On This Day

President Coolidge, Calvin Coolidge
LOC National Photo Company Collection
Calvin Coolidge stands next to radio
equipment used on automobiles during
his 1924 presidential campaign.

On This Day: President Coolidge Delivers First Presidential Address Broadcast on Radio

December 06, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Dec. 6, 1923, President Calvin Coolidge’s State of the Union address became the first presidential address to be broadcast on radio.

Coolidge’s First State of the Union

Calvin Coolidge became president in August 1923 following the death of President Warren G. Harding. In December, he was called to deliver his first message to a joint session of Congress, an address known today as the State of the Union.

Coolidge’s address was the first address by a president to be broadcast on radio. The New York Times wrote of the anticipation for Coolidge’s address in its Dec. 6 edition. “The voice of President Coolidge, addressing Congress tomorrow, will be carried over a greater portion of the United States and will be heard by more people than the voice of any man in history.”

In the address, Coolidge paid tribute to Harding before moving on to speak on a wide range of topics, including foreign affairs, government finances, infrastructure, agriculture Prohibition, African-Americans, and immigration.

The Times estimated that 1 million Americans were expected to listen to the speech. There were radios in more than 2.5 million homes at the time, according to the Miller Center of Public Affairs, up from just 5,000 in 1920.

The following day’s Times reported that the radio broadcast was a success. “So clearly was President Coolidge's message broadcast by radio through half of the nation today that while he was speaking KSD, the radio station in St. Louis, telephoned to the Capitol and asked: ‘What's that grating noise?’ and the transmission experts at the Capitol promptly replied: ‘That's the rustling of the paper as he turns the pages of his message.’”

Presidents and the Radio

Radio was a relatively new technology at the time of Coolidge’s address. Harding had had radio installed in the White House in February 1922 and was the first president to have his voice broadcast on radio when he gave a speech in June 1922 dedicating a memorial to Francis Scott Key.

Coolidge’s address signaled the beginning of the widespread use of radio in politics. In the 1924 presidential election, both the Republican and Democratic conventions were broadcast by radio. Coolidge and his opponents spoke on radio stations along the campaign trail and Coolidge’s final speech before the election was broadcast by a then-record 26 stations.

Coolidge’s 1925 inauguration was the first to be broadcast by radio. The White House Historical Association explains the significance of radio: “No one knows exactly how many people saw George Washington on his carriage tours, but even if he saw 1,000 people every day lined up on the streets, or at ceremonies, only about 100,000 Americans would have seen him—and this was after three months of traveling! In just an instant, 23 million Americans heard Coolidge speak.”

Coolidge used the medium to his full advantage, making a radio address at least once a month during his presidency. “Well aware that he lacked the charisma of some other politicians, Coolidge used his regular radio addresses to forge a personal bond with the public,” according to PBS.

Though Coolidge was a radio pioneer, the American president most associated with radio is Franklin D. Roosevelt. Between 1933 and 1944, Roosevelt delivered 30 “fireside chats” in which he addressed the American people in a friendly, plainspoken manner about his New Deal programs or World War II.

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