This article uses the true-crime radio program Gang Busters to explore the decline in the relationship between network broadcasters and their audiences in the late 1930s and early 1940s. In the 1920s and early 1930s, with no scientific structure yet available to analyze and predict audience response, radio producers created programs and genres relying on individual listeners' letters and personal observations. In this period, listener response inspired lasting changes in radio technology, genres, and institutions. By the 1940s, ratings and surveys of specialized markets shaped production choices. Radio genres and formulas had standardized and producers were no longer interested in inviting audiences to participate in the creation process but only in allowing them to express taste preferences. This breakdown of reciprocity was first evident in the case of working class and nonwhite audiences. Broadcasters asserted their authority over voices of listeners and of the poor people whose lives were documented by Gang Busters, particularly popular among children and working class people of all races. The producers of an episode about a police shooting on a farmhouse in Oklahoma clashed with Mexican farmers and other members of the community where the shooting took place. The farmers argued that the radio show glossed over the actions of the police officer who killed the Mexican owner of the farm solely because of the color of his skin, mistaking him for an American Indian criminal on the loose. Listeners' sense of entitlement also extended to the society at large. Unemployment and economic collapse led many Americans to distrust all large business institutions. The failure of broadcasters to move beyond racial stereotypes enabled local farmers and radio listeners to draw parallels between structures of power in commercial broadcasting and those in corporate business and in law enforcement.


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pp. 137-158
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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