FDR and WGY: The Origins of the Fireside Chats

On March 12, 1933, eight days after taking the oath of office, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took his place behind national radio network microphones to deliver what is commonly considered the first of his celebrated “fireside chats.” His paternal, colloquial broadcasting style helped soothe a troubled nation’s fears. The people responded by mail in overwhelming numbers and continued to do so with each successive fireside chat. Roosevelt placed great value on such correspondence; he used it as a tool for gauging public opinion and for countering political and press opponents who disapproved of his actions.[1]

Roosevelt’s ability to clarify issues and connect with his constituents over the radio was not a sudden, propitious addition to his political war chest on becoming president. Roosevelt had actually spent the previous four years, while serving as governor of New York, refining his broadcasting skills. As a woman in Oneonta, New York, wrote in response to the presidential fireside chat of March 12, 1933: “My husband and I are happy because you have decided to continue the policy you adopted while at Albany of speaking to the people over the air.”[2]

Many historians have established a connection between Roosevelt’s initiatives during the New York years and the New Deal he later offered Americans during his presidency. A similar continuity between the two periods is evident in his use of radio as a means of advancing his ideas and mustering public support for his initiatives. During his two gubernatorial terms, Roosevelt found that the reaction elicited by his radio addresses was useful as leverage to skirt an obstructionist Republican legislature.[3] He also came to see such reaction as a means of weighing popular opinion. Though many scholars have acknowledged Roosevelt’s mastery of the medium and the significance of his judicious use of the airwaves during his presidency, his early employment of radio as a political forum has been largely overlooked.

This paper will examine the relationship between a burgeoning broadcasting industry and New York State politics during the early years of the Great Depression. The focus is on one radio station, General Electric’s WGY in Schenectady. WGY’s technological pioneering and programming innovations placed the station in an influential position, particularly within the context of a developing national network system. Roosevelt chose the high-powered WGY as his primary venue for “taking the issues to the people.”[4]

Roosevelt gave at least 39 gubernatorial radio addresses, and at least 29 of those were given either exclusively over WGY or over a limited network of New York State stations WGY had founded.[5] During this period, Roosevelt began developing the simple, conversational style that characterized his better-known presidential fireside chats and that stimulated such voluminous national public reaction. The New York public, including many Mohawk Valley area residents, responded to Roosevelt’s gubernatorial chats as well. The letters he received from New Yorkers illuminate Depression-era conditions and indicate an early instance of the intimate bond established between Roosevelt and his listeners. The first “fireside chats” were in fact delivered on WGY, thus placing the station and the Mohawk Valley at an important intersection in the history of American political broadcasting.

At the time of Roosevelt’s gubernatorial inauguration in 1929, the radio industry was just beginning to mature, and the medium’s unique unifying strength was becoming apparent. As Americans gathered around their sets, eagerly eavesdropping on distant transmissions, they became conscious of their part in a shared experience, first as citizens, later of a nation. As historians Michelle Hilmes and Jason Loviglio have noted, the strain of the Depression contributed to radio’s emergence as “an ideal symbol for national togetherness” as people sought a return to traditional community values “in the face of daunting social and economic uncertainty.”[6] Radio listening was also a highly personal, immediate experience that reduced the limitations of geographical separation to forge new, wider notions of community. A resident of remote Saranac Lake could now hear Roosevelt’s live voice “up here in my little shack,” as he spoke. “It seemed as if you were sitting here talking to me.” Radio brought the outside world in, so that its listeners were at once individuals as well as part of a larger audience.

In the Mohawk Valley, the ether first miraculously crackled to life at 7:47 p.m. on February 20, 1922. “This is station WGY. W, the first letter in wireless; G, the first letter in General Electric; and Y, the last letter in Schenectady.” With those words, Program Manager Kolin Hager officially signed WGY on the air and ushered upstate New York into the radio age. WGY’s first broadcasts demonstrated radio’s inherent ability to provoke public reaction. According to Hager, the station received “substantial listener mail within the first few weeks.” Meanwhile, Mohawk Valley residents rushed to buy receivers in unanticipated numbers. Hager recalled: “From then on, staging the unseen became a fascinating seven-days-a-week job, generally from 8 a.m. to late evening.”[7]

In the early 1920s, radio stations did not rely on prerecorded music as they commonly do today. Most broadcasts were performed live. Therefore, radio stations had to have talent. Managers had to create a variety of distinctive programming with mass appeal. WGY was a leader in the development of a program format that would become a hallmark of radio’s golden age—the radio drama.[8] Meanwhile, the difficulty in securing the talent necessary for a diversity of programming led to further innovations.

