Franklin D. Roosevelt was a consummate broadcaster but Eleanor Roosevelt was the actual radio professional. During her years in the White House, ER made some 300 radio appearances, about the same number as her husband. But for dozens of those broadcasts she got paid handsome talent fees by advertisers. Her shows were sponsored by the makers of cold cream, mattresses, coffee, typewriters, building materials and beauty soap. It was a novel and controversial career for a president’s wife. ER was criticized for commercializing her White House role and for meddling in public affairs best left to her husband. But ER was also praised for making thoughtful observations on world events, for helping unify the nation during the Depression and World War II, and for bringing Americans into more intimate contact with the White House and the presidential family.
In 1932, before FDR took office, ER declared that it was “impossible for husband and wife both to have political careers.” But in ways both subtle and direct, ER’s radio programs and other media work did far more than reflect her personal views. She helped publicize FDR’s New Deal. She alerted the nation to the growing threat of world war. Once the fighting started, ER helped rally the home front. She battled her husband’s critics. At the same time, her radio work challenged conventional restrictions on women as broadcasters and as political professionals.
“ER set a new pace, new goals, a new understanding of what was possible and acceptable for women to achieve,” historian Blanche Wiesen Cook writes.
ER did so in a medium, radio, that most historians have tended to overlook, even though some scholars say radio’s impact on American society was “incalculable.” Much has been written about ER’s other forays into public life, such as her column, My Day, which was syndicated in 90 newspapers at its peak, and her lectures around the country and overseas. Far less has been said about ER at the radio microphone. In fact, few contemporary listeners have ever heard these programs.
Today, it is unthinkable that a president’s spouse would host a commercially sponsored program on radio, television, or the Internet. While it was controversial in Mrs. Roosevelt’s day, too, she generally shrugged off the criticism. ER liked being able to talk directly to Americans on such a vast, immediate scale. She also liked the money. 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. Many of her appearances were on daytime radio, then considered the province of female homemakers, but a number of ER’s programs aired in the evening. Advertising agencies continued to offer ER radio programs to host because she could draw in listeners of both sexes.
An independent income allowed ER to support people and charities she cared about. During the Depression, she sent some of the money to struggling Americans who wrote to her for help. While she was first lady, ER donated almost all of her radio earnings to the American Friends Service Committee to support Arthurdale, a New Deal project for displaced coal miners in West Virginia. The experiment in subsistence homesteading became a favorite of ER’s. It also mattered to ER that she have her own work with her own sphere of influence. In her broadcasts, speeches and newspaper columns, ER challenged conventional thinking about women and work.
“Isn’t it a fact that women have always worked, often very hard?” ER asked an audience in 1936. “Did anyone make a fuss about it until they began to get paid for their work?”
In her 12 years as first lady, ER hosted eight commercially sponsored radio shows. In the first few series of broadcasts, ER gave scripted talks on subjects of general interest to women: bringing up babies, keeping the husband happy, the challenges facing career women. In later programs, ER brought guests into the studio to talk about issues such as the peace movement, unemployed youth and life on the political campaign trail. While she occasionally used the White House radio studio created for FDR’s Fireside Chats to make non-commercial broadcasts, all the paid programs appear to have originated in network studios.
Radio listeners responded readily to ER’s broadcasts, flooding radio stations, network headquarters and the White House with mail. In 1933 alone, ER received some 300,000 post cards and letters. Much of the mail praised her. But letter writers were also free with their criticism.
During her time in the White House, ER appeared on the radio more frequently in an unpaid capacity than she did to earn a paycheck. She promoted civic organizations, government programs, and progressive politics in dozens of speeches broadcast live on local and national radio. The causes ranged from polio research to civil rights for African Americans to the Girl Scouts. Over time, the American public grew accustomed to their unusually active first lady, and, increasingly, they respected her. One NBC-backed mail-in poll proclaimed ER “The Outstanding Woman of 1937.” The next year, a Gallup poll found that 67 percent of Americans approved of her conduct, and 33 percent disapproved—higher positive numbers than FDR’s. In a 1938 poll, Hearst newspaper critics named ER radio’s “outstanding non-professional.” She did not have a commercial program at the time.
ER suspended her commercial broadcasts in 1942, once the United States had gone to war. She stopped broadcasting altogether for a time when FDR died in 1945. Three years after the death of her husband, ER resumed her commercial radio work. Freed from the restrictions of being the president’s wife, ER spoke out even more forcefully for issues she believed in. She broadcast programs attacking intolerance and favoring many progressive causes, including civil rights and the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which she helped craft.
In 1948-49, ER appeared on a weekday American Broadcasting Company radio program with her daughter, Anna Roosevelt. It was called “The Eleanor and Anna Roosevelt Program.” Anna hosted while her mother checked in from various parts of the country and world. They also interviewed political figures, writers, scholars and celebrities. Topics ranged from homey interests to international relations.
In 1950, ER teamed up with her son Elliot for a daily, 45-minute program on the National Broadcasting Company. In the course of 233 broadcasts, Eleanor and Elliot Roosevelt interviewed a wide range of notables, from the colorful actress Tallulah Bankhead to author John Steinbeck to D-Day hero General Omar Bradley. Critics praised Mrs. Roosevelt’s performance but lamented her son’s sometimes crass readings of commercial announcements, which linked ER with the product being pitched. Both the ABC and NBC programs struggled to find sponsors and were eventually dropped. Polls show that Eleanor Roosevelt was still immensely popular, but she was no longer as bankable in the era when TV started to overtake radio.
Like many other radio veterans, ER made early forays into television. She both hosted and appeared on current events programs. But radio was perhaps a more familiar and natural fit. The intimacy and reach of network radio helped ER humanize and expand the conventional dimensions of the first lady’s role. Many people hated her and her husband. But millions of Americans came to regard Eleanor Roosevelt as a frequent and welcome guest in their homes, sitting down next to the radio as if they were sitting next to her.