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FDR, Radio, and What’s Wrong Today

The Fireside Chats: Roosevelt’s Radio Talks - Photo 4

“I can recall walking eastward on the Chicago Midway on a summer evening. . . . Under [the elms] drivers had pulled over, parking bumper to bumper, and turned on their radios to hear Roosevelt. They had rolled down the windows and opened the car doors. Everywhere the same voice, in old Eastern accent, which in anyone else would have irritated Midwesterners. You could follow without missing a single word as you strolled by. You felt joined to these unknown drivers, men and women smoking their cigarettes in silence, not so much considering the President’s words as affirming the rightness of his tone and taking assurance from it. You had some sense of the weight of trouble that made them so attentive and the ponderable effect, the one common element (Roosevelt), on which so many knowns could agree.” 

Thus Saul Bellow, in 1983, remembering one of FDR’s fireside chats. The radio, at the time, was the first and only medium of instant mass communication. It centralized the American experience to the same degree that Americans – and the justly reviled “media” — are fractured today.

During the Depression, during World War II, FDR and radio bonded; he was even, as Murray Horwitz remarks in a recent American Purpose zoom chat (posted above) “the biggest star of old-time radio.” 

Another pair of stars were Norman Corwin, with Orson Welles the king of radio drama, and Bernard Herrmann, who working with Corwin and Welles both was the supreme radio composer; this was a seedbed for the supreme Hollywood scores Herrmann composed for Welles and Alfred Hitchcock.

When Corwin and Herrmann created their 1941 salute to the Bill of Rights, “We Hold These Truths,” the listening audience totaled 63 million – nearly half the American population. These were families gathered in the living room, not people cooking or eating or texting. 

Three years later, Corwin and Herrmann created another classic World War II radio drama: “Whitman.” As readers of this blog know, a new Naxos CD features PostClassical Ensemble in the world premiere recording. We’ve also produced a film– “Beyond Psycho: The Musical Genius of Bernard Herrmann.” The American Purpose zoom chat was a sequel to all that, focusing on a pair of urgent topics: What do Whitman’s ideals of democracy say to us today? What can we learn from radio’s early decades as we struggle to piece the United States back together? The result was a memorable hour-long conversation, led by the historian Richard Aldous, which gathered force as different voices weighed in.

What follows is a kind of listener’s guide:

Setting the table, the Whitman scholar Karen Karbinier observed that America’s “pre-Civil War angst was very similar to what we feel right now.” It provoked Whitman’s “efforts to unite Americans” and also governed Corwin’s ingenious selections from Whitman’s poems in fashioning a patriotic paean magically inflected by Herrmann’s orchestra.

Murray Horwitz, who knows a lot about radio past and present, began: “We’ve lost something – with consequences for democracy in America.” FDR’s radio chats “made Americans feel they were one nation.” “Broadcasting,” Murray continued, is a term borrowed from agriculture: “Early radio people saw themselves as cultivators, bringing American values up from the grassroots to be unified at the top.” Today we have “narrowcasting – instead of “e pluribus unum,” one out of many, ever narrower shards of demographics.”

Aldous, a native of Britain, opined that “the BBC still has that kind of punch-through ability to speak pretty much to the nation.”  

This got me started on a story I tell in detail in Understanding Toscanini– how the specter of an “American BBC” was defeated by CBS’s William Paley and NBC’s David Sarnoff. Their strategy was visionary: to implement programing so intellectually and artistically ambitious as to make the BBC model superfluous. These high ideals translated into the contributions of Corwin, Herrmann, and Welles – and also Herrmann’s CBS Symphony, which championed Ives and brought in Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Bartok as studio guests; Sarnoff’s NBC Symphony under Toscanini, and a plethora a kindred initiatives leading, in early TV days, to the NBC Opera and Leonard Bernstein’s music lessons. All of that ended long ago, and NPR and PBS proved no substitute. (Compare the hand-crafted radio and TV productions of Corwin or Bernstein to “Live from Lincoln Center.”)

I further observed: “We have no capacity now, even hypothetically, to bring the nation together or to experience culture as we once knew it, as a bonding agent: to seizing what had been our cultural roots” – “and the arts, if you haven’t noticed, are being erased from the American experience.” 

And yet, Richard Aldous pointed out, “Whitman seems to retain a very broad resonance.” Karen Karbinier took up this thread, opining “we are hopefully going ‘in and out’ . . . “a rejuvenation of the arts” could happen.

Not so fast, I replied with sinister glee. “I don’t feel comforted. I wish I did.” I added that nearly every review of our Herrmann/Whitman CD, celebrating iconic American masters, was published abroad. “Sad to say,” confirmed Angel Gil-Ordonez, who conducted the music, “the most profound analyses come from Europe, that’s a reality.” 

Then Angel said this: “I’m a son of the generation of the Civil War in Spain. Walt Whitman – in the middle of a civil war he’s trying to unite everybody. That was not the case in Spain. A civil war – that’s the worst thing that can happen to a country. It’s frightening that something that happened to a country over a century ago is still alive. In Spain it’s also the case.”

But Aldous persisted that, from the perspective of a historian of the US born and raised abroad, America and its institutions are notably “resilient.” He invoked de Tocquville. He then invited Murray to comment on “patriotic” cable news services that aspire to “speak to the nation.” Murray would have none of that: “Hogwash – I think it’s all commercial. You make more money by dividing the American people.”

The stage was set for William Sharp, who eloquently recites Whitman on the radio drama recording. “Whitman asks who we are, who do we think we are, who are we really? When I learn and interpret what Whitman said, I find it inspirational, but also aspirational. ‘This is what I believe we are’ – but read between the lines: ‘This is what we should be, what we want to be. It isnt’ what we are.’ And that’s painfully clear.”

Bill added that, as a teacher at the Peabody Institute, he has students that “live in a world that is very different from mine. But those people give me hope.”

My parting sally: Jill Lepore’s bracing new 800-page history of the US, These Truths, contains not a single sentence about the arts. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Aloneand The Upswing, both of which analyze a crisis in diminished “social capital,” do not look to the arts as a bonding agent. (I embellish these observations in a forthcoming essay for The American Purpose.)

Angel had the last word: “Everybody loves music. It’s the arts on which we need to be focused right now.” 


  1. Thanks for this excellent article, exactly the sort of thinking and dialog we need today.

    The Fairness Doctrine was introduced by the FCC in 1949 and eliminated in 1987. Since then, the country has been torn apart. Whose interests are served by the ideological tribalism that has been created?

    The medium is the message as McLuhan famously noted, and the medium of the internet and of cable news is radical tribalism. The division comes from the nature of the technology itself, from the medium, not the message. And yet this radical tribalism, seemingly so individualistic, allows the elite forces of society more surveillance and social engineering than has ever existed. Whose interests are being served?

    From a larger perspective, I think of the writings of Jean Baudrillard who said that our sense of reality is a simulacrum created by the media. The status quo, our conventional wisdom, our dominant ideology, our common beliefs, are social construct he says. Social reality is fake news, as noted by people ranging from Nietzsche to Husserl to Heidegger to Foucault. And now the commonly held fake reality is being challenged by a swarm of miniature fake realities. With no common truth, with no such thing as truth at all, there can be no common resistance. Whose interests does this serve?

    • We might also consider that the changes in television were inevitable. When TVs first entered the market, only people with higher incomes invested in the new fangled contraptions and programming was directed toward this more sophisticated audience. As TVs began to be embraced by a wider public, the programing shifted to a wider demographic. Here too we see that the medium itself led to a predictable outcome.

      In Europe, some saw foresaw this result and created a public option to mitigate the forces of an unmitigated market philosophy.

    • Anthony F Princiotti says

      It may be more precise to say that the medium of the internet is a vehicle for commerce the likes of which we’ve never seen, in which algorithms sample our tastes and then restrict them by constantly feeding them. Its also a medium of abundance in which the sensational has the best chance of being noticed by us, the passive, semi-narcotized consumer. But it’s currently the dominant platform for humans to express our ideas.

      While we may think of the arts as being somewhat distinct from entertainment by virtue of an attitude that welcomes greater difficulty and complexity, we still have to find better ways of being true to that mission within an environment defined by the new technology,

      We’re certainly paying the price for sanctifying the arts for so many decades in ways that are ahistorical.

      • Interesting thoughts. I think the ideological tribalization created by the web, and its ability to precisely identify consumer groups and to “restrict them by constantly feeding them” advertisements based on their interests are both the same phenomenon. We see not only the tribalization of ideology, but also the tribalization of the market.

        Our tastes in the arts have long been defined by this tribalization. Classical music is an isolated tribe and has several sub clans, new music, opera, early music, wind music, etc., that are even more isolated. The internet would seem to offer the potential to break the tribal and clan barriers and reach larger audiences, but so far, no one has figured out how to use the internet to do that.

        One small success might be the Met’s high budget broadcasts to movie theaters which have created ersatz opera houses for America’s barren cultural landscape decimated by a lack of public arts funding. In fact, the experience of the pandemic seems to suggest that we forget live performance and reach our public through video delivered via the internet to our isolated tribal clans. And that’s a problem, because as Charles McNulty said in a recent article, live performance on video is like “experiencing the cold through a picture of a snowman.” But as Baudrillard says, our culture is little but a simulacrum anyway. To be fake is to be authentically American.

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