Listeners soon discovered that better programming could be found on stations in far-off metropolitan markets. Individual stations began to realize that the sharing of resources was a convenient means of filling schedules with quality features. WGY had been experimenting with remote broadcasting from the outset. The station soon had wired connections with outlets in New York City and Washington, D.C., and began exchanging programs with those stations. WGY sent drama to the larger cities, and received musical and variety programs in return. In 1925, Hager initiated the first upstate network, successfully fostering a partnership with WFBL in Syracuse, WHAM in Rochester, and WMAK in Buffalo. This limited network was a precursor of the huge national chains to come, and would frequently be utilized by Franklin D. Roosevelt.[9]

Wired networks built for telephone communications offered the most efficient means of providing national coverage. The telephone giant AT&T; had an established infrastructure that it used for its radio transmissions, but charged other large radio interests like General Electric, Westinghouse, and RCA exorbitant rates or denied them access to the technology altogether. For AT&T;’s competitors, two other solutions remained: “super-power stations” and shortwave networking.[10] General Electric’s WGY experimented with both possibilities.

In 1925 WGY became the first station to broadcast at 50,000 watts. WGY began broadcasting “simultaneously” with one of General Electric’s two shortwave transmitters at Schenectady. Shortwave transmissions can be picked up with greater clarity over longer distances than typical longwave AM transmissions. The station successfully experimented with global signal relays, and gained an international audience.[11]

WGY’s experiments advanced the technological expertise of the broadcasting industry, but in the end were rendered unnecessary for national networking. Through a 1926 compromise, AT&T; withdrew from the radio business and agreed to lease its lines to the newly formed National Broadcasting Company. WGY became one of the first NBC affiliates. By this time, Hager had extended his wired network to Cleveland, with plans to add a station in Chicago and eventually expand to the Pacific coast. When WGY joined NBC, his hopes of being the first to create a coast-to-coast network were dashed. Nonetheless, WGY had established itself as an influential broadcasting innovator. Its reputation, extraordinarily high power, networking, and proximity to Albany likely attracted the attention of Franklin Roosevelt as he assumed the governorship in 1929.[12]

But this was not all the station had to offer a politician like Roosevelt, who saw himself as champion of the well-being of citizens in every locality, large or small, and every walk of life. One early criticism of network broadcasting was that it limited local stations’ ability to provide regionally distinctive content. This was not true for WGY. While WGY did carry many network favorites, the station dedicated a good portion of its day to programming of local interest. Farm Forum of the Air, a program dedicated to agricultural discussion and education, was perhaps the most significant. In 1930 more than 30 percent of the Mohawk Valley’s population lived in rural areas. The plight of the state’s rural residents was one of the first problems Roosevelt confronted as governor, and encouraged his use of radio.[13]

An agricultural depression had hit New York State long before the stock market crash of 1929, and had been going on for years. In 1920, following a period of wartime overproduction, agricultural prices plummeted. Industry experienced a similar destabilization, but unlike the agricultural sector, quickly rebounded. By the end of the decade, farmers—particularly in New York State where the farm product price index was higher than the national average—continued to languish. The governor appointed an Agricultural Advisory Commission to investigate conditions and propose solutions. On March 7, 1929, Roosevelt spoke on the WGY network in his first fireside chat. The talk centered on rural relief.[14]

In his chat, Roosevelt reported on the commission’s findings and recommendations. Using simple, direct language, he sought to orient urban residents to rural problems: “If you stop to think a moment, you will realize that the prosperity of our town dwellers depends a great deal upon the prosperity of our farmers, because most of our town dwellers earn their living directly or indirectly either by making things to sell or by selling things which other people make, and prosperous farmers mean many customers and increased incomes to all.”

Adopting a stance that would characterize many of his gubernatorial chats, he encouraged cooperation and asserted nonpartisan intentions: “I want to correct a misunderstanding which seems to have grown up in some places, that this is a party question.” The Republican press and legislature had fostered the “misunderstanding.” The commission’s plan was well founded. The GOP majority, in fear of giving up the initiative in staunchly Republican upstate districts to a Democratic governor, had offered different proposals.[15]

Roosevelt outlined both plans, and asked for the people’s input: “This makes it very important that all citizens of the State understand clearly just what these proposals are, and that they make it clear to their representatives in the Legislature which way they think is the best to bring about better times for our rural districts.”[16] It is clear that Roosevelt was encouraged by the opportunity radio gave him to present his position directly to the public, free from what he saw as the distortion and criticism of the legislature and the press.

