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Crime and Punishment on the Air



Howard Rowland


Copyright, 1942, by

Evaluation of School Broadcasts

Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio

Price 25 cents



I. The Nature of the Study 

II. The Crime Pattern 

III. Plot and Character Stereotypes 

1. Super-hero programs

2. Super-sleuth programs

3. Horror programs

IV. The Role of the Super-hero 

V. Law and Order 

VI. Vicarious Aggression 

VII. Childhood Social Adjustment 

VIII. Implications for Radio and Education

I. The Nature of the Study

One of the first considerations in any study of radio crime dramas is the fact that the broadcasting and advertising industries have either created or supplied a great demand for crime dramas among masses of adolescent and pre-adolescent listeners. Radio crime drama is an important part of the folkways of the young person who is growing up in our society. There is a certain element of prestige that the child gains among other children by listening to radio crime dramas, and many children exert social pressure upon one another to listen to these programs. The current heroes of young Americans include the heroes of radio crime dramas. These heroes enter into the play life of children, they provide much of the substance of fantasy and reverie, and they provide certain knowledge about political, legal, social, economic, and technological affairs.

The eternal drama of crime and its punishment provides much of the texture of the legends, mythology, and folklore of most peoples. Those story materials reflect something of the feelings and aspirations of each nation or group through tribal heroes who epitomize the triumph of good over evil, and the chief function served by these stories is that of educating the younger generation--by inducting them into their culture. It is this educative function of radio crime drama that will be critically examined in this bulletin. The contents of a number of radio crime dramas will be described and analyzed, stressing the implications which these program materials may have in the lives of children. Although this bulletin will deal primarily with program content, attention will also be devoted to information and impressions about young radio listeners gained from case studies and other research.

In order to obtain a definite picture of these radio crime dramas, it was necessary to capture the content for examination. Therefore, during the week of March 24-30, 1941, instantaneous off-the-air recordings were made of twenty different radio programs in which crime was a central theme. Seven of these programs were five-day-a-week serials, and one program consisted of three complete episodes each week, while the remainder were in the once-a-week category. This study, then, deals with a total of fifty actual broadcasts available in Columbus, Ohio, during seven consecutive days. The total time consumed by these broadcasts was slightly more than sixteen hours. Fifteen out of the twenty programs had commercial sponsors, and one of the remaining programs was sponsored by the United States Department of Justice.

The following table gives the names of these programs, the frequency and time of day of the broadcasts, the length of each program, the originating source of each program, and the names of sponsors and advertised products.




Program | Day of Week | Time

of Day | Length of Program | Origin | Sponsor and Product


Captain Midnight M-F 5:45 15 min. MBS Wander Co. (Ovaltine)

I Love a Mystery Mon 8:00 30 min. NBC-Blue Standard Brands (Yeast)

Jack Armstrong M-F 5:30 15 min. NBC-Red General Mills (Wheaties)

Jimmy Allen M-F 7:15 15 min. MBS Vess Beverages (Cleo Cola)

Orphan Annie M-F 5:00 15 min. MBS Quaker Oats (Cereal)

Mystery Man M-F 2:15 15 min. NBC-Red General Mills (Wheaties)

Superman M-F 6:00 15 min. Local** Horlick's (Malted Milk)

Tom Mix M-F 5:45 15 min. NBC-Blue Ralston-Purina Co. (Cereal)


Bishop & Gargoyle Sat 8:30 30 min. NBC-Blue Sustaining

Border Patrol Thur 8:15 30 min. MBS U.S. Dept. of Justice

City Desk Thur 8:30 30 min. CBS Colgate Co. (Shave Cream)

Gang Busters Fri 9:00 30 min. NBC-Blue Dr. Earle Sloan (Liniment)

Green Hornet Sat 8:00 30 min. MBS Sustaining

Hermit's Cave Sun 10:30 30 min. Local** Carter Coal Co. (Olga Coal)

Inner Sanctum Sun 8:30 30 min. NBC-Blue Carter Products (Liver Pills)

Lone Ranger M,W,F 7:30 30 min. MBS Felber Biscuit Co. (Toasts)

Mr. Dist. Attorney Wed 9:30 30 min. NBC-Red Bristol-Myers Co. (Vitalis)

Mystery Hall Wed 8:00 30 min. MBS Sustaining

Ned Jordan Tues 8:30 30 min. MBS Sustaining

The Shadow Sun 5:30 30 min. MBS Blue Coal Co. (Coal)

* All time is P.M., Eastern Standard Time, at date of broadcast.

** Broadcast locally but distributed regionally or nationally.


This group of programs does not include all of the available crime dramas on the air during the week mentioned above. Established crime programs such as CRIME DOCTOR and FIRST OFFENDER were not covered. Also not covered were several other series of a more general nature which happened to deal with crime situations during the week of this study. These included THE FREE COMPANY (The Ox Bow Incident), BEHIND THE MIKE (Salute to Eno Crime Clues), BILL STERN (a sketch on an early delinquent period in the life of Frank Buck), SILVER THEATRE (Orson Welles in One Step Ahead), and GULF SCREEN GUILD (His Girl Friday, an adaptation of the movie, "Front Page"). Brief notes were taken on those broadcasts, but the programs were not recorded.

