDR’s use of the radio which reinforced FDR’s role. A reciprocal relationship between FDR and the mass facilitated an imagined community.

Obama’s use of the internet is similar to that of the FDR. Obama used a variety of internet media to address to the mass directly and used rhetorical power similar to FDR (e.g. how he emphasized “change” in a passionate voice). Although Obama was a candidate while FDR was already elected president, both made full use of media power to construct an imagined community. This facilitation of imagined community made people feel that those in the political system were “near”, involved in their everyday lives rather than far away from them. This made the mass identify with them and hence support them.

To sum up, by understanding FDR’s use of the radio, we found out that media change not only has impact on the effectiveness of information flow, but also on how people imagine their social world. It changes people’s social lives fundamentally.

A future question to investigate is the role of the television. Between the use of the radio and the internet, the television also played an important part of media use. The differences between these three media are worth investigating.


1.  Winfield , Betty Houchin. FDR and the News Media. University of Illinois Press, 1990.

The relevant parts of this book we needed were the beginning of chapter six, “Other Mass Media,” which deals with FDR’s use of radio, and chapter two, which deals with his use of media in his first campaigns. For example, “Howe devised a campaign strategy to send thousands of “personal” letters from Roosevelt to farmers throughout the district” (13), and “A talking motion picture, still so new in 1930, was made as a campaign documentary” (18). Also of specific importance to our research topic is the precedent set by radio’s uses by Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, and Roosevelt’s experience with it in his gubernatorial campaign which allowed him to make fuller use of the medium than his predecessors.

2.  Levin, Linda Lotridge. The making of FDR : the story of Stephen T. Early, America’s first modern press secretary. Amherst, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 2008.

Stephen T. Early was immensely important to Roosevelt’s political career, as press secretary to a president whose image was dependent on the press. We focused on the sections relating to Roosevelt’s 1920 campaign as Coolidge’s running mate and later sections about the way Early handled press relations for the president. Most importantly, this source gave a sense of the different media available at the time through which the public connected to the President. For example, quotes like the following show the general environment of the new media at the time: “[Early] had come of age when wire services were developing into behemoth news-gathering agencies, their tentacles reaching around the world” (95)

3.  Woolley, John T. and Gerhard Peters. The American Presidency Project. Santa Barbara, CA: University of California (hosted), Gerhard Peters (database).

This project can be accessed at americanpresidency.org. Woolley and Peters compiled documents and studies related to the US presidency. We especially take a look at the documented FDR’s fireside chats (http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/fireside.php) for our research project. In particular, we look at how FDR’s sentences and his words choice. FDR used simple and straightforward words. His sentences were informative and confident. His chats are like from an older ordinary family member like grandfather. In short, the chats penetrated the barrier that had existed before between the elites and common people. For example, his first chat about bank could rebuild up people’s confidence on bank system. FDR explained honestly using simple words about what bank did with the customers’ money, and explained the impact if everyone took all their money out of the bank. Basically, this resource gives us an idea how FDR used the radio as a media that can be closed to his people; he knew the listeners were not all literate people for example, so he used simple words.

4.  Ryfe, David M. From media audience to media public: a study of letters written in reaction to FDR’s fireside chats. MEDIA CULTURE & SOCIETY 23, 2001.

The author studied the response letters from Americans to FDR’s fireside chats. This reading is important to our presentation because from the response letters we can see how effective and strong the impact of FDR’s fireside chats to the public. Also, from the randomly sampled 380 letters among the response letters of FDR’s 29 chats, this reading argues that the people responded collectively rather than personally. This argument strengthens our point about imagined community. Moreover, Ryfe explains that the media audience becomes media public that is the people became involved actively.

5.  Ryfe, David M. Franklin Roosevelt and the fireside chats. JOURNAL OF COMMUNICATION 49, 1999.

This article was very informative in regards to FDR’s fireside chats, explaining in great detail how each one was felt as if it were a ‘continuation’ of a previous one, and the various tools FDR employed to make people feel connected to him.  It also discussed how revolutionary of an idea all this was, and made a small amount of comparisons to Hoover’s administration and lack of harnassing the radio. Furthermore it also illustrated the concept of a “Media Event” and showed how the fireside chats fit all of the appropriate criteria as well as help promote the over-arcing theme of our research – the imagined community. FDR made everyone feel as though they were part of the solution and had a ‘direct line’ to the president of the United States.  The journal also then went on to describe the reciprocal nature of FDR and the public’s relationship through letters being sent to him would then influence his next speech (IE if he recieved many letters saying he spoke too fast, he would slow down).