Before the close of the 1929 legislative session, the governor returned to the WGY network three times. On April 3, Roosevelt sat down with the people of the state to report on the progress of the session. Again, he asserted non-partisan intentions, but went on to criticize the Republicans for their failure to adhere to their announced party platform and railed against the obstructionist “despotic rule of the chairmen of important committees” through which “bill after bill has been buried … and the majority of the members of the majority party have been merely rubber stamps to register other august wills.” In his conclusion, Roosevelt challenged the people to make it clear to their representatives “that they are to be more than dummies voting ‘AYE’ or ‘NO’ dutifully when told to do so.”[17]

The public responded, as Roosevelt noted when he returned to the air a week later to resume his discourse on the legislative session: “I am tremendously encouraged by the expressions of interest that have come to me from all over the State as a result of my informal talk last week.” He slyly noted, however, that “a few of my friends in the press” had misunderstood. “They think it inconceivable that a Democratic Governor should not be trying to play politics on behalf of a Democratic Legislature.” Roosevelt reasserted his innocence: “I hope that from now on there will be no further open or veiled suggestions that I am seeking any party advantage in giving these brief talks on definite facts to the people of the State.”[18]

Roosevelt’s first fireside chats set several precedents. He had used radio in an attempt to contest his political opponents. This tactic was also applied to critical newspapers.[19] Further, he had appealed directly to the people and requested their active participation. This had the desired effect, as Roosevelt himself had noted in his chat of April 10. Roosevelt’s personal secretary Grace Tully recalled that he later specifically implemented this plan. She wrote: “Fed up with the pulling and hauling of customary political bargaining, he declared curtly: ‘I’ll take the issue to the people….’ He did, by radio over a New York State chain, and the results were immediate. Mail came flooding into Albany, most of it in support of the Roosevelt position and most of it addressed to the working level of the legislature. It was a convincing demonstration and from that time on F.D.R. made it a more or less regular practice to take his problems ‘to the people’ in this manner.”[20]

Roosevelt’s presentation was perhaps the most significant development of the first fireside chats.[21] He realized that addressing people over the radio—attempting to make a personal connection with them as they listened in their homes—was distinctly different from addressing a large crowd in a public place. Roosevelt adopted an informal, fatherly tone. Speaking in measured phrases, he carefully clarified his points without condescension. He incorporated colloquialisms, thus associating himself the common listener. He injected humor, deploring the “grave-yard” of bills that had been buried in committee, and quipping that “I am almost disposed to recommend in next year’s budget some sort of marble shaft with ‘gone but not forgotten’ or some such motto chiseled upon it to be erected over the lamented remains.” Roosevelt had certainly not perfected his style at this point; his pacing was faster and his chats were longer than they would be in the future. But he was aware that if he lost listeners’ attention, they could shut him off with the twist of a knob. Therefore, Roosevelt focused each chat on one central topic. When the issue required particularly lengthy explanation, he divided his address into two separate chats.[22]

He was also conscious of broadcasters’ constraints. Proper timing was essential to radio station scheduling, particularly in network situations where more than one outlet was involved. In addition, last-minute requests for airtime could be troublesome for stations. In separate letters to Hager and General Electric’s Director of Publicity and Radio Martin P. Rice, Roosevelt acknowledged the difficulties associated with such requests and expressed his gratitude for their accommodations. Shortly thereafter, perhaps as a result of thinking about the timing issue, the governor began scheduling his broadcasts more strategically, to coincide with important legislative debates and possibly also to avoid overexposure. For the remainder of his time in Albany, as well as during his presidency, Roosevelt would continue his calculated scheduling of focused chats at opportune moments.[23]

Roosevelt was confident that radio provided an effective means of reaching the people. In his fireside chat of April 10, Roosevelt explicitly stated that he had gone to radio “to help the voters up-State, particularly in those districts where they have no daily newspapers to keep them constantly informed, to understand just what had been done.” Roosevelt intended to politically educate the masses. Historian Betty Houchin Winfield states: “The radio became New York’s classroom.”[24]

At this point, an attempt to determine the number of pupils in Roosevelt’s “classroom” would have yielded a rough approximation at best. Ratings systems had not been developed.[25] By July 1930, Roosevelt had broadcasted on WGY or its network at least twelve times. As the 1930 campaign season got under way, Roosevelt clearly considered radio an important campaigning tool, but he wanted data on station reach and listenership.