The contents of the twenty recorded programs which are listed in the table were analyzed principally for number and type of offenses, and type of punishments or consequences to the offenders. In addition, the general story plan and structure of each program were examined for stereotypes, "morals" or "motifs," and psychological or sociological implications. 

A question might be raised concerning the adequacy of a sample of radio crime dramas limited to one week in duration. Although it would be desirable to extend a study of this type over a period of several weeks, the cost would be prohibitive if recordings were used. As a supplement to the recorded program materials that were used in this study, the writer familiarized himself with the majority of these crime drama programs over a period of six months prior to the actual study. For the purposes of concreteness and objectivity, the analysis that is presented in the following pages is limited, however, to the recorded program materials.

II. The Crime Pattern

Violence in the form of murder occurred more frequently than any other type of offense in these twenty radio programs. Thirty different characters met death at the hands of murderers, fifteen additional murders were unsuccessfully attempted, and three more were implied but not "proved." Mass killing was approached in one program with eight murders either committed or attempted, while twelve other programs which dealt with murder averaged three murders per program. Shooting was the most prevalent method used in committing these crimes. Other methods included murder by means of occult powers, or hypnotic suggestion; murder by hammering the victim to death; and murder by means of stabbing, drowning, strangling, poisoning, or hanging. In one case murder was attempted by cutting a railroad car loose from a train on a steep hill with the intention of killing the occupants. Murder, for the most part, was treated as incidental to the careers of men who pursued crime as a livelihood. Murders were committed by habitual criminals to gain the end of robbery, and to avoid being captured. Criminals murdered each other following disagreements, and saboteurs murdered any persons who interfered with their work. Murder was also portrayed as an end in itself in the cases of several homicidal maniacs, and in one program the "ghost" of a long-dead hangman was the murderer.

Only seven programs out of the twenty crime dramas included in this study contained no reference to murder, and one of these programs featured homicide by police officers. Three out of these seven programs portrayed sabotage as the major crime theme; the other four dealt respectively with robbery, counterfeiting, smuggling, and swindling. In the entire group of twenty programs, a total of ninety-six offenses (including the murders) were committed, attempted, contemplated, or implied. Next to murder, larceny was the most frequent offense (twenty cases in all); kidnapping and sabotage came next in order (five cases of each); while other offenses included extortion, destruction of property by arson and other means, assault, drug peddling, spy-running, jailbreak, and escape from a mental hospital.

Although murder predominated among the "crimes" in these radio dramas, it is interesting to note that murder is one of the most infrequent of our major crimes in real life. In addition, real murders are committed overwhelmingly by persons whose only offense is that one act of violence, while the radio drama murders for the most part were attributed to habitual criminals. Among the other crimes in these programs, the proportionate emphasis upon larceny compares fairly well with the actual extent of larceny in the United States, while crimes such as kidnapping, sabotage, and extortion were probably overemphasized. [NOTE: Cf. Uniform Crime Reports for the United States and Its Possessions, Federal Bureau of Investigation, U. S. Department of Justice, First Quarterly Bulletin, 1941, Vol. XII, No. 1.]

III. Plot and Character Stereotypes 

The plot situations in the programs included in this study dealt mainly with the fantastic adventures and exploits of stereotyped characters. In over half of the programs that were examined, these stereotypes consisted of super-heroes who used extra-legal means to outwit blundering villains. Next in importance to the super-heroes were the super-sleuths, who functioned as law enforcement officers capturing blundering crooks. In a third group of programs, the main characters were the villains, who perpetrated weird and mysterious crimes, and the heroes (if present) were incidental to pure horror. Following is a brief statement of the plot of each program analyzed:

1. Super-hero programs

Complete Stories:  




LONE RANGER (3 episodes) 









It is probably significant that six out of the eight serials included in this study dealt primarily with the adventures of super-heroes. The hero and his pal were trying to solve several baffling, cold-blooded murders on a sinister island in the program I LOVE A MYSTERY. A scientific expedition was being continually threatened by crooks and hostile natives in JACK ARMSTRONG. An aviation enthusiast, JIMMY ALLEN, was trying (l) to help his friends earn money, and (2) to prevent their being swindled. LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE and her companions were engaged in thwarting attempts by spies to steal a vital defense formula. SUPERMAN, in the guise of a reporter, was involved in saving from plotters, the members of a gold treasure-hunting expedition that was being carried out in order to finance scientific experiments; while in TOM MIX, the cowboy and his pals were attempting to thwart a plot to blow up a powder plant. 

In addition to these serials, three episodes of the LONE RANGER, and four other programs were based upon plots in which super-heroes outwitted blundering villains. Tonto, the LONE RANGER's loyal companion, helped the cowboy hero thwart a gang of rustlers in one episode of this program, causing a young boy's villainous father to reform just before he died. In another episode they brought about the capture of a crooked, murder-bent sheriff, and in the third, they stopped a gang who were about to rob a train and kill five of its passengers. THE BISHOP AND THE GARGOYLE are two amateur sleuths who solve a series of strange murders and discover that the beautiful murderess is insane. THE GREEN HORNET, whose identity is known only to his trusted servant Kato, actually is a young newspaper publisher who coerced political racketeers into confessing their crimes. In another program, CITY DESK, the hero was a young reporter who brought about the arrest of a gang of counterfeiters. Lastly, there was THE SHADOW (alias Lamont Cranston), wealthy playboy who through his hypnotic powers, saved his girl-friend from voodoo sacrifice by natives who finally killed the mad white murderer who was their leader.

