Academic journal article Journalism History

Coming on like Gang Busters: J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and the Battle to Control Radio Portrayals of the Bureau, 1936-1958

Academic journal article Journalism History

Coming on like Gang Busters: J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and the Battle to Control Radio Portrayals of the Bureau, 1936-1958

Article excerpt

CBS radio listeners who tuned in at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, November 25, 1944, were treated to the dramatic retelling of a 1930s FBI success story, the St. Paul, Minnesota, killing by Bureau agents of Eddie "the Wise" Green, a member of John Dillinger's outlaw gang. At FBI headquarters, Crime Records Division chief Louis B. Nichols monitored the broadcast, which was the premiere of The FBI in Peace and War, sponsored by Lava Soap and based on Frederick L. Collins's Bureau-authorized, bestselling book of the same title.1

In his review, Nichols noted that the antagonist's name had been changed from Eddie to Johnny for radio and that the narrator had credited the FBI with cleaning up the entire Dillinger gang "J. Edgar Hoover style."2 Because of the authoritative nature of the program and the invocation of Hoover's name, listeners likely inferred that the program was authorized and sponsored by the FBI. That was not the case, and in his memorandum Nichols objected to the failure of Collins and his sponsor to include a clear disclaimer in the program. "There was no tag line to the effect that the show has no official connection with the Federal Bureau of Investigation as we had specifically stipulated with Collins previously," Nichols wrote in a memorandum to Associate Director Clyde Toison. "The impression was very obvious by the use of the Director's name and the statement relative to FBI files that this was an FBI show." '

For weeks before the broadcast, Hoover, through his press and entertainment intermediary Nichols, had urged Collins to drop the program. Given his prior work with the FBI on an authorized book, Collins had developed the radio concept and sold it, through the Biow advertising agency of New York, to Procter & Gamble without first informing Hoover. Collins was to be paid $1,000 per episode by the sponsors with his primary contribution being access to FBI public relations materials.4 Nichols expressed the prevailing attitude among top FBI administrators when his review compared The FBI in Peace and War to another popular radio program Hoover despised. "All in all, the program is very much on the Gang Busters style, and, in fact, Gang Busters might even be considered more dignified."4

Beginning in 1935 and continuing throughout the era of radio's dominant position in American entertainment culture, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI battled with producers of radio shows such as Gang Busters and The FBI in Peace and War, objecting to portrayals of the Bureau. FBI officials believed that those and certain other programs undermined the Bureau's authority and legitimacy through story lines emphasizing sensational violence and the thrill of the chase rather than staid logic and scientific detection. After nearly ten years battling those off-message portrayals, the FBI created and promoted its own radio crime drama in an effort to control its public image, valorize its authority and justify its ongoing cultural and jurisdictional growth. The details of the FBI's efforts to control its image, as revealed by its own meticulously maintained files, offer a cautionary tale of how a government agency, particularly a law enforcement agency, carries an outsized ability to influence news and entertainment portrayals of its work, in effect creating a mythical version of itself that can potentially hide abuses of power from the public.6

The FBI's efforts to control its portrayal on radio may be viewed in context of a dramatic expansion of government propaganda that was initiated by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration in the early 1930s. That expansion of government propaganda was accelerated by the maturation of radio in the mid- to late 1930s. According to Gerd Horton, the expansion of radio networks and sponsored national radio programs had made radio a central part of American life by the late 1930s.7 By the 1940s, federal government agencies such as the Department of the Treasury and the Department of War had begun collaborating with radio networks to sell war bonds through entertainment programming. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.