On July 8, State Democratic Committee Chairman James Farley sent a questionnaire to the heads of each county Democratic committee polling them on WGY’s coverage and effectiveness. Of the forty chairmen who responded, thirty-six reported that the governor’s WGY speeches were heard “distinctly under normal conditions.” Herkimer County Chairman Alexander Robinton reported: “WGY is the best broadcasting station, from the standpoint of reception, in Central New York. It is clear and distinct, even under the most adverse conditions, on practically any sort of radio a person might have…. From my own experience I am of the belief that the Governor’s talks over the radio are one of the greatest aids in vote getting.”[26] Roosevelt surely shared this opinion, for he returned to WGY in October, at the height of the campaign.

On October 9, he asserted his efficient, “businesslike” approach to administration. In response to insinuations of a wasteful executive budget, he reviewed the progress of the past two years, including highway and public facility improvements, all of which had been accomplished without tax increases. As was his habit, he encouraged the people’s reaction: “Here is an open challenge to any person in this State of New York who thinks the State is spending too much money. Tell me where you think the State should cut down.”[27]

On October 16, Roosevelt responded to the “many letters, telephones and telegrams asking [him] to keep on speaking” by delivering his third WGY fireside chat of that week. The following day, an Albany Times-Union editorial provided an insider’s perspective, illuminating Roosevelt’s personality, style, and purpose:

If television were perfected, thousands who listened in last night … would have seen their Governor seated comfortably behind his big desk in the Executive Mansion, flashing his characteristic smile with each sally, shaking his head for emphasis over a good point…. They would see him settling down into an earnest plea to “lend a hand” and his mouth set with determination…. Taking his radio audience into his confidence the Governor leans forward just a little to make a scathing jibe…. And turning away from the mike, the Governor gives a boyish smile of “that was a good one….” Slyly taking a quote from a Republican campaign speech, he pours a bit of polished satire into the “mike.” Leaning back, straightening his broad shoulders … and with the same grimly amused glint in his eyes and the same “well you understand how ridiculous it is” smile, the Governor pokes fun at his opponents for his unseen audience. Then he anticipates. He keeps the air still for a second. His eyes narrow and he launches an attack…. When the half hour is over and incidentally Governor Roosevelt is pleased as a boy when he hits the broadcast time nail exactly on the head, he settles back to talk in that same smooth musical voice radio listeners and critics have come to admire.[28]

A few weeks later, the voters of the state decisively demonstrated their confidence in Roosevelt. They reelected him in a landslide. The Democratic governor carried his upstate Republican “classroom” by a margin of 165,000 votes. Roosevelt’s magnetic personality and political savvy, masterfully exhibited and amplified by his use of radio, had helped secure victory.[29]

During his second term, the governor maintained his strategy of appealing to the public over WGY. The 1931 resolution of an issue spanning more than twenty years of party wrangling exemplifies Roosevelt’s faith in the value of public opinion. The debate centered on the development of water power plants on the St. Lawrence River. After the assembly finally passed the legislation required to launch the project, the Republicans introduced an amendment stripping the governor of the privilege of appointing State Power Authority trustees. Roosevelt was chagrined and announced that he would make a direct appeal to the people over WGY. The Republicans backed down, and withdrew the contentious amendment.[30]

Despite his victory, Roosevelt delivered his scheduled fireside chat, which had been toned down to what the Albany Times-Union characterized as “a winner’s explanation.” In his conclusion, Roosevelt reiterated: “The influence of a handful of political leaders is strong and so is the influence of private corporations … but stronger than all of these put together is the influence of Mr. And Mrs. Average Voter … public opinion when it understands a policy and supports it is bound to win in the long run.”[31]

In 1931 Roosevelt was already seen as the frontrunner for the following year’s Democratic presidential nomination, but publicly he remained focused on state issues.[32] For the remainder of the year and into 1932, he periodically turned to WGY and its network to discuss such matters. However, on April 7, 1932, with the presidential campaign in sight, Roosevelt returned to WGY for a nationwide broadcast on the NBC Red network in which he addressed issues of national significance. This chat, perhaps the best known from Roosevelt’s time in Albany, has come to be called the “Forgotten Man” speech.