2. Super-sleuth programs

Complete Stories: 






These programs differ very little from the super-hero crime dramas

included in Group 1. The main difference is in the status of the principal characters; super-sleuths who are agents of the law take the place of super-heroes who are outside the law. The sleuths change from week to week in GANG BUSTERS and in BORDER PATROL, while in the other programs the central characters are permanent and perpetual. These programs in general are bloodier and noisier than the super-hero dramas. In the serial CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT, an Intelligence Officer and his young friends were in a South American jungle trying to capture the base of a group of foreign spies and saboteurs who were plotting to destroy the Panama Canal. NED JORDAN, SECRET AGENT, with the help of police, captured foreign saboteurs who were about to destroy a barge in the Hudson River which contained vital defense materials. Agents of the United States Department of Justice assigned to the Mexican border captured marijuana smugglers in BORDER PATROL (sponsored by the Department of Justice). MR. DISTRICT ATTORNEY, who is always busy capturing criminals rather than prosecuting them, captured a hitchhiking murderer whose crimes consisted of strangling and then robbing the wives of motorists who had befriended him. (This plot was used a short time after a hitchhiker murderer was arrested in a suburb of New York City.) In GANG BUSTERS a gang of "nickel-and-dime" bandits was captured by the police after a fierce gun battle.

3. Horror programs

Complete Stories: 





Only four out of the twenty programs included in this study lacked a super-hero or a super-sleuth. Two of these programs had heroes, but they were rather ordinary people who were overshadowed by horrors and mysteries. In MYSTERY HALL, a young surgeon exposed his uncle's murderess, who had poisoned the uncle (her brother-in-law) for his money; while in MYSTERY MAN, a young lawyer and a wealthy girl were attempting to discover who stole the latter's pearls, and to locate her father, who had disappeared. The central character in INNER SANCTUM MYSTERIES was a mad psychiatrist who committed suicide after his attempt at a third murder was discovered; and the fourth program in this group, HERMIT'S CAVE, featured two murders by the ghost of a long-dead hangman.

IV. The Role of the Super-Hero [NOTE: For an excellent discussion of one of the classic super-heroes in radio crime drama Cf. Frederick Wyatt, The Lone Ranger: Some Psychological Observations, Bulletin No. 27, The Evaluation of School Broadcasts, 1941.]

The outstanding stereotype in radio crime drama is the super-hero who operates outside of the formal machinery of law enforcement. We have indicated that more than half of the twenty programs were based upon the adventures and exploits of these characters. Various studies show that these programs reach a peak in audience appeal for boys at the ages of eleven and twelve, that this interest diminishes gradually among older boys, and that these programs are popular among many girls and among many adults.

The role of the super-hero is the role of undaunted courage and bravery in the perpetual struggle to overcome evil and wrongdoing. The super-hero is more or less immortal, he is unchanging, he is completely predictable. Although the super-heroes in the serials are very much like those in the single-episode programs, they differ in one respect. In the serials these characters are engaged in humanitarian, "scientific," or patriotic adventures which are constantly being thwarted by scoundrels, spies or villains; while in the single episode dramas, the entire plot deals with the capturing of crooks and bad men.

The super-hero of radio crime drama is platonic and impersonal. Love affairs may be hinted at but they must not be overt. His virility and masculinity make him an object of adoration by women. He is an individualist and he is not deeply rooted in family or community life. He depends upon aides, accomplices, and companions who are far inferior to him in ability, physique, courage, and intelligence. He is more concerned about abstract ideals of justice than in actual human beings. He is omnipotent and infallible. His actions are secretive, so much so that oftentimes they cannot be revealed to his closest companions. These companions, in turn, follow their super-heroes with blind and unfaltering loyalty and devotion. He is more righteous than established law and order. He is defiant toward lawful processes and suspicious of them, and he frequently exposes cumbersome, blundering, unintelligent, or corrupt officers of the law. The super-hero, although generally he disregards legal machinery, sometimes contrives to force this machinery to function by allowing clumsy officials to make the final arrest, mete out punishment, and thus enhance their egos. More often, however, the super-hero contrives to have bad people destroy themselves or one another as a consequence of their misdeeds. The super-hero avoids the roles of the trial lawyer, and of the jury member. These roles are too human for him to risk.

The super-hero role is one of swift-moving action, excitement, and suspense. This does not leave much time for characterization, and too much characterization would undo our super-heroes. They must be presented as fragments of personalities. Elaborate characterization is out of order, because this would make the super-heroes ordinary humans rather than super-humans, and mass appeal would diminish. The super-heroes are symbols rather than actual persons, and because they are symbols they seem more real than real persons in the listener's environment. They are all the more convenient as objects for projection and identification, because they are unreal and fantastic. They are creatures of the imagination, rather than of reality, and for this reason they cannot have historical authenticity. History is made from the lives of actual men who had their faults as well as their virtues. Super-heroes are vehicles for myths rather than actuality.

