by Bradley W. Hart
In November 1938, one of America’s most famous radio personalities took to the airwaves on a Sunday afternoon, as he had done for years. Unlike the talk shows of later years, this host would not be taking calls from his fans. On this occasion, the host opened his show with the usual church choir and organ music, before launching into a startling defense of Nazi Germany’s treatment of the Jews. Though he claimed to oppose any form of religious discrimination, the host proclaimed that recent violence against the German Jewish community was merely a response to the threat posed by Communism. He went on to name two dozen Jews he claimed had helped bring about the Russian Revolution back in 1917, before concluding that Jews had risen to “high places in radio, press and finance” and were now feeling a backlash.
This was the radio show of Father Charles Coughlin, one of America’s most infamous radio personalities of all time. From 1926 until 1940, Coughlin hosted a Sunday radio program that often focused more on politics than matters of faith. He would eventually see himself as the voice of millions of disaffected Americans who had lost everything in the Depression, and saw no improvement in sight. This populism gathered him what may have been the largest audience in American radio history, if not world history. While we don’t have accurate audience information from the 1930s, polling suggests that Coughlin’s monthly audience may have been as large as 29 million people, with about half that listening on a weekly basis. This meant his audience was much larger than any other talk show hosts’ before or since. By 1938 Coughlin had convinced millions of Americans that he understood their problems as no one else could and was giving them a voice.
The “Radio Priest” — as he was known — came from humble beginnings. Coughlin himself was actually Canadian and was born in Ontario. He entered the seminary and was apparently an outstanding student. After entering the priesthood he was appointed to a small shrine — called the Shrine of the Little Flower — in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak. This was an area known for its Ku Klux Klan presence, and local members welcomed the new priest by burning a cross on his front lawn. Coughlin came to believe that the best way to combat prejudice was by making his church popular, and a few months later he invited big-name baseball players, including the Catholic Babe Ruth, for a visit. The event not only gained Coughlin positive press coverage, but also raised his profile in the community.
Using the new technology of radio to reach the masses fit well with Coughlin’s efforts to spread his message. In October 1926, Coughlin made his first regional broadcast at the age of 35, and was widely regarded as a hit. His voice registered well on the radio, and he spoke slowly and deeply. Even today, listening to a recording of Coughlin’s broadcasts is somehow mesmerizing. From a purely performance standpoint, it’s easy to see why Americans were entranced by his broadcasts. In the early years, most of Coughlin’s shows focused on religious issues and the scriptures, but that all changed with the stock market crash of 1929. From 1930 onward, Coughlin’s weekly broadcasts were decidedly political. The audience seemed to love it, and donations flooded into Coughlin’s church. So much money was arriving that Coughlin had to hire a small army of clerks to process it all. In 1930, the Radio Priest signed a deal with the CBS Radio Network to take his show nationwide and reach 40 million potential listeners. An obscure parish priest had managed to become a household name in just a few years.