The Rise and Fall of “True Crime” Radio Drama


In recent years, particularly following the Prime Ministers of Serial and Criminal in 2014, true crime podcasts became a central part of the media landscape. Although podcasts themselves are generally considered “new media,” the focus on crime and its investigation for entertainment purposes is nothing new. In fact, true-crime dramatizations were a staple part of popular culture between 1926 and 1950, the “golden age” of network radio.

In addition to many shows featuring mystery novels, from 1929 to 1930 listeners could — and did — tune in to listen. True detective mysteries, based on a magazine of the same name. In 1947, they heard investigations taking place on Call the police, Deadline Mysteryand Has justice triumphed?, all claiming to be at least inspired by real criminal cases. And in the meantime, they listened to and responded to the detailed reconstructions broadcast on gang breakersa real detective drama that often featured bandits as the main characters.

Current from 1936 to 1957, gang breakers was notable for its sympathetic depictions of people who had turned to a life of crime out of desperation. The shows often featured “poor bandits, witnesses and victims”, with plots targeting an audience from an equally impoverished background. As historian Elena Razlogova writes,

gang breakers appealed most to working-class, non-white men and children. Of ten thousand Minnesota men interviewed in December 1936 and January 1937, only 20% of professionals but 45% of “unskilled” workers listened. gang breakers. A California survey found that while wealthy children preferred historical plays and middle-class children’s soap operas, low-income “Oriental” and Mexican children preferred crime and mystery stories like gang breakers.

At the request of advertisers, producers and the network, the editors of gang breakers They were told to warn listeners that committing crimes was not something to be encouraged. But “gang breakers benefited from the popular appeal of gory detail, first-person testimony and the tough, masculine style of detective writing,” says Razlogova. More often than not, writers “filed advertisers’ requests to water down the details of crimes and hired writers who listed pulp journalism among their credentials.”

As with some podcasts today, gang breakers depended on interviews with people who had witnessed [alleged] crimes. But true crime is a complicated genre; those involved often disagree over details, especially when those details were later released for entertainment. This is especially true for the families of the victims.

Disagreements over how the series portrayed the victims of one crime in particular, a shooting in Oklahoma involving two “petty armed robbers”, George Sands and Leon Siler, led to the first major scandal in the series.

After fleeing after a bank robbery, Sands and Siler holed up in Comanche County on a farm owned by Adrian Medrano. A Mexican-born farmer, Medrano was killed when, according to police, a shootout broke out between law enforcement and the fleeing bandits. During the shootout, Medrano was hit by a bullet and killed. According to the police on site, Medrano was an accidental victim who unfortunately found himself in the line of fire. gang breakers Investigator George Norris claimed that “Medrano was mistakenly killed by the officers because they thought he was an Indian and a member of the gang”. This is the story that unfolded during a re-enactment of the event in February 1939 on the show.

According to Razlogova, Medrano’s wife was furious with the show; she believed that “the lawmen deliberately shot her husband”. It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t crossfire. He was killed because the law mistook him for a “free-range Choctaw felon”. Other eyewitnesses supported his wife’s account.

That Medrano’s death was presented as an accident was bad enough, but the police (and then gang breakers) also fell back on harmful stereotypes, portraying Medrano and the local indigenous peoples as “primitive” and prone to crime.

Listeners, especially those from rural backgrounds who sympathized with the murdered Medrano, turned against the show.

“Having seen officers mistaking Adrian Medrano for an Indian bandit, shooting him and covering up the murder, the farmers in turn discovered parallels between the indifference of lawmen and the radio to their lives and opinions” , writes Razlogova. The dramatization highlighted class and racial inequalities, inspiring “working-class and non-white listeners and informants to voice popular discontent with the emerging impersonal corporate power in the broadcasting industry.” Indifference to what was perceived as the real crime (Murder of Medrano) illustrated by gang breakers led farmers to “draw parallels between injustices in the media and society”.

Although the show lasted until the late 1950s, viewership dropped in 1943, partly due to the Medrano episode. When older episodes of gang breakers were rebroadcast in the 1960s, “the show failed as police propaganda”, notes Razlogova.

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