Death of a President: Old-time radio listening, 12 April

Roosevelt made radio his own, and radio made his death its own. (Photo: National Archives.)

Roosevelt made radio his own, and radio made his death its own. (Photo: National Archives.)

His thinning, weakened appearance has startled some of those who’ve seen him in person, as Congress did upon his return from the Yalta conference two months earlier. (As will become known publicly, in due course, no less than Winston Churchill’s personal physician, traveling with the British prime minister to Yalta, observes the President and confides that he believes to his soul the President will be lucky to live through the spring—if that long.)

On the surface he should be feeling far more optimistic than at any previous time during the war. The Marines have taken Iwo Jima. The Allies have finished the Rhine crossings and have come even closer to isolating and pinning Hitler. But at his retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, preparing for an anticipated appearance at the founding conference of what will be the United Nations, the 32nd President of the United States, who has made old-time radio his own via his Fireside Chat series and other appearances, dies of a cerebral hemorrhage after complaining of a severe headache while sitting for a portrait.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death probably hits with such ferocity of grief because—aside from the shock of any President dying in office, never mind one conducting a war of the magnitude and ultimate ramifications of World War II—his presidency coincided with radio’s unquestioned height as a primary and rapid mass medium. And radio now brings so stunning a death (such were the times that Roosevelt’s health issues and private life were not dissected contemporarily, as will occur in later generations to later Presidents) to the country’s homes with shattering immediacy.

The place for analysing Roosevelt’s life, work, and legacy is not here. The place for reviewing the manner in which radio accepted, conveyed, and discussed his death and its immediate impacts, and shepherded a nation if not a world through its gravity, most certainly is.


Bulletin: The President Dies (CBS)—John Daly breaksinto a broadcast to announce the news of Roosevelt’s death from a cerebral hemorrhage.

Special Report: A Report from Warm Springs (CBS)—Don Fisher delivers a gentle report from Warm Springs itself, including reaction to Roosevelt’s death from around the small region he made his second home.

World News Today, Further: The Order of Succession (CBS)—From Washington, Bill Henry delivers a formal introduction of newly-sworn Harry S. Truman, including recollections of Truman’s performance as vice president, and a discourse on the constitutional order of succession. Also: Alistair Cooke repeats the bulletin he gave in England when the news of President Roosevelt’s death interrupted news of the British 8th Army’s European plunge.

Mr. Roosevelt piloted the nation to within sight of victory . . .” (Blue Network)—Spun off from NBC after a Federal Trade Commission round a few years earlier, but not yet known as the American Broadcasting Company, the Blue Network continues coverage of the President’s death. Includes once-eminent commentator Baukhage reflecting upon Truman’s swearing-in, initial activity upon his reluctant succession (including an emergency Cabinet meeting), and absorption of Roosevelt’s policies into his own thinking on the threshold of taking the war’s command.

A Critic Empathises (Mutual)—Frequent and usually unapologetic critic of the New Deal, Fulton Lewis, Jr. delivers a brief, sober, but implicitly empathetic report.

The Greatest Casualty” (WNYC New York)—Fiorello H. La Guardia, the customarily ebullient mayor of New York City, sounds anything but as he discusses Roosevelt’s death, its immediate impact, and the president’s legacy as he, La Guardia, sees it.



The Life of Riley: Marriage Can Be Beautiful (NBC, 1947)—A newspaper article cautioning against taking marriage for granted catches Peg’s (Paula Winslowe) eye and Riley’s (William Bendix) cynicism (“I’m particular about the kind of trash that goes in my head”)—until it begins getting into his head after Peg questions his attentiveness following an evening out. Junior: Scotty Beckett. Babs: Sharon Douglas. Waldo: Dink Trout. Writers: Alan Lipscott, Robert Sloane.


Crime Drama

21st Precinct: The Shopping Bag (CBS, 1956)—Once they can get through a crowd of curiosity seekers, precinct officers try to determine how and why an elderly woman—who wasn’t exactly impoverished—stepped suddenly into traffic, from between parked cars, and was struck down dead by a taxicab whose driver couldn’t avoid hitting her . . . and what the real story might be behind a large volume of cash she carried in a shopping bag when she was killed. Cronin: James Gregory. Sgt. Waters: Harold J. Stone. Lt. King: Ken Lynch. Additional cast: Santos Ortega, Frank Moss, John Laren, Bill Zuckert, Mandel Kramer, Elsa Barrett. Announcer: Roger Foster. Writer/director: Stanley Niss.



Quiet, Please: Twelve to Five (Mutual, 1948)—Almost five decades later, a television series,Early Edition, will center around a disillusioned young man who receives the following day’s daily newspaper and finds himself trying to change the coming news and the lives it might destroy. That series may well have been inspired by this installment, in which an easygoing disc jockey (Ernest Chappell, who also narrates) receives an unexpected visitor who reads the news on the air, with only one problem—the events described are half an hour from actually happening. Intruder: Jack LaSculi (an actual disc jockey and commentator). Additional cast: Connie Linton, Merrillee Joel, Ed Lattimer. Music: Albert Buhrmann. Writer/director: Wyllis Cooper.

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12 Responses to Death of a President: Old-time radio listening, 12 April

  1. April of 1945 saw U.S., Italy and Germany lose their leaders with the death of FDR on April 12, Benito Mussolini on April 28 and Adolf Hitler on April 30. Three leaders had died in a 18 day period. Was born only 6 months before FDR died, so have almost no memory of him, except from old time radio and other media.

  2. Sieber says:

    I was with my Mom at Standing’s Market on Highland Ave. in Hollywood The radio was on behind the meat counter. A lady standing beside us passed out & went down like a sack of potatoes.. I asked my Mom what had happened.. She said the radio had announced that the president had died & the lady had fainted.

  3. Bob Paine says:

    Mom was sitting on the front step of her apartment building when a friend came by to tell her that the President had died. Mom told her not to joke about it. She wasn’t.

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