Speaking as a representative of the Democratic National Committee, Roosevelt briefly outlined the necessity of a “national program of restoration.” He concentrated his chat on three “vital factors”: renewal of farmers’ financial solvency, provision of aid to small banks and homeowners, and revision of United States tariff policies. Roosevelt appealed to the sensibilities of the average citizen: “These unhappy times call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power … that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.” As he would often do in his future radio addresses, Roosevelt concluded his chat by calling upon the nation’s resolve: “It is high time to admit with courage that we are in the midst of an emergency at least equal to that of war. Let us mobilize to meet it.”[33]

This national broadcast provided a valuable opportunity for Roosevelt to present his ideas and exhibit his personality. He rose to the occasion with a masterful demonstration of the frank, accessible, explanatory approach he had honed through numerous WGY talks. Within a year, Roosevelt would be in the White House, confident in the efficacy of this tactic for winning public support. Further, he came to rely on the people’s responses to his fireside chats as a means of measuring public opinion. He knew Americans would write to him. New Yorkers had been doing so for four years.

From the beginning, radio listeners tended to respond to programming by writing letters. As previously noted, WGY received a large quantity of mail in reaction to its first broadcasts. This may be the result of listeners’ desire to participate in a novel communicative process. Relegated to the unfamiliar role of “eavesdroppers,” the audience’s only means of interaction with the speakers they heard was to write to them. Moreover, in the absence of formal ratings systems, radio stations and networks relied upon and encouraged listener response to estimate audience size, demographics, and taste.[34]

Roosevelt adopted the same technique. In addition, the governor’s radio style likely stimulated correspondence. Historian Robert S. McElvaine states that Roosevelt “gave many people a feeling that he was their personal friend and protector, that they could tell him things in confidence.” Historians Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner concur: “These people sincerely believed that Roosevelt would listen to their problems… . Listeners felt that he was communicating personally with them. Why, then, should they not write personally to him?”[35]

Roosevelt’s gubernatorial fireside chats had clearly had this effect. On October 25, 1932, a Gloversville man wrote: “I have read and listened to your talks and in all, you seem so plainly understood, by all, that is why I write this letter. I am a poor and almost destitute man. For the passed three years I have been very very unfortunate. I have lost my home, or all the home I had…. We don’t want to become objects of charity. We are desperately in need and must have work if we are to live.”[36]

Concern for family and children was a frequent topic of letters to Roosevelt. On December 19, 1931, a Mohawk man wrote:

I am asking a great favor of you at this time i have a boy 16 years of age … we ar living on bread and coffee and have a few pattoes as this is all we can afford and the only way we have of getting back and forth is a truck and i have no money to get my licens Plates and if i don’t get some will have to keep that boy out of school … i am asking you for 24.00 dollars to by licens … i hope you will kindley thing this over as i would like to give this boy a chance as i never had aney schooling … and i find it a bad handicap at getting aney work at presend so if you will kindley think of me and my boy i will call myself and repay you someday.

Pleas for financial help were common. Mohawk Valley area residents often sacrificed their pride to request loans or ask for direct assistance in finding employment. On June 22, 1932, another Gloversville man wrote: “I am desperately in need of work and I am asking you if there is any possible chance of you helping me out…. My wife & baby are in Johnstown and I am in g-ville and if I can get work, I can get my family and home together again and God knows I want to do that and what is right.” A Bridgewater woman pleaded for a $3,500 loan to settle the outstanding debt on her farm. An October 9, 1932, letter from a Utica woman read: “I am writting you a few lines as I know you are a poor mans friend I am old and not abel to work…. I have a chance to buy 5 acers of land for $500.00 dollars and that will give me a nice range for chickens … so hoping yous will send me this amount.”

It was not in Roosevelt’s power to intervene personally in every citizen’s affairs; thus in a sense the intimacy of the fireside chats was illusory. However, most if not all letters appear to have received replies written by members of the governor’s staff. The responses frequently conveyed Roosevelt’s sympathy and explained his inability to offer direct assistance. The practice of replying to listener mail continued through Roosevelt’s presidency, when White House mail reached unprecedented volumes. Farley recalled: “We went on the theory, gained from hard experience in New York State, that people love the personal touch; they delight in believing there is a close link between them and the folk who run the show.”[37]

As millions would do in response to Roosevelt’s presidential fireside chats, the public often wrote the governor to compliment him on his radio addresses and express their opinions. The following excerpts of letters from Mohawk Valley area residents demonstrate this:

I listened to your radio address last evening and it was fine…. You have converted one Republican.
Just listened to your wonderful talk to the people of the state over the Radio wish I could find words to express the impression it made on me your plain words and sincere tone sure was wonderful it must be a Rosevelt characteristic to want to understand the people and have the people understand you.
I heard your fine speech over the radio on Tuesday with much pleasure. The able way you answered the insinuations and claims against you … certainly was masterly & manly.
My congratulations for your very fine Radio speech of last evening. The reception was perfect your subject matter of equal value, and a delivery that carried a conviction to the heart. Indications point towards one of the biggest Democratic victories of all times.

It is difficult to determine whether the governor engaged in formal analysis of his mail to estimate public opinion. However, his own comments indicate that he did get some impression of prevailing sentiment from the contents of his mail. Further, Roosevelt acknowledged the importance of public opinion in affecting the outcome of political contests even beyond the ballot box. During his presidency, a system was developed to catalogue and categorize public reaction according to issue and opinion. Roosevelt read randomly selected letters and called occasional mail briefs so he could be apprised of what the people were thinking.[38]

Having learned the value of public opinion while in Albany, Roosevelt continued to schedule his fireside chats to correspond with important legislative debates. As he told an advisor, “All we have to do is to let the flood of mail settle on Congress … and the opposition will be beating a path to the White House door.” Roosevelt adhered to his strategy of educating his constituents through the radio; moreover, the conversational technique he had developed helped inspire confidence during the later trials of the Depression and the Second World War.[39]

As Roosevelt kept the people informed and buoyed their spirits, in addition to letters, they responded at the polls. Just as radio provided Roosevelt with a means of converting Upstate Republicans in his landslide 1930 gubernatorial victory, so too would the medium continue to affect election results during the decade to follow. Farley believed that “the influence of the radio in determining the outcome of the 1936 election can hardly be overestimated.” Radio has also been credited with increased overall voter turnout. Between 1920 and 1940, as radio ownership increased, the number of ballots cast in national elections nearly doubled.[40]

Radio revolutionized the political process. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s role in this transformation began in earnest with his gubernatorial fireside chats over WGY. The station provided Roosevelt with a respected venue as well as the means for statewide delivery of his broadcasts. The parallel between Roosevelt and WGY is striking. Both had the prescience to recognize the potential of a new, largely untested form of mass communication. Both innovated out of necessity. If Roosevelt considered the homes of New York State radio listeners his classroom, WGY was his blackboard. And he too was a student. Radio was his classroom; his listeners were his instructors.

Roosevelt consistently relied on WGY and the network it had created to aid him in advancing his political agenda. In the process, he adopted the broadcasting style that forged an unusually deep emotional bond with his constituents. He depended on this—and on them—throughout his presidency. Thus emerged the Roosevelt mystique that helped strengthen the determination of millions of Americans during two of the direst emergencies the nation has experienced. That mystique lingers to this day. Roosevelt’s early use of radio had a profound impact on the way the electronic media shape our perception of ourselves and the world in which we live, as well as on how we make our individual political decisions.

