Tuned In

Fireside Chatter

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Speaking of Barack Obama Takes Over Your TV Week, it’s going to be the subject—sort of—of my column in TIME this week. And one thing I’d been doing in prepping for the column was to go back and listen to some of FDR’s fireside chats, which are repeatedly held up as a model for Presidential outreach.

One point I make is that the fireside chats worked differently than any media strategy can today, simply because the media universe is so different. Today, you can’t roadblock the national attention on the only mass medium in existence. You’re competing with cable, with the Internet, with every other channel and entertainment distraction out there. But FDR had the great good fortune of coming into office just after radio became widespread.

Think of it: a generation before, the only way the outside world came into your home was through the written word, a visitor stopping by or—if you were fortunate—telephone. Now, the world was in crisis, you feared for your future—and here was the voice of The President of the United States himself in your own house, explaining the banking system, his plans and why things were going to be OK. It’s hard to fathom how radical this was. Of course it made an intimate connection—it was practically magic. 

None of this, though, is to take away from the skills of FDR, whose chats you can hear at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, the Museum of Broadcast Communications or on YouTube (the first part of his first chat is embedded after the jump):  

Even from today’s perspective, it’s impressive how well FDR was able to simultaneously convey calm, avuncular connection, pedagogy, determination and hope all at the same time. That was a function of his political and leadership ability. But that he was able to get the message to a nation with its undivided attention focused was partly a product of his times.

Today, a leader—whether it’s Obama or anyone else—necessarily has to aim at a lot of targets and be multiplatform. You can’t assume that the person watching you on Leno is going to see 60 Minutes. (Which is why the “overexposure” meme this week seems so silly to me. Sure, Obama is overexposed to political junkies—they’re not really the point.) And you can’t expect to get out each facet of your gestalt message in any one given appearance. Instead, you have to aim to create a kind of cloud of impressions—some likability from ESPN, some gravitas from a press conference, etc—and hope that they add up to the overall impression you want to create. 

You also have to wonder how FDR’s message would have gotten out with the equivalent of a 24/7 partisan-pundit cycle at work on it: the fireside chats that we now see as a model of communication probably would have provided any number of targets to say that FDR was in over his head, or a radical. Which points  his critics did make, of course, but the fireside chats made that battle more asymmetrical than it already was. 

That said, FDR may not have had Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck—but he did have this guy (although he was an early supporter of the New Deal): 

Who, by the way—as a bonus for the Carnivale fans out there—was a major model for this guy: 

So, in summation: Many things changed. Yet some unsettling parallels to the Great Depression. Of which the upside is: possibility of magically-powered carnies fighting against evil priests wielding sickles. It’s all connected!