As a protagonist the super-hero does not exhort and he does not advocate. Persuasion (for the listener) is through action rather than words. He is a fanatic and a zealot but he does not expostulate. He does not use ridicule. He is somber. He does not laugh, because he is emotionless. He is a symbol whose main function is to reflect the inner feelings and frustrations of the listener. Those feelings are never released, however, for they are locked and chained to the super-hero symbol. He is a mirror of the moods and aspirations of his admirers. He is a creature of their minds, a secret of their innermost thoughts and dreams.

Vagueness and strangeness are primary requisites of the companions of the super-hero, of the villains he pursues, and of the locale of action in which he moves. In order to awaken daydream and fantasy, the locale that is best is some faraway place. Space relationships and furious action necessitate rapid locomotion, and, therefore, the super-heroes of radio are hard-riding cowboys, or they are airplane pilots, or they drive super-automobiles, etc. Since locomotion must be visualized from an auditory stimulus, those forms are best which make the best sound effects in the radio studio. Villains, as well as locomotion and locale, are creatures of auditory stimuli; hence accents and vocal inflections are exaggerated and stereotyped. Script writers are hard pressed when it comes to creating villains because the ethnic and racial backgrounds of our population are extremely diverse and there is no desire to court the disapproval of pressure groups. This is one reason for the survival value of the cattle rustler as a literary type. The rustler is immune from the resentment of any particular segment of the population. Other convenient villains are the "ignorant" and "superstitious" natives in the Caribbean or South Seas, the sinister European, the sinister Latin American, the sinister Oriental, and the city-bred racketeer or gangster.

Although a traditional function of drama as an art form is the treatment of the problem of motivation in behavior, motivation is completely neglected or distorted in the radio dramas of super-hero proportions. Bad people are bad a priori, and good people are good. The super-hero dramas cannot treat villainy in the context of causal relationships that produce villainy. These dramas cannot present the truth, because their fundamental pattern is the distortion of truth.

V. Law and Order

The fact that only five out of the twenty radio crime dramas dealt with law enforcement as a central theme indicates that the apprehension of criminals through legal channels was secondary to other considerations in the design of these programs. In the entire group of programs, ninety-six offenses resulted in only twenty-three punishments or consequences, and in nine out of those twenty-three cases offenders were dealt with through extra-legal means which included the suicide of the murderer in two cases, four extra-legal killings, and three cases of assault with intent to kill. Among the legal punishments one offender was jailed and released on bail, two characters were imprisoned, imprisonment was implied in six other cases, and the death sentence was implied in five cases.

Insofar as radio crime drama deals with the theme of justice, there is gross distortion. The conception of justice that is portrayed is based primarily upon the apprehension or disposal of bad men at any cost. The dramas invariably end when the crooks are captured or exterminated and in the serials this results in long-drawn-out plots in which super-heroes or super-sleuths are in pursuit of elusive villains in order to maintain a perpetual state of suspense among young listeners. From an educational viewpoint this entire process results in misconceptions about the nature of the police and the courts in the minds of young listeners.

We have already pointed out that the programs based upon the adventures of super-heroes omitted a realistic portrayal of the influences which produce crime and criminals. In contrast to these programs, it should be pointed out that three of the programs based upon the activities of law enforcement officers made some attempt to explain the backgrounds of the offenders. Two of these programs, MR. DISTRICT ATTORNEY and GANG BUSTERS, indicated that the offenders came from impoverished circumstances and that their crimes were committed in order to secure enough money so they could have a good time, while in BORDER PATROL the young offender became an accomplice of marijuana smugglers because he went around with "bad companions" and learned to smoke "reefers." It is interesting to note that those three programs, all based upon the "crime does not pay" motif, dealt with young offenders. Only one other young offender appeared in the entire group of programs--the insane murderess in THE BISHOP AND THE GARGOYLE. Despite the "crime does not pay" motif, numerous critics contend that young people actually learn delinquent methods from these broadcasts, [NOTE: Cf. "Listen Flatfoot," Time, 35:48, April 8, 1940.] and that delinquent behavior is encouraged as a result of listening. Although extensive studies have been made in connection with the influence of the motion pictures on delinquent behavior, those studies have not proved conclusive, and similar studies dealing with the influence of radio have not as yet been conducted. There is some evidence that children from delinquent areas listen to crime programs proportionately more than children from non-delinquent areas. [NOTE: Cf. Ethel Shanas, Radio Program Preferences of Seventh and Eighth Grade Children in Selected Areas of Chicago, Chicago Recreation Commission, 1938.] This does not mean, however, that listening to crime programs necessarily is a cause of delinquency. Instead, it is more probable that the same economic and cultural factors which produce delinquency also produce a greater number of young people who enjoy crime drama more than other types of radio programs.

VI. Vicarious Aggression

In a preliminary investigation of the reaction of junior high school students to radio crime dramas, selected recordings were played to small groups of normal boys and girls who were asked to tell what each program made them think about. They reported a considerable amount of imaginative projection in the form of identifying themselves with one or more characters in each program; they identified characters like TOM MIX and THE LONE RANGER with movie cowboys; SUPERMAN and THE SHADOW were identified with bizarre comic-strip characters; the heroes and villains in programs like GANG BUSTERS and MR. DISTRICT ATTORNEY were identified with characters in crime movies; while THE HERMIT evoked memories of frightful early childhood experiences.

