The Promise and Perils of Radio

Radio swiftly penetrated American homes, but initial experiments in its political use demonstrated both the promise and the perils of this new technology. Traditional events such as nominating conventions fit awkwardly with the expectations and demands of a listening audience. At the same time, radio reordered political assets and liabilities as politicians adapted to the new medium.

The 1924 election marks the first time radio became widely available for a presidential campaign. Both major party conventions broadcast nearly complete coverage of their proceedings, including the deadlocked Democrats who met for sixteen days. On election night, nearly 400 stations broadcast the results across the country. However, the lack of a coast-to-coast radio network posed challenges for political broadcasts and limited the strategic possibilities of radio during the campaign.8 Four years later, however, two national networks, CBS and NBC, greatly simplified the task of reaching a national radio audience. Meanwhile, passage of the Radio Act of 1927 established a new legal framework for political broadcasts that required radio stations to provide equal time to legally qualified candidates. And with the growing commercial reach of radio, airtime became a valuable commodity that required campaign managers to think more carefully about how to allocate resources effectively.9

These factors combined to make the 1928 presidential election the first true radio campaign. Both networks broadcast the major party conventions for free in order to meet their public service mandate under the 1927 Radio Act. After the convention, however, NBC and CBS charged the political parties $10,000 per hour of airtime, and both the Democrats and the Republicans spent liberally on radio during the postconvention period of the campaign. Democrats aired weekly broadcasts of speeches by nominee Al Smith and others, intensifying their frequency as the campaign wore on. Other Democratic broadcasts mixed politics and entertainment in half-hour programs that devoted ten minutes to political speeches and the remainder to performances by movie stars, musicians, and radio personalities. The Republicans organized “National Hoover Minute Men,” who delivered five- or ten-minute speeches on local radio stations. Radio made it possible for campaigns to reach specific audiences; both parties, for instance, targeted women voters in 1928 by airing political broadcasts during morning hours. As historian Douglas Craig summarizes, “An electronic revolution had overtaken politics by 1928, and few aspects of campaigning escaped it.”10 Radio became the single largest campaign expenditure for both parties in 1928, as the Democrats and Republicans spent a combined $1 million on political broadcasts between July and November.11

Despite the growing recognition of its importance, however, party managers still lacked much practical experience in broadcasting, limiting their ability to make the most of radio during campaigns. One scholar described the 1932 party conventions as “near-disasters” in terms of programming. The Republican convention, for example, consumed large blocks of airtime and featured endless speeches. The Democratic convention was no better. On some days coverage lasted fourteen hours, including one stretch of programming consisting of an hour-long ovation for Al Smith, followed by forty-five minutes of cheering for Franklin Roosevelt.12 Party leaders saw great potential in radio, but they were seemingly oblivious to the audience listening at home.

The same could be said for most politicians. Many candidates struggled with radio, although some adapted more easily. The normally reticent Calvin Coolidge was more comfortable speaking into a microphone than before a crowd. As Coolidge himself admitted, “I have a good radio voice, and now I can get my messages across to [the people] without acquainting them with my lack of oratorical ability.”13 The political talents of public speaking suddenly counted for a lot less in the radio age. In 1928, the Democratic nominee, Al Smith, was a gifted politician and a spellbinder on the stump, but over the radio his voice sounded “tinny.” More damaging politically, Smith’s Lower East Side accent and his sometimes fractured grammar aided Republican efforts to paint the New York governor as an urban bogeyman. By contrast, Herbert Hoover’s businesslike demeanor, his “subdued speech patterns, his clear voice, his flat, Midwestern accent” were assets in the 1928 campaign, conjuring up “images of prairie tranquility rather than urban chaos.”14

Four years later, the Democrats reversed the Republican radio advantage. Running against Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, Hoover faced “the first political star of the radio age.”15 Roosevelt mastered the radio address during his time as the governor of New York, sprinkling his clear patrician diction with homespun phrasing. When Roosevelt broke tradition in 1932 by accepting the Democratic nomination in person at the Chicago convention rather than await notification by a party delegation as was the custom, he did so with a 5,000-word speech that was “meant to be heard and not read.” By a stroke of luck, weather delayed Roosevelt’s arrival so that he went on the air at the ideal evening time of seven o’clock rather than three o’clock as originally planned. More important, Roosevelt adopted a visionary style of speech, promising “a new deal for the American people,” rather than a dry recitation of policy commitments as had been past practice.16 Richard Ellis writes that FDR “signaled a decisive turn to a modern rhetorical presidency” by crafting his 1932 acceptance speech with a radio audience in mind.17 Indeed, the benefits of radio would redound especially to a more robust executive that took shape in the coming years.

Franklin Roosevelt was not the only political figure to exploit the power of radio or to realize its potential for mobilizing the public. Father Charles Coughlin and Senator Huey Long of Louisiana both built substantial followings for themselves with national radio broadcasts during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Their populist messages resonated with millions struggling through the economic hardships of the Great Depression. But it was the medium as much as the message that gave Coughlin and Long their power. Radio, Alan Brinkley has written, “gave both leaders direct, immediate access to millions of men and women ... a special bond of intimacy between the speaker and his audience.”18 Coughlin began broadcasting on the radio in the late 1920s, “exploiting a system of communication whose potential conventional politicians had not yet begun to appreciate.”19 Although gifted with “extraordinary skills as a performer,” Coughlin also appreciated the particular talents needed to reach a radio audience.20 Describing his style in a New York Times profile in 1933, Coughlin said that “radio broadcasting, I have found, must not be high hat. It must be human, intensely human. It must be simple.”21 Coughlin’s popularity was so formidable that when CBS refused to broadcast the increasingly controversial cleric, Coughlin established his own independent network that carried his sermons on more than thirty stations throughout the United States. Although the number is difficult to measure accurately, Coughlin likely reached tens of millions of listeners; some considered it the largest regular radio audience in the world.22 Similarly, Huey Long was a gifted communicator who crafted a popular radio personality through his regular broadcasts criticizing Roosevelt and the New Deal.23 Before his death in 1935, Long’s success on the radio and the growing popularity of his Share Our Wealth movement became a serious concern of President Roosevelt and his staff, who saw the senator as a potential threat to Roosevelt’s re-election chances in 1936.24

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