Calling All Cars: Radio Dragnets and the Technology of Policing, Kathleen Battles

Calling All Cars: Radio Dragnets and the Technology of Policing (Cover)

Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
ISBN 978-0-8166-4914-3
US$22.50 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Minnesota Press)

For anyone interested in the representation of crime, Kathleen Battles’ study of the radio crime drama in the 1930s is essential reading.  While Battles admits that she is primarily concerned with addressing a gap in the cultural history of radio, what she also achieves is a vivid demonstration of the ways in which the development of the radio crime drama depended on a diverse range of generic sources—including crime fiction (both classic and hard-boiled), film (especially the gangster film), and documentary.

As Battles reveals, the radio crime drama was also closely aligned with the ways in which law and order were both imagined and achieved during a depression era characterized by increased social mobility facilitated by the automobile. Calling All Cars therefore not only makes an invaluable contribution to radio scholarship and our understanding of the social role of radio as a medium, but also to the history of policing during a “second wave” of police reform (the “first” is not clearly identified—one of the very few lacunae in this otherwise admirable book).

As the sub-title “Radio Dragnets and the Technology of Policing” suggests, the concept of the police “dragnet” as a technology of criminal apprehension predