Stephen Drury Smith is the editor of the new book The First Lady of Radio: Eleanor Roosevelt's Historic Broadcasts. He is the executive editor and host of American Radio Works, and the co-editor of Say It Plain, Say It Loud, and After the Fall. He lives in St. Paul and Boston.
Q: How did this book of Eleanor Roosevelt’s radio broadcasts come into being?
A: I can’t remember how I first got interested in this. I’ve been working on the project off and on for more than a decade. I’m sure it came from the discovery, which was novel to me, that the first lady was a commercial broadcaster during her time in the White House.
Another thing is that I’ve long been interested in the rather underappreciated role of radio in society and politics in the 1930s and ‘40s.
The nostalgia for radio [has usually centered on] dramas and entertainment programs, which are wonderful, but generally less attention has been paid to the news, talk, and current affairs side of radio. In the 1930s, it was mostly talks or roundtable programs. As World War II comes around, the radio news business comes about. There isn’t too much radio news until the end of the ‘30s.
Q: You write, “The Roosevelts took to radio as the medium itself caught fire.” What about the Roosevelts made them a good fit for the radio?
A: Both of them were interested in having a dialogue with the people. Not that that’s a particularly unusual quality in a politician, but they were able to recognize that there was a new technology that allowed them to speak directly to a lot of people at once.
FDR was frustrated by the Republican-controlled newspapers, and radio gave him an end run around [them]. They both were the first to have regular press conferences. They had a dialogue on the radio, and also [cultivated] their relationships with reporters…They both were very high-touch politicians.
What’s exceptional about both of them is the familiarity with which people wrote to them. I have a collection of envelopes sent to Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. It’s remarkable how many had “personal,” “private and confidential” written on them. People had expectations that it would be read. They received hundreds of thousands of letters a year. Herbert Hoover received about 800 a day; Franklin Roosevelt at least 8,000.
Q: How closely coordinated were the messages that the president and first lady delivered in their respective radio addresses?
A: I think there was a fairly regular level of ad hoc coordination. We are so accustomed to people having a morning briefing, a message of the day. There is no evidence there was anything as coordinated as that, but it’s well known that Eleanor Roosevelt would select letters, would write memos to the president, would clip from the papers and leave them for him. He would [do similar things].
It was a very complex relationship that they had. They had parallel lives, parallel political spheres. Eleanor Roosevelt would maintain throughout her life that his job was most important, that she had very little political influence on him. While that’s sort of true in a large sense, she also would use her public platform to sell New Deal programs, and encourage activity where she thought it was lacking.
She was an effective communicator for the White House on human rights, on civil rights. She would identify herself as a sympathetic supporter of universal civil rights, far to the left of where FDR felt he was able to go politically.
They were sort of pulling in the same direction, but there wouldn’t necessarily be a strategy meeting. She said later in life that he never said she should not do something.
Q: Which are your favorites of Eleanor Roosevelt’s broadcasts?
A: The most important broadcast was on December 7, 1941. Not only [did the] first lady go on the air before the president, but it was one of the best written of her speeches; her delivery was terrific. That’s a particular favorite.
I have always been interested in the speeches she gave about daily life in the White House: who does the wash, the marketing.
I love the broadcasts in the 1930s where she’s talking about the role of women in society…they don’t read like barn-burning feminist speeches, but they have to be read in context. This is the first lady, speaking to a 1930s audience where there’s substantial hostility toward women in the workplace….
Q: With her radio address of December 7, 1941, how important were her remarks in affecting the public mood after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor?
A: There is no record of that. With the media in that period, there were public opinion polls, but no specific way of being able to see what the result was of a broadcast. It was quoted in The New York Times and in papers across the country, but I didn’t see a record that it moved the country one way or the other.
It was lost in history because of the incredible speech the president gave the next day. That speech to Congress by FDR blows everything else out of the water.
Q: How controversial was it for a first lady to appear in radio broadcasts sponsored by commercial interests?
A: It was reasonably controversial. There were editorials written saying that she was commercializing the White House, that it was improper for a first lady to be doing this. Her broadcasting was satirized in Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes,” in the last stanza: “So Mrs. R. with all her trimmins/Can broadcast a bed from Simmons/’Cause Franklin knows/Anything goes.”
She donated all proceeds to a variety of charities. There was a congressional investigation into her earnings—for [part of] the ‘30s she didn’t pay taxes on them, and FDR’s opponents in Congress went after her. She ended up paying taxes, and donating the proceeds.
She said it was important for her to earn a living and support the causes she cared about. She was paid up to $3,000 per broadcast; with the inflation calculator that’s $130,000-$150,000 in today’s money.
She was frequently written about in radio fan magazines of the era, and generally the coverage was positive. She was regarded later in life as having one of the best radio voices. She worked with a voice coach for more than a decade, getting her voice more under control.
When we listen to either [Eleanor or Franklin Roosevelt] with our 21st century ears, it may not sound informal or chatty, but in the context of the ‘30s and ‘40s, they were skilled at convincing people they were talking directly to them. [Before that] the oratory tended to be more bombastic. Also, it was a more formal time. You wore a coat and tie to take the train.
Eleanor was on the air quite a lot and so was the president, although he did relatively few fireside chats, two or three a year; he was careful to conserve them. Eleanor wrote quickly, and didn’t spend a lot of time revising. Franklin had Pulitzer Prize-winning speechwriters on his staff, who would spend more than a week on a fireside chat. Then he would take [their draft] and make it into his own work.
Ultimately he’s more effective because it’s more carefully crafted, and he was very good at using images in speeches. He wins on content, but it’s exceptional to think that she was the only first lady to have a paying job in the White House.
Q: Are you working on another book project?
A: I’m working on an anthology of interviews done by Robert Penn Warren with civil rights leaders in 1963 and 1964. He did it on tape for a 1965 book, Who Speaks for the Negro. It was an inquiry into people leading various elements of the movement—Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, James Farmer, Stokely Carmichael. The collection has never been used very much. I like to find found sound.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: There have been many, many books written about aspects of the Roosevelts and the New Deal. It’s hard to find a space where you’re doing something that’s going to be particularly original.
I’m pleased that this is a body of work by Eleanor Roosevelt that’s written about tangentially by her major biographers but relatively little attention has been paid to it. There’s been one great study of Eleanor Roosevelt and the media by Maurine Beasley at the University of Maryland, but radio is a phenomenon that has not gotten the attention it deserves.
There are a handful of radio historians in this country; many more people are historians of TV. When radio came along, [there were discussions about] the potential for democratization, political discourse, threatening the sanctity of the home, bringing people together—it sounds a lot like the early Internet. We’ve forgotten how important it was.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb