Saturday, February 22, 2014

A Broadcasting Milestone

It might seem like a betrayal to all my friends in print journalism, but today is an important milestone in the history of broadcasting that is worth mentioning.

For it was 90 years ago today that President Calvin Coolidge gave the first–ever radio address from the White House.

Silent Cal had a reputation for being — shall we say? — economical with words, but he really gave broadcast journalism a boost during his presidency.

The speech he gave on this day in 1924 was not his first on radio. Less than three months earlier, he had delivered his State of the Union address on radio. As nearly as I can tell, that was the first presidential address on radio, but it wasn't delivered from the White House.

("So clearly was President Coolidge's message broadcast by radio through half of the nation ... that while he was speaking KSD, the radio station in St. Louis, telephoned to the Capitol and asked: 'What's that grating noise?'," marveled the New York Times, "and the transmission experts at the Capitol promptly replied: 'That's the rustling of the paper as he turns the pages of his message'.")

But, considering that presidential addresses from the White House are considered routine today, it is worth reflecting on a time when the concept was new. So, too, was the medium of radio. Most of its applications were yet to be discovered.

Today, of course, presidential addresses from the White House can be seen and/or heard via radio, television and online video.

I'm inclined to think that, at the time, Coolidge understood the political implications of broadcasting, perhaps better than any of his contemporaries. If so, he must have realized that his rather strict, New England schoolmarmish demeanor wouldn't be appealing in all regions of the country so he used radio to build a relationship with the American people.

Presidential approval polls didn't exist in 1924, so it isn't possible to compare the findings of such polls to see if his approval went up when he started speaking to the country via radio after succeeding President Warren Harding in August 1923.

But we do know that, when the American people went to the polls in November 1924, they gave Coolidge a full four–year term in the White House by a wide margin. He swept every state outside the South except Wisconsin, which voted for third–party candidate (and native son) Robert LaFollette.

The day after the third anniversary of the first radio address from the White House, Coolidge signed into law the Radio Act of 1927, which gave regulatory powers to the Federal Radio Commission. The FRC was created by Coolidge in 1926; it was replaced in 1934 by the Federal Communications Commission, which still exists.

What was the subject of his first radio address from the White House? I wish I knew, but no transcript seems to survive. It was, however, something he did fairly frequently during his presidency.

The day before the 1924 election, Coolidge delivered a radio address from the White House on the duties of citizenship. In it, he urged American citizens to go to their polls the next day and "approach the ballot box in the spirit that they would approach a sacrament" and select their leaders "in the light of their own conscience."

"When an election is so held, when a choice is so made," Coolidge said in his conclusion, "it results in the real rule of the people. It warrants and sustains the belief that the voice of the people is the voice of God."

I don't know if President Coolidge was a visionary, but the speech he gave today paved the way for all the broadcast addresses that followed.

And, to the generations of broadcast journalists who followed, it must certainly seem visionary.

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