1.� Lawrence W. Levine and Cornelia R. Levine, The People and the President: America’s Conversation with FDR (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 2002), 5–6, 10.
2.� Original manuscripts of all quoted public reaction to Roosevelt’s presidential fireside chats can be found in President’s Personal File 200, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, N.Y. Correspondence in the President’s Personal File is organized according to topic (in this case, specifically public reaction to speeches), then by date of the speech, then alphabetically by the correspondents’ last names.
3.� Leila A. Sussmann, Dear FDR: A Study of Political Letter Writing (Totowa, N.J.: The Bedminster Press, 1963), 74; Grace Tully: F.D.R.: My Boss (New York; Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1949), 88; Samuel I. Rosenman, Working with Roosevelt (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1952), 39.
4.� Tully, 88.
5.� Statistics regarding the number of Roosevelt’s gubernatorial radio address and the stations on which they aired have been drawn from Franklin D. Roosevelt, Public Papers of Governor Roosevelt, Master Speech File: Box 6, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, N.Y., and from radio schedules and speech coverage published in various Mohawk Valley area newspapers.
6.� Michelle Hilmes and Jason Loviglio, eds., introduction to Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio, (New York: Routledge, 2002), xi.
7.� WGY Program Log, February 20, 1922, Schenectady Museum, Schenectady, N.Y.; “WGY: A History of Radio,” promotional publication, WGY Ephemera, Schenectady Museum, Schenectady, N.Y., 1; “The Reminiscences of Kolin Hager,” 1960, Columbia University Oral History Research Office Collection; “Radio Craze Unexpected, 3,” Schenectady Gazette, Feb. 27, 1922.
8.� Hager, 5–6; “The Reminiscences of Rosaline Greene,” 1959, Columbia University Oral History Research Office Collection, 7.
9.� Susan Smulyan, Selling Radio: The Commercialization of American Broadcasting, 1920–1934 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994), 19, 101; Hager, 4, 8, 15. Hager recalled that WGY had wire connections to Albany churches, hotels, and theaters, and thus conducted live broadcasts of services, orchestras, etc. The first WGY “outside pickup” occurred three days after the station’s sign-on and featured a speech given at Union College in Schenectady by New York State Governor Nathan Miller, presumably the first politician to broadcast on the station.
10.� Smulyan, 38–42.
11.� “WGY: A History of Radio,” 3–4. WGY conducted experiments at 100,000 watts in 1927, and 200,000 watts in 1930; WGY History Press Release, General Electric News Releases on Radio/TV Development, 1932–1937, Schenectady Museum, Schenectady, N.Y. The shortwave technology developed by General Electric and WGY was later used by WGY in exclusive communication with Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic expeditions, and in transmitting broadcasts to Europe during WWII.
12.� Tom Lewis, Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (New York: Edward Burlingame Books, 1991), 178; Smulyan, 58–59. There were actually two NBC networks—NBC Red and NBC Blue. WGY was an NBC Red affiliate. As they developed, NBC Red became the more popular and featured heavy commercial content, while NBC Blue consisted of mostly “unsponsored public-service programming and classical music.” Smulyan, 102; Hager, 17–18.
13.� Smulyan, 30–31; For an informative discussion of Farm Forum and WGY’s importance to regional rural residents, see Jean Hanavan, “Radio and Rural Life: A Case Study of WGY and Otsego County” (master’s thesis, Cooperstown Graduate Program, 1989); The percentage of rural Mohawk Valley residents has been calculated from statistics provided by The University of Virginia Library, Geostat Center: Collections, Historical Census Browser, http://fisher.lib.virginia.edu/collections/stats/histcensus (accessed 02/19/06). I have defined the Mohawk Valley as a ten-county region comprised of Albany, Fulton, Herkimer, Madison, Montgomery, Oneida, Otsego, Saratoga, Schenectady, and Schoharie counties.
14.� Bernard Bellush, Franklin D. Roosevelt as Governor of New York (New York: Columbia University Press, 1955), 76–78; Franklin D. Roosevelt, radio address, March 7, 1929, transcript in Papers as Governor of New York State, Master Speech File: Box 6, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, N.Y. Hereafter, FDR’s radio addresses will be cited simply by date.
15.� Roosevelt, March 7, 1929; Bellush, 78.
16.� Roosevelt, March 7, 1929.
17.� Roosevelt, March 7, 1929, April 3, 1929. Although the address of April 3, 1929 was FDR’s third gubernatorial radio address, historian Frank Freidel asserts that this was the first fireside chat. Frank Freidel, Franklin D. Roosevelt: The Triumph (New York.: Little, Brown, 1956), 61. Elliot Roosevelt describes this address as “the precursor of the fireside chat.” Elliot Roosevelt, ed., F.D.R.: His Personal Letters, 1928–1945, vol. 1 (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1950), 59.
