WASHINGTON -- Radio has been very, very good to Ronald Reagan.
While it might surprise some that the president has turned to radio rather than television to sell his administration's policies to the public, it is a fact that words always came before pictures in Reagan's two careers of show business and politics.
Reagan took to the airwaves Saturday afternoon to deliver the first in a series of 10 weekly 'fireside chats' -- by radio.
It was radio that gave Reagan his first real job, $5 a game broadcasting University of Iowa football games nearly 50 years ago. In time, first at Davenport and then at Des Moines, Iowa, Reagan became one of the leading play-by-play sports announcers in the Midwest. It also gave him a paycheck of $75 a week at a time when millions of people were jobless.
H.R. Gross, a former Iowa congressman and broadcasting colleague of Reagan's in those early days, recalled for one of the President's biographers, how well 'Dutch' Reagan could create a baseball game's atmosphere from the sketchy information he received from a telegraph wire.
'You would think from hearing those ball games you were sitting in Wrigley Field,' Gross told author Bill Boyarsky.
Reagan himself recalls doing one of those Chicago Cubs games when the ticker went dead in the ninth inning. To cover, for nearly seven minutes Reagan described in graphic detail a series of pitches by Dizzy Dean of the Cardinals and foul balls hit by the Cubs batter, Augie Galan. Finally, the telegraph wire was restored.
'Curly (the telegrapher) started typing. I clutched at the slip. It said: 'Galan popped out on the first pitch.' Not in my game he didn't. He popped out after practically making a career of foul balls,' Reagan wrote in his autobiography.
'This,' wrote biographer Boyarsky later, 'is how Reagan perfected his speaking ability and learned how to sell soap, cars and major league baseball by the power of his voice.'
It also was radio that helped Reagan get into the movies. In 1937, sent to California to cover the Cubs' spring training, Reagan took a side trip to Hollywood, got a screen test with the help of a singer he had met at WHO in Des Moines and was signed to a Warner Brothers' contract.
After his movie career began to fade, Reagan became the host of the General Electric Theater on television. That led to factory and civic appearances for the company and, as his New Deal liberalism began to fade, toward politics.
Radio again emerged to keep Reagan afloat after he left the California governorship in 1974.
He syndicated a widely broadcast and lucrative daily commentary until he began actively campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination in 1976. He resumed his radio shows, which were his principal source of revenue and the vehicle which kept him before millions of radio listeners, until he tried again and succeeded in his quest for the presidency in 1980.
Reagan is said to be the best broadcaster in the White House since Franklin D. Roosevelt. With the possible exception of John F. Kennedy, every president between FDR and Reagan has been average to awful on both television and radio.