Although this investigation was not conclusive, it indicated that radio crime drama was mainly a form of escape from the immediate world of reality, and that imagery evoked by these programs was reenforced and supplemented by the movies and the comics. Along with the radio, these other media of mass communication account for most of the leisure-time attention of children. These three great commercial enterprises are geared to provide children en masse with vicarious aggression, and of the three, radio is probably the most powerful influence. Radio reaches the greatest number of children, and it consumes the greatest amount of their leisure time. The programs that were studied followed three patterns in providing their listeners with vicarious aggression:

1. The children's serials utilized suspense more than actual violence, the plots were long and drawn out, and the villains constantly thwarted the plans of the heroes and their pals, who despite much intrigue and physical danger, promised the eventual capture of the villains.

2. Violence rather than suspense characterized most of the single-episode programs dealing with the exploits of super-sleuths and super-heroes. In these programs crimes of violence were committed by robbers, gangsters, and saboteurs who were destined to immediate capture or destruction.

3. The horror programs featured weird "psychological" crimes, violence was portrayed as an end in itself on the part of maniacs, and suspense was based upon a "hidden but impending fate."

The consumer of radio thrills doesn't pay an admission price, for radio's theatre exists only in the mind of the listener, through illusion that may seem more real than reality, illusion reenforced with visual images implanted by the movies and the comics. Radio horrors can be made more horrible than movie horrors because the power of suggestion of the radio is very great, and there is no visual stimulus to impede the listener in the task of constructing his own private image of things that are horrible. The entire process is supposed to be helped along (according to some psychologists) by sadistic impulses in the individual which are clamoring for at least vicarious realization.

The addicts of movie horrors and radio crime were compared to the non-addicts in a recent study of two hundred normal children. [NOTE: Mary L. Preston, M. D., "Children's Reactions to Movie Horrors and Radio Crime," Journal of Pediatrics, Vol. 19, No. 2, August, 1941, pp. 147-168.] Severe addiction (movies two to five times a week and many radio crime programs) was found in fifty-seven per cent of the cases; moderate addiction (movies one to two times a month and regular listening to one or two crime programs like CALLING ALL CARS and GANG BUSTERS) in twelve per cent of the cases; mild addiction (several movies a year and milder crime programs like the LONE RANGER) in seven per cent. Twenty-four per cent of the children studied were non-addicts. The average child, according to this study, hears radio crime between the hours of 4:00 p. m. and 9:00 p. m. Most of them continue to think about the horror in bed, they dream about killings, and have fears of kidnappings. Daydreaming, in addition, is reported to be filled with thoughts of crime in which most children identify themselves with criminals. Conclusions derived from this study include the following:

Addiction to movie horrors and radio crime dramas was found to be detrimental to general health.

Nervousness was more pronounced among the addicts than among the non-addicts, in the form of tics and twitches, pallor, sleeping disturbances, eating disturbances, fears, and nail biting.

Elimination of movie horrors and radio crime was found in homes of high standards of child training, regardless of social or economic position, or educational backgrounds.

Treatment, whenever possible, consisted of gaining parental cooperation by evidence that health was being undermined and school success interfered with, followed by restriction of frequency of indulgence and elimination of crime and horrors, along with substitution of other recreations and social life, which gave the satisfactory results of an improved physical condition and subsidence of symptoms.

It is no wonder that nervousness and emotional instability are discoverable among the addicts of these vicarious theatricals of crime and violence, and yet there are apologists who assert that there is nothing essentially wrong with the content of crime thriller radio dramas. These apologists maintain that children are in need of the kind of catharsis, emotional escape, and emotional release that is afforded by fantastic murderous characters perennially pursued by equally fantastic and overdrawn heroes. These apologists have misinterpreted and misapplied the Aristotelian and Freudian interpretations of drama, and they are completely unaware of the difference between human instincts and cultural patterning so far as personality is concerned. They make the mistake of viewing childhood aggression as instinctive and inborn, rather than as a result of frustrations imposed upon the child by his culture, [NOTE: Cf. John Dollard, Leonard W. Doob and others, Frustration and Aggression, Yale University Press, 1939. These authors emphatically maintain that aggression is always a consequence of frustration.] and they would solve the problem of aggression by turning the child's attention to dramas of crime and violence. Through vicarious identification with these fictional cops and robbers, the child's aggressiveness is supposed to be resolved.

Children undoubtedly need a certain amount of excitement and aggression in their drama and they probably need some drama which gives free reign to murder and other illicit fantasies. But certainly there must be a point beyond which the law of diminishing returns begins to operate, for crime and violence in drama have no cathartic value when there is a constant habituation to overdoses of these ingredients. Overdoses of crime and violence in stories or dramas consumed by children result not only in jaded tastes, but in addition, these overdoses may contribute to those frustrations of children which bring about aggressive behavior. If this premise is correct, it follows that the producers of crime dramas help bring about some of the aggression which these dramas are supposed to relieve through catharsis. The problem is not one of specific maladjustment resulting from specific radio programs, comics, or movies. The broader problem is the patterning of the culture into which young people are being introduced, and the appropriateness of the major kinds of experiences which are offered to children as a means of preparing them for responsible roles in this culture.

VII. Childhood Social Adjustment

A fundamental need of the child in the pre-adolescent and early adolescent period (before the beginning of courtship) is the need for social acceptance and status in the play group or gang. Social adjustment at this level frequently necessitates rigid adherence to codes and standards that are at variance with adult values. Children in our society, thus, are confronted with two conflicting cultural patterns. One is the culture of the adult world and the other is the separate culture of the young. The latter cultural pattern is enforced upon boys more rigorously than upon girls, and adherence to this pattern is demanded over a longer period of time for boys than for girls. A major contribution of this separate culture to the child's personality might be termed socio-centric growth, contrasted with the egocentric patterning of the personality which comes from the child's early adjustment as a member of the family group. The emotional bonds of companionship and friendship are inculcated by this separate culture of the young while relationships based upon love are tabooed. In order to avoid conflict with parental authority, the child usually maintains a great deal of secrecy about his experiences in the childhood play group or gang, and oftentimes these activities are protected by secret codes and elaborate rituals.

The extravagant interest which children (especially boys) manifest in radio crime dramas bears an important relationship to the problems which children confront in adjusting simultaneously to two conflicting cultural patterns. Super-heroes who are constantly doing good, but who must operate outside the bonds of the law, are particularly convenient as fictional companions for young boys who must act contrary to parental authority in order to make a satisfactory adjustment to the boy gang. The secretive nature of the activities of the super-sleuths from radio crime drama is not unlike the secrecy which children must use to avoid adult interference in their gang and play group activities. Those fictional heroes carefully avoid falling in love and they epitomize companionship, physical prowess, courage, and fair play--roles which are highly esteemed in the gang or play group.

The radio listening of young children is censored very little by adults, and the most understandable radio programs are the crime serials written for young listeners. The young child who is excluded from the play activities of older children comes to rely on these crime serials that he hears the older children talk about. Fictional companions from these programs are more dependable than real companions for the very young child, and as he grows older, these fictional companions are much easier to manage than real companions. One of the dangers in habituation to crime drama, therefore, is the danger that these fictional companions will be depended upon to the point where they take the place of real companionships and actual adjustment to other boys and girls.

Case studies of children conducted by the writer [NOTE: Cf. Radio and the Summer Vacation, Bulletin No. 56, Evaluation of School Broadcasts, 1942.] indicate that addiction to crime stories from the radio and other sources is most acute among those children who have experienced the greatest amount of frustration in their attempts to reconcile the conflicting cultural patterns of adjustment to parental authority versus acceptance in the gang or play group. This frustration is greatest among children who are oversized or undersized, who are markedly retarded or markedly precocious; among children who suffer from extreme over-protection or extreme neglect by their parents; and children who are subjected to marginal or conflicting cultural contacts such as the Negro child living in a predominately white neighborhood, or the child from a foreign home located in a neighborhood of settled American families.

The problems of extreme frustration experienced by children certainly are not solved by means of vicarious aggression in the form of indulgence or addiction to crime dramas or crime stories. If there is any therapeutic value in radio crime drama for frustrated children, this value might conceivably be that of providing a collectively distributed and stereotyped pattern of fantasy and reverie as a substitute for privately concocted fantasies. It is doubtful, however, if any therapeutic value of this sort is great enough to outweigh the possible ill effects of too much indulgence in vicarious aggression. Addiction to crime dramas begins as a mere symptom of the frustration experienced by children who have difficulty in getting along with other children. Addiction, in the more acute form, may become a complete substitute for concrete social experiences with other children. Crime drama, thus, may function like a habit-forming drug. A drug or an opiate is used to relieve symptoms of illness or maladjustment in the beginning stages of addiction. A habit of indulgence gradually develops, and the addict comes to rely on the drug more and more until he is unable to face his real troubles. Habits of extreme indulgence in crime dramas are being inculcated among children in mass proportions today. We are offering entertainment of a passive character to children, on a wholesale scale, as a substitute for and encroachment upon play activities, and as a result we are producing an entire generation of children who depend upon stereotyped fictional characters more extensively than they depend upon inter-personal relationships with real people.

We have pointed out that some frustration is present in practically all children in our society as a result of a basic conflict between two different cultural patterns, namely, the separate culture of the young, contrasted with the standards and values which adults uphold for children. We have also suggested that this basic frustration is augmented by radio crime dramas because these dramas stereotype and overemphasize certain roles which are highly esteemed in the childhood play group or gang. Radio crime drama, thus, has the effect of making the child exaggerate and overact certain roles as a participant in the play group or gang. The child's behavior in life situations with other children becomes stereotyped along the same lines as the patterning of those forms of fantasy and reverie which are afforded by the crime dramas and crime stories that are widely prevalent in our culture. Children overact to fragments of roles and to fragmented parts of their culture, and the entire process produces fractured and fragmented personalities rather than integrated personalities.

To an increasing extent we are producing individuation rather than individuality among children. Extreme individuation is manifested by behavior disorders, nervousness, emotional instability, and the substitution of fantasy and reverie for concrete social relationships. Individuation in this form is directly related to the sublimation of aggression. Individuation is also manifested by direct aggression in actual social relationships by the overemphasis of toughness and obtusely screened virtues; by desperate attempts to gain status at the expense of others; by an overdependence upon individual companions and playmates at the expense of group ideals and demands; and by the prolongation of the pre-adolescent and early adolescent stages of development.

