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Authors: Stephen Drury Smith

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Intellectuals “smirked at what they considered trite comments” in ER's radio programs and newspaper writing, according to Maurine Beasley, but the first lady's ideas appealed to average Americans.
In 1944, a writer for
The American Mercury
magazine tried to explain ER's popularity to its readership of sophisticates. ER's writing connected with common people, the magazine said, because “she expresses herself in the same sort of platitudes and clichés that they might use.”
Blanche Wiesen Cook argues that “kernels of bold political truth” can be found “buried in boring fluff,” and that the importance of ER's writings should not be trivialized. Her prose may have been plain, but the context of her message is what commands attention; no first lady had come remotely close to being the kind of public, political figure that Eleanor Roosevelt insisted on being.

Radio listeners responded readily to ER's broadcasts, flooding radio stations, network headquarters, and the White House with mail. In 1933 alone, ER received some 300,000 postcards and letters. Much of the mail praised her. Jessica Alexander of Staten Island wrote, “Your little ‘lecturettes' are so well chosen and so beautifully delivered that at home we look forward to Friday nights with great anticipation.”
From Ithaca, New York, Mary Resch wrote, “We feel that you possess the ability of reaching and interesting those in high places as well as those in more lowly walks of life—the plain people—of who I am one.”
A Republican from Summit, New Jersey, said he had never voted for FDR and did not agree with his politics, but admired ER's courage and her capacity to unite Americans, “regardless of race, creed, color or political affiliations.”

Letter writers were also free with their criticism. A fourteen-year-old Texas girl complained, “When I read how you get $3,000 for each radio broadcast you make, I can't help but think how unjust this world is. Here I sit, straining my ears to hear the sound of your voice with a little crystal set . . . Can't you suggest a way that I can get a radio so I can hear the music and talks and news from outside my very small little world?”
Pleas for money, help finding a job, or the gift of a radio were common themes of mail to ER (and to FDR, too) during the Depression. Mrs. E. L. Couture of Arlee, Montana, sent a typed postcard with this warning: “If your husband doesn't muzzle you he will be impeached before the close of his first year in the White House.”
Betty Jones of Mattoon, Illinois, chided ER for wanting “to be too much in the limelight” for a first lady.
J. Winter Davis of Toledo, Ohio, wrote sarcastically about what he described as ER's snake-oil show of a radio program: “Now we have a blueblood society lady, born bred and reared in the purple, in a patronizing voice, giving us all kinds of advice. What an uplift this has been. The effect has been magical.” Davis was astonished and apparently chagrined when ER wrote back to him with a firm, courteous defense of her broadcasts. He quickly replied to express a newfound admiration for the first lady's radio work: “I think it is fine, almost noble to do this, knowing as you stated that you would be the object of much criticism.”

Most commercial radio programs in the 1930s and '40s were produced by advertising agencies on behalf of the sponsors. Ad companies paid the radio network for air time and covered all the costs of production, including fees for the hosts, guests, and performers. Over the course of her career, ER employed several radio agents to make deals with the ad companies. Some of the biggest ad firms in New York signed her on, including J. Walter Thompson and Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborne. ER's 1932 broadcasts for Pond's beauty cream were part of that company's larger advertising campaign in which well-known
society ladies endorsed the product. She never directly recommended a product or read commercial copy in any of the programs from her White House years. But it was certainly a coup for Pond's to line up the president-elect's wife for its Friday-night broadcasts.
Radio Guide
tittered that “plucked and unplucked eyebrows arched” at ER's commercial broadcasts, and the $1,500 she was paid for each one—a salary that would be higher than the president's if annualized.
Hartford Courant
observed that Mrs. Roosevelt's career would be of no public concern if being first lady were not a full-time job of its own. Furthermore, “the dignity of the president and of the country cannot but suffer when his name is used for commercial purposes.”

In 1940, the liberal columnist John T. Flynn suggested that the Roosevelts' children had also enjoyed unusual success in the media based on their proximity to what he called “The White House, Inc.” James Roosevelt had a lucrative job in Hollywood. Elliott Roosevelt had both management and on-air jobs in radio. Daughter Anna Roosevelt Boettiger had dabbled in radio, appeared in newspaper ads, and wrote for a Hearst newspaper of which her husband was publisher. But Flynn complained that ER outpaced them all.

Conservative columnist Westbrook Pegler, initially an admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt, later became a relentless critic, not just of her but also of FDR and the New Deal. He was particularly scolding of how the Roosevelts “commercialized the presidency.”
He reminded his readers of a 1942 broadcast ER made after returning from a wartime visit to London. The program was sponsored by what, to Pegler, was a fishy-sounding group: the Council on Candy as a Food in the War Effort. The council was a public-relations scheme backed by American candy manufacturers. There was no attempt to obscure the connection between ER and the council; it printed up attractive brochures, under the council's name, with the text of ER's remarks and a picture of her before the microphone.

During her twelve years in the White House, ER appeared on the radio more frequently in an unpaid capacity than she did to earn a paycheck. She promoted civic organizations, government programs, or progressive politics in dozens of speeches that were broadcast live on local and national radio for causes ranging from polio research to civil rights for African Americans to the Girl Scouts. Over time, the American public grew accustomed to their unusually active first lady, and, increasingly, they respected her. One NBC-backed mail-in poll proclaimed ER “The Outstanding Woman of 1937.”
The next year, a Gallup poll found that 67 percent of Americans approved of her conduct, 33 percent disapproved—higher positive numbers than FDR's. In a 1938 poll, Hearst newspaper critics named ER radio's “outstanding non-professional.” She did not have a commercial program at the time.

Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's tenure in the White House coincided both with the ascendancy of radio as a mass medium and the rise of American celebrity culture. Movie and radio stars filled popular new magazines. Crooners, vaudeville performers, comedians, and opera stars rode the radio waves. As the first couple of this emerging mass media, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt revolutionized how the nation related to its chief executive and family. It's arguable, in fact, that they were the first modern couple to inhabit the White House—a couple in which each had his or her own career, political activities, controversies, and constituencies. Each was uniquely skilled in conveying the sense on radio that he or she was talking one-on-one with the audience. Americans responded to this new, conversational White House in kind. They swamped the residents of the executive mansion with an unprecedented tide of mail, much of it marked “personal.”

Earlier presidents had appeared on radio, but FDR is widely regarded as the first presidential candidate to truly master radio as a source of political advantage. And he set the standard for all to follow. FDR honed
his radio voice as governor of New York from 1929 to 1933. To bypass the Republican-controlled legislature and the near monopoly by Republicans on state newspapers, FDR broadcast a series of informal-sounding monthly chats to the people of New York. ER said her husband came by his command of the microphone naturally. “His voice lent itself remarkably to the radio. It was a natural gift, for in his whole life he never had a lesson in diction or public speaking,” she wrote.

The Roosevelts took to radio as the medium itself caught fire. The first commercially licensed radio station in the United States was KDKA in Pittsburgh. In 1920, it began broadcasting from the roof of the Westinghouse Electric factory, which owned the station and built radio receivers. Virtually no one owned a radio set, but on election night that year, KDKA broadcast news of Warren G. Harding's victory in the presidential election, passing along returns phoned in from the local newspaper. Other broadcast stations soon popped up and radio became a consumer craze.

In the 1930s, radio became a vital tool of American politics and governance. Early adopters of the new technology included populist politicians Huey Long in Louisiana and Floyd B. Olson in Minnesota, as well as the incendiary radio priest Charles Coughlin and aviator Charles Lindbergh, whose widely broadcast speeches opposed American involvement in World War II. Some social commentators believed radio would unleash new democratic energies, creating a “national town meeting” on the air. A number of programs used the town meeting motif explicitly. Others, as scholar Jason Loviglio writes, feared “hypnotized audiences falling under the sway of irrational forces like fascism, communism, or even a corrupt and bankrupt capitalism.”

FDR's administration understood and used the power of radio to sell the New Deal and, later, to mobilize Americans to oppose the Axis powers. The radio networks were willing accomplices. Radio came under increasing federal regulatory scrutiny in the 1930s; network executives
curried favor with the FDR administration by providing free airtime for dozens of government-produced public-service programs that promoted New Deal initiatives. During World War II, the networks offered up choice slots in their schedules for war-bond rallies and home-front morale shows.

The early public discussion of radio's influence on society and culture reads much like the initial promises and dangers seen in the twenty-first-century Internet revolution. Some predicted radio would be a powerful force for democratizing information and spreading knowledge to a vast population previously divided by geography or income. But the new technology also raised anxieties. Observers worried about the propriety and taste of the radio programs that would penetrate the sanctity of the home. In 1932, journalist Anne O'Hare McCormick wrote a series of reports for the
New York Times
analyzing radio as a “great unknown force.”
She observed that radio listening was a passive, vicarious experience with a “dazing, almost anesthetic effect upon the mind.” But McCormick also saw a new mass audience in the formation: “More inclusive, more rural, more domestic, whatever you think of its taste more broadly American.”

Radio was the first truly
medium, linking great cities and remote hamlets in the same instantaneous event. Some radio critics feared that if families stayed home with the wireless it would erode civic involvement and compete with traditional social gatherings. But others believed radio would draw Americans together as never before, creating the kind of informed, ideal republic imagined by the nation's founding generation. Historian Susan Douglas notes that Americans have repeatedly expected new technologies—the telephone, the television, the Internet—to solve society's problems.

With all the breathless predictions today about how the Internet will democratize communication and flatten hierarchies among
Americans, to bring about a new republic in cyberspace, we should remember that radio . . . was going to provide culture and education to the masses, eliminate politicians' ability to incite passions in a mob, bring people closer to government proceedings, and produce a national culture that would transcend regional and local jealousies.

Radio both changed and reflected America's social conventions. For example, early radio executives had mixed feelings about women in broadcasting. Surveys showed that women listeners did the majority of the family shopping, so they were an audience that local stations and national networks naturally hoped to reel in.
magazine noted in 1932 that “practically every sizable advertising agency now has a specialized radio staff” that included women.
On the air, women were generally assigned to homemaking shows, soap operas, or musical performances. There were exceptions, such as national talk-show host Mary Margaret McBride or news commentator Dorothy Thompson. But radio experts claimed that listeners of both sexes preferred male voices “for material of a matter-of-fact variety—for news and weather reports, political speeches and lectures.”
Broadcast managers—most of whom were men—believed that “women do not like to be convinced by other women in discussions of politics and similar momentous matters.”
Radio technicians maintained that early microphones and radio transmission equipment responded poorly to higher-pitched female voices. Given these assumptions, Eleanor Roosevelt's radio role as both a public figure and a news commentator was unusual.

This anthology represents the first collection of Eleanor Roosevelt's broadcasts to be published. Unfortunately, only a fraction of Eleanor Roosevelt's radio broadcasts survive in audio recordings. In the early years of radio, live programs could be recorded onto a flat transcription
disk, the grandmother of the record LP. If recordings were made—especially of ER's first commercial programs—the disks may not have survived. Archival copies of many live programs were never made. As the technology improved, transcription recordings became more routine at the radio networks. NBC created a division to record programs in 1935. CBS followed suit several years later.

BOOK: The First Lady of Radio
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