6.  Alexander, Mary S. Dear Mr. President: Changing Media Environments and the Social Construction of the President . The Communication Review 8, 2005.

This article compares the letters written to former presidents of the US: Lincoln, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and London Johnson. It focuses on how the public gives feedback to the presidents by expressing their perception of the president. In this article, it also talks about “rhetorical power”, including its definition and content. This source inspired us on how rhetoric power can have a great effect on people’s lives. In our project, rhetorical power plays an extremely important role in facilitating a “Imagined Community”. Our notion of rhetorical power mainly comes from this source. We used the notion of rhetorical power under the structure of the imagined community.

7.  Brown, Robert J. Manipulationg the Ether: The power of Broadcast Radio in Thirties America. North Caralina: McFarland Books, 1998.

This source analyzes the power of broadcast radio in the thirties in the US. It starts from talking about FDR as “the radio president”. It includes how FDR used the radio in campaigns and while he was elected president. It points out various characteristics of FDR’s use of the radio, including a addressing to a much larger crowd, speaking in a much slower tone, covering places where the newspaper didn’t serve etc. This source is useful to us because it gives us a clear understanding of the characteristics of the radio and how FDR made full use of it. We also combined the elements in this source with the notion rhetorical power. It gives good examples of how FDR managed to express his “rhetorical power”.

8.  Reinsch, JL. Getting elected: from radio and Roosevelt to television and Reagan. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1988.

This source starts from FDR’s use of the radio to Reagan’s use of the television. It gives detailed description of how FDR used the radio in campaigns. It talks about lots of detailed events in the campaigns. We used this source mainly because a lot of events were related to the radio. For example, it described what issues FDR talked about by using the radio to talk to the mass. Then it describes how the politicians talked about FDR’s radio chat at the time. From this source, we could get a better picture of how people at the time viewed FDR’s use of the radio.

9.  Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London, New York: Verso, 1991.

Anderson talks about how the nation is an “imagined community.” It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion (6). (And) it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship (7). We used the notion of the “imagined community” as our main argument. This book gives us the original use of the author.

10.  Dannen, Chris. How Obama Won It With the Web. Fast Company. 4 Nov. 2008.


This source really enlightened us to the sheer number of tools that Obama’s campaign staff used in trying to reach the public. It briefly listed SMS/MMS texts, emails, social-networking sites such as my.BarackObama.com, and Apple iPhone applications.  It was where we obtained the phrase “Culture of belief in the Internet” – the idea that since it was on the internet and it was done in such an authoritative manner, that it simply must be true. The article goes on to indicate how Obama targeted the different demographics by using information delivery services that made each group feel more targetted, for instance by sending emails to older voters but SMS/MMS texts to younger ones. Lastly it also touched upon how these new methods also helped increase Obama’s revenue for his campaign, as tools like his social networking website allowed users to easily give donations via paypal or eWallet.

11.  Wagner, Mitch. Obama Election Ushering In First Internet Presidency. Information Week. 5 Apr. 2008.


This article was very similar to the one by Chris Dannen in that it mostly analyzed Obama’s use of the internet as well as new forms of media to promote his own campaign.  It did however state the fact that what TV was to the radio, in terms of allowing more connectivity to occur, the Internet is to the TV.  With the advent of youtube videos and ‘viral’ marketing schemes, Obama’s staff was able to get more people wrapped up in his campaign.  This is also where we got our quote from Joe Trippi on Obama’s creation of my.BarackObama.com as a social networking site.  It did go more in depth on his use of youtube and how more then 14.5 million hours were spent watching his ads from all over the world, allowing his staff to accurately see how many people actually watched his campaign commercials (as well as allowing him the luxury of NOT having to advertise on television).

Other Sources:

1.  Han, Gang K. New Media Use, Sociodemographics, and Voter Turnout in the 2000 Presidential Election . Mass Communication and Society 11, 2008.


2.  Wikipedia


3.  The Great Communicator: How FDR’s Radio Speeches Shaped American History-abstract


4.  Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats


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