History: Political Radio

"Because of what America is and what America has done, a firmer courage, a higher hope, inspires the heart of all humanity," intoned the voice of President Calvin Coolidge on March 4, 1925, Inauguration Day, to over 23 million people in America through one of the first presidential radio broadcasts. Coolidge's radio broadcast signaled a new era of political communications. By 1924, with 500 stations and three million receivers in the United States, the potential of radio could no longer be ignored and both political parties attempted to use this new medium to their benefit in the 1924 election.

Prior to the 1924 election, parties used the technology of the phonograph in campaigns; recordings of a candidate's political speeches were made to bring recognition to the candidate and could be played at churches and other gatherings. During the 1908 election, records of William Howard Taft and William Jennings Bryan with their pictures were available for purchase. Warren Harding also used the phonograph extensively during the 1920 election. Despite the ability of phonographs to reach people whom the candidates could not meet, the radio proved to be a much more powerful medium.

Although the radio audience in 1924 was considerable, political use of radio was hampered by the uneven distribution of radio stations and the lack of a cohesive national network. National networks had not yet come into existence; thus, there were no regularly scheduled programs and each national broadcast required a confusion of negotiations. These problems and the price of $4000 for an hour of coast-to-coast broadcasting did not prevent the Republican National Committee from spending $120,000 on radio and the Democrats $40,000 in 1924. The Democrats broadcasted their national convention that year, the first political convention to be on radio. The Republicans broadcasted from their own station every day from October 21 to election day. The biggest broadcast was on election eve, when a hookup of twenty-six stations carried Coolidge's speech. Coolidge's conversational but nasalized tone was on air again on December 6, 1923, the first broadcasted State of the Union.

By 1928, the Columbia Broadcasting System and the National Broadcasting Company had been established as national radio networks, making national radio broadcasts easier for political figures. A highlight of the 1928 presidential campaign was the parties' creation of political radio entertainment shows. The Democrats created a dramatization of the life of Al Smith, the Democratic candidate, complete with stage celebrities and Smith's campaign theme song. The Republicans appealed to local interests by broadcasting localized five-minute speeches delivered by "Minute Men" over 170 stations. Politicians were expected to pay for their own air time and each coast-to-coast broadcast cost approximately $10,000 an hour.

Until the 1930s, political radio was still trying to establish itself. Most political radio broadcasts included conventions, speeches, and an occassional entertainment show, but there were few attempts to use the radio extensively as more than just political advertisements or news. Franklin Roosevelt, Huey Long, Father Charles Coughlin, and the March of Time radio shows broke the monotonous use of political radio to reflect the national sentiments of Americans during the Great Depression. FDR, Long, and Coughlin used the radio in the 1930s to rally sucessfully the American people to their causes and the March of Time provided dramatizations of both political and nonpolitical news.