The First Lady of Radio: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Pioneering Broadcasts

Eleanor Roosevelt doing broadcast for WEEI © Jones, Leslie

Editor's Note: Stephen Drury Smith is the executive editor and host of the APM documentary series American RadioWorks. He is the co-editor of Say It Plain and Say It Loud, a collection of speeches on the African American experience, and of After the Fall: New Yorkers Remember September 2001 and the Years That FollowedHis most recent book is The First Lady of Radio, in which he gives context to a carefully-selected batch of transcripts from Eleanor Roosevelt's most enduring radio shows, dusted off from archival recordings. Here, Smith zooms out to explain just what it meant, for history and for a woman's role in politics, to have Eleanor Roosevelt maintain a paying, public job as news broadcaster in the White House.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a first lady of firsts. She was the first president’s wife to fly in an airplane. She was the first to testify before Congress. She was the first to write a daily newspaper column, to hold a government job, to take an active part in a political campaign. She was also the first professional broadcaster to occupy the White House.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s mastery of the microphone is well known. His Fireside Chats, inaugural speeches and addresses to Congress produced some of the most memorable presidential rhetoric in American history. What has been almost completely forgotten is Eleanor Roosevelt’s extensive series of radio appearances during her twelve years as first lady, and then after FDR’s death. The Roosevelts used radio to reach Americans in an intimate, friendly way. It was an entirely novel experience for the American people. FDR and ER revolutionized how the country related to the president and his wife.

In December 1932, ER launched a series of national radio talks sponsored by Pond’s Cold Cream -- three months before FDR was inaugurated. In her first broadcast, ER made provocative remarks about Prohibition that stirred up outrage among temperance forces. Critics also disapproved of ER’s salary; she got paid as much for each appearance as radio’s biggest stars. ER donated the proceeds to charity and vowed to cease commercial broadcasting.

But ER was back on radio in 1934 with her own commercially-sponsored program. The prime-time, Sunday evening show was sponsored by Simmons Beautyrest mattresses. It featured commentaries by ER on subjects aimed at female listeners. She discussed raising children, entertaining at the White House and keeping the husband happy. But her programs also took on broader topics, such as the challenges faced by working women, the place of women in politics, and the scourge of slum housing.

In the 1930s, ER earned up to $3,000 for a single appearance on one of her radio programs -- more than $50,000 in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation. That was more than the average American worker made all year.

ER invited listeners to write to her, and they responded with gusto. 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." But Betty Jones of Mattoon, Illinois, chided ER for wanting "to be too much in the lime-light" for a first lady.

It is unclear how closely FDR or his administration paid attention to ER’s radio work. Some of his aides and cabinet members worried about potential political fallout when ER addressed racial prejudice or other controversial topics. But historians say that FDR encouraged her to engage in the public debate on issues. In an autobiography published after FDR’s death, ER said, "He never asked me to refrain from speaking my own mind." She also used her radio programs and newspaper column to advance FDR’s New Deal agenda and to pressure the government to be more inclusive. FDR rarely acknowledged her influence, but ER is often described as the conscience of his administration.

ER’s most important broadcast was probably her commercially sponsored, Sunday evening NBC program of December 7, 1941. Hours earlier, Japanese warplanes had attacked Pearl Harbor. ER declared on the air: "We are the free and unconquerable people of the United States of America." FDR made his famous "date that will live in infamy" address to Congress the next day.

It was a remarkable broadcast at a critical moment in the nation’s history. With America under attack, the people heard first not from their president but from his wife. The Roosevelts had a kind of public, political partnership never seen in the White House before. And no first lady has kept a paying job since.