18.� Roosevelt, April 10, 1929.
19.� Betty Houchin Winfield, FDR and the News Media (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 17.
20.� Tully, 88–89.
21.� It is possible that Roosevelt had learned from observing his predecessor and political mentor Alfred E. Smith. Christopher M. Finan states that Smith used radio to counter the legislature, that General Electric first “wired the governor’s office” for this purpose, and that the people responded with “‘a wagonload of mail.'” Christopher M. Finan, Alfred E. Smith: The Happy Warrior (New York: Hill and Wang, 2002), 189. Hager recalled that Smith broadcasted on WGY several times and that he had coached Smith on his delivery. “He contributed much to enrich radio from an honest political education standpoint and was keenly aware of the impact of his down-to-earth discussions. BUT I never succeeded in changing his pronouncing radio—as raddio!” Hager, 8 (emphases are Hager’s). Hager makes no mention of FDR’s WGY broadcasts. Historian Douglas B. Craig cites Smith’s accent as “a major liability,” but describes his style as “warm and natural.” Douglas B. Craig, Fireside Politics: Radio and Political Culture in the United States, 1920–1940 (Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 149. Frank Freidel, however, characterizes Smith’s radio addresses as “political brimstone.” Freidel, 61.
22.� Freidel, 61; Craig, 142, 170; Roosevelt, March 27, 1929; Ibid., April 10, 1929; Russell D. Buhite and David W. Levy, eds., FDR’s Fireside Chats (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), xv.
23.� Franklin D. Roosevelt to Kolin Hager, April 4, 1929 and Franklin D. Roosevelt to Martin P. Rice, April 4, 1929, copies of original letters in Franklin D. Roosevelt, Papers as Governor of New York, Series 1: Box 83, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, N.Y.; Franklin D. Roosevelt to Louis M. Howe, May 15, 1929, F.D.R.: His Personal Letters, 1928–1945, 1: 59; Craig, 121, 151, 156. Craig asserts that the overexposure problem plagued other politicians’ use of radio, especially Herbert Hoover, who had been advised to give “less frequent, but more regular broadcasts.”; Levine and Levine, 12.
24.� Roosevelt, April 10, 1929; Winfield, 18.
25.� Alice Goldfarb Marquis, “Written on the Wind: The Impact of Radio During the 1930s,” Journal of Contemporary History 19, no. 5 (July 1984): 388–89; Craig, 187; Sussmann, 14.
26.� Louis M. Howe, Papers, Box 24: Radio, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, N.Y.. Errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation, have been retained.
27.� Roosevelt, October 9, 1930.
28.� Roosevelt, October 9, 1930; October 16, 1930; “Governor Talks Warmly Into ‘Mike,'” Albany Times-Union, Oct. 17, 1930. Television was still in the developmental stage at this point. General Electric was a leader in the advancement of television technology and conducted much influential work in Schenectady.
29.� Freidel, 166; Bellush, 172–73; Finan, 256.
30.� Roosevelt, April 7, 1931; “Roosevelt to War on G.O.P. Power Bill,” Albany Times-Union, April 3, 1931.
31.� “Roosevelt Explains Power Vote,” Albany Times-Union, April 8, 1931; Roosevelt, April 7, 1931.
32.� Elliot Roosevelt, ed., F.D.R.: His Personal Letters, 1928–1945, 1: 168.
33.� Roosevelt, April 7, 1932.
34.� Robert B. Hudson and Gerhart D. Wiebe, “A Case for Listener Participation,” The Public Opinion Quarterly 12, no. 2 (Summer 1948): 201; Levine and Levine, 4; Sussmann, 14.
35.� Robert S. McElvaine, ed., Down & Out in the Great Depression: Letters from the “Forgotten Man” (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983), 6; Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, eds., Slaves of the Depression: Workers’ Letters About Life on the Job (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1987), 11.
36.� Original manuscripts of all quoted letters to Governor Roosevelt can be found in Franklin D. Roosevelt, Papers as Governor of New York, Series 1: Correspondence, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, N.Y. Author’s names have been omitted. Errors in grammar, spelling, and punctuation have been retained.
37.� Franklin D. Roosevelt, Papers as Governor of New York, Series 1: Correspondence, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, N.Y. In this collection, copies of replies are generally attached to the original letter; Sussmann, 60; James A. Farley, Behind the Ballots: The Personal History of a Politician (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1938), 71.
38.� Sussmann, 51–52, 66; Roosevelt, April 10, 1929, October 16, 1930, April 7, 1931; Richard W. Steele, “The Pulse of the People: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Gauging of American Public Opinion,” Journal of Contemporary History 9, no. 4 (October 1974): 202.
39.� Quoted in Levine and Levine, 10; Buhite and Levy, xx.
40.� Farley, 318–19; William C. Ackerman, “The Dimensions of American Broadcasting,” The Public Opinion Quarterly 9, no. 1 (Spring 1945): 14.




By Geoffrey Storm