VIII. Implications for Radio and Education

1. The characters in radio crime dramas tend to exaggerate and overemphasize certain roles which appeal to the child at the time when he is caught between those standards of good and bad demanded by adults, and the standards of his own play group or gang. Insofar as these programs relieve aggression, it is mainly aggression which is a product of this fundamental conflict experienced by the child. The child's problem of aggression is not solved, however, and if his frustration is acute, there is a tendency to substitute fantasy and the fantastic for actual social adjustment to the play group or gang. Childhood aggression and frustration, thus, may be augmented when there is severe addiction to radio crime drama.

2. The entire problem of radio's relationship to childhood aggression and frustration might provide an excellent basis for continuing research and experimentation were it not for Pearl Harbor and the events which have followed Pearl Harbor. Dramas of crime and violence may serve admirably in the draining off of aggression through vicarious experience, but we cannot continue to provide vicarious aggression in mass proportions, and at the same time hope to build up the kind of aggression necessary for defeating the enemies of democracy. Interestingly, Hitler never provided the Germans with vicarious horror on the radio. He gave them a zealous faith in themselves and their state and proceeded to use the radio to unloose sadism, lust, and aggression upon human objects. In order to develop an offensive against Hitler and his methods, it is of the utmost importance to use radio, the press, and motion pictures for implementing an active faith in democratic aims, ideals, and processes. The time is past when we can afford to use radio programs as a means for the vicarious experience of sadism and aggression, for these emotions must be turned against our immediate enemies.

3. These problems can be solved only partially by radio, the press, and motion pictures. Along with the more intelligent use of those channels of communication, there is a great need for strengthening and reenforcing those areas of childhood experience based upon actual social relationships rather than passive and vicarious entertainment. This task can be shared by the leaders in the broadcasting industry, for radio programs can be and should be designed to stimulate children to do things for themselves. Much more attention should be devoted to programs which reenforce the aims and objectives of existing youth organizations, for example, instead of building sham youth organizations to which a child belongs merely because he has mailed a box top from a package of breakfast food to a broadcasting station. In addition, more attention should be devoted to stimulating educationally useful hobbies and interests upon the part of young listeners. 

4. The apparent interest of children in crime drama should not be exploited to transmit misconceptions about criminals, the police, or the courts. These are vital subjects that do not need to be distorted in order to be made into good drama. One of the best "crime" dramas that the writer has ever heard was broadcast during the week of the present study. It was the FREE COMPANY'S Ox Bow Incident, a forthright presentation of one of the cornerstones of liberty in a democracy, the right of trial by jury. Further experimentation with programs of this type should be encouraged. In addition, programs similar to FIRST OFFENDER should receive more attention from established script writers, producers and directors. This program, although lacking in showmanship and acting talent, attempted to portray some of the circumstances which produced a "first offense" and the later reform of the offender. Another program that was no longer available at the time of this study, YOUTH IN TOILS, dealt realistically and interestingly with the problems of young delinquents and some of the effects of outmoded correctional methods. Recordings of the broadcast proved to be of considerable value when used by the writer in a high-school social-studies class as the basis for discussions of economic and social problems connected with crime. This suggests the possible practical value of developing a "crime" series as a school broadcast (or as a recorded series for school use) designed to show what conditions produce crime and how these conditions might be remedied.

5. Some of the critics who feel that there should be a greater variety in the radio diet of children maintain that there should be fewer serials, and more complete (single episode) programs. This policy, if carried out, might serve to defeat its purpose. In the present study single episode programs outnumbered the serials; these programs dealt more exclusively with crime than did the serials and they were fully as monotonous and repetitious. A partial solution to this problem of monotonous repetition has been found by the script writers and producers of BIG TOWN (Edward G. Robinson). This program originally dealt entirely with lurid crime situations and then branched out into a variety of other adventures in keeping with the talents of the hero (without any apparent damage to Hooper and C.A.B. ratings). Much of the criticism that is now directed toward the broadcasters of crime dramas might be offset if more of those programs would follow the example of BIG TOWN. In addition, the serials might well experiment with stories extending over a few weeks rather than several months.

6. Another problem which is a concern of some of the critics is the use of "platters" or transcriptions versus live broadcasts. These critics who represent educational groups and parent organizations look to the radio networks to offer sustaining programs of a high quality to offset some of the "trash" (meaning the crime drama) that is widely popular among children. Although the networks provide several excellent children's programs on a sustaining basis, these programs are always "live" and never transcribed. As a result of this practice, these sustaining programs cannot compete effectively with the commercially sponsored "platter" programs because of time zone differences in this country, and because of scheduling difficulties confronted by the individual stations. This situation will probably not be remedied until the broadcasting industry arrives at a more fundamental grasp of the meaning of public service. Network sustaining programs for children will never fully satisfy the moral obligation of public service in radio until these programs are presented just as often as the popular sponsored programs, and at hours that are equally convenient for young listeners.

7. Bad money drives out good money, according to Gresham's law in economics, and in radio there is also a sort of Gresham's law, for bad radio programs drive out good programs. This problem will remain unsolved so long as one network will broadcast a radio program that another network has thrown out during a period of housecleaning. Nor will the problem be solved so long as independent production agencies are able to sell their programs directly to local stations after these programs, have been rejected by the networks. And it would be foolish to expect an established advertising agency to give up a profitable account so long as a competitor is able to grab the account. The fact that the crime dramas reviewed in this bulletin constitute a major part of the radio fare of young Americans is some indication of how this "Gresham's law" of radio operates. Bad programs will continue to drive out good programs in radio unless or until a policy of genuine public service is adopted by all producers, sponsors, and advertising agencies in this field. Although many practical difficulties stand in the way of developing and applying such a policy to radio in its entirety, children's radio programs at least should maintain the highest possible standards of public service. These programs should contribute rather than detract from the healthy emotional and intellectual development of children. Children's radio programs should contribute to the child's understanding and appreciation of American life rather than provide him with a warped and distorted outlook. Young people today need a faith to live by, and goals to strive for. With these considerations in mind, a conference of broadcasters, sponsors, advertisers, and representatives of parent groups and educational organizations met recently at the invitation of the Federal Radio Education Committee to consider a proposal for the establishment of a cooperative, non-profit agency whose major function would be that of developing and applying evaluative standards to children's radio programs. [NOTE: This proposal was prepared by the Evaluation of School Broadcasts Project at the request of the Federal Radio Education Committee. For a tentative statement of evaluative standards which might be applied to children's radio programs, refer to Criteria for Children's Radio Programs, written by H. Rowland, I. K. Tyler, and N. Woelfel. This bulletin was published by the F.R.E.C. in connection with the proposal for establishing a children's radio program agency. In addition, refer to N. Woelfel, "The Education of Youth by Radio," Child Study, XIX, Spring, 1942.] The writer is of the opinion that an agency of this sort should be formed immediately, that it should be financed cooperatively by the various commercial interests that profit from radio programs widely listened to by children, and that responsible educational, parent, and professional organizations interested in child development should be asked to cooperate in developing the policies of such an agency.

5. Before concluding this discussion, it should be pointed out that educational broadcasters attempting to reach children have much to learn from radio crime dramas about showmanship and production techniques. Children are the most brutal critics in the matter of sound effects, for example, and they will not listen willingly to programs when the sound effects are not realistic. Transitions, fading devices, and other production techniques must be crystal clear. Vocabulary must be simple and in character, while the progression of the story--and the various roles portrayed--must always be completely comprehended. These technical production problems have been solved much better in most of the crime dramas than in the majority of "school" broadcasts and other educational programs. Another important lesson which should be mastered by the educational broadcasters is the use of a central heroic character who becomes more real than real persons in the imaginations of young listeners. This character need not be a super-hero and he need not be a super-sleuth. The almost complete absence of heroic characters of human proportions in the lives of children today is probably an important reason why super-heroes and super-sleuths are so widely popular.



The Evaluation of School Broadcasts is a research and service project engaged in analyzing the educational values of radio in schools and classrooms, and in studying the social and psychological effects of radio listening upon children and young people. In addition to carrying on research studies, staff members assist teachers in the use of auditory materials, and broadcasters in the planning and evaluation of educational programs.

The project, supported by grants from the General Education Board, is sponsored by the Federal Radio Education Committee of the Federal Communications Commission. It is located in the Bureau of Educational Research of Ohio State University. The project was started in the fall of 1937 and will be terminated in the summer of 1942.



I. Keith Tylor

Associate Director

Norman Woelfel

Research Associates

J. Robert Miles

Seerley Reid

Irving Robbins

J. Howard Rowland

G. D. Wiebe

Research Consultant

Daniel D. Day 

Research Assistant

Hazel L. Gibbony

Assistant to the Director

M. Margariete Ralls


W. W. Charters, Chairman

Ohio State University

A. S. Barr

University of Wisconsin

D. S. Campbell

George Peabody College

Paul R. Hanna

Stanford University

Helen Heffernan

California Dept. of Education

John A. Hockett

University of California at Los Angeles

Ernest O. Melby

Montana State University

Robert K. Speer

New York University

Ralph W. Tyler

University of Chicago

Howard E. Wilson

Harvard University

Former staff members include J. Wayne Wrightstone, Assistant Director, Division of Reference, Research and Statistics, New York City Public Schools (Associate Director, 1937-40); Louis Heil, Chairman, Department of Physics, Cooper Union, New York City (Research Associate, 1937-38); Cuthbert Daniel, Supervisor, Works Progress Administration, New York City (Research Associate, 1938-39); Frederick Wyatt, now engaged in research at Harvard University (Research Associate, 1939-40); Alton O'Steen, State Supervisor of Music, Alabama (Research Associate, 1937-41); R. R. Lowdermilk, U. S. Office of Education (Research Associate, 1939-42); Carleton Jones, State Teachers College, Indiana, Pennsylvania (Research Assistant, 1937-38); Kimball Wiles, Assistant Professor of Education, University of Alabama (Research Assistant, 1937-39); and Alice Beighley, now residing in Porterville, California (Statistician, 1937-41).