Saturday, November 15, 2008

Obama and FDR : Not Just New New Deal, New New Media

As many of you know, I'm finishing my New New Media book, due at my publisher, Allyn & Bacon, in January. I thought you might enjoy a little preview - something I just wrote this morning...

The November 24, 2008 cover of Time Magazine depicting Barack Obama as the new FDR – the President-elect in specs, gray suit and hat, sitting in car, cigarette jutting optimistically upward – has the caption, "The New New Deal".

The comparison, of course, is to FDR and Obama both first taking office in the throes of financial crises and catastrophe, and to Obama’s plans for public work projects, to help Americans get back to work, just as FDR did in the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But the announcement - a day after the Time Magazine cover became public on November 13, 2008 – that Obama’s radio address on November 15, 2008 would also be made available on YouTube, showed that Obama would be the new FDR not only in New Deal economic, but in the employment of new new media to communicate to the American people.

Roosevelt’s "fireside chats" - 30 of them from 1933-1944 - had used the new medium of his day, radio, to communicate directly to the American people, as no President had ever done before. Roosevelt and his advisers understood how to employ the advantages of new radio, which allowed anyone talking through it, including the President, to sound and seem as if he was talking directly to Americans, in their living rooms, bedrooms, of whatever room their radio happened to be situated in their homes. The effect was powerful, unprecedented, profound. My parents, who grew up in the Great Depression, often told me how they felt Roosevelt was almost a kind of father or parent – which makes sense, for whose voice would otherwise be talking to you in the inner sanctums of your home. When World War II came, my parents felt comforted by Roosevelt’s voice. They felt that as long as FDR was talking to them and all Americans, the country would be ok. (See my 1997 The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution for more on radio and FDR.)

Americans stopped listening to radio that way in the 1950s, when television became the predominant political broadcast medium, and radio became a vehicle of rock ‘n’ roll. By 1960, people who saw the Kennedy-Nixon debates on television thought Kennedy won, in contrast to those who heard the debates on radio and gave the victory to Nixon – unfortunately for Nixon, some 90% of Americans had televisions in their homes by 1960. And in the election of 2008 and its aftermath, YouTube began to replace television as the predominant political audio-visual medium.

Obama’s YouTube addresses take advantage of all the characteristics of this new new medium, just as FDR’s fireside chats did with radio in the 1930s and 40s. In place of the voice in the home, the fatherly reassurance, that radio conveyed for FDR, Obama on YouTube suits the world of 2008, in which people want to be in touch with their President, or at least hear and see him, at times of their rather than his choosing. Like a President on radio, a President on YouTube is still conveying reassurance – but it’s a reassurance for people on the move, accustomed to being in the driver’s seat about when and how they receive their information, including Presidential addresses. In the fast-changing 21st century, the biggest reassurance about information is knowing that it's there.

For example, if you'd like to listen to Obama's first YouTube address as President-elect on November 15, 2008, you can do that right here ...

See also Obama's Speeches and FDR's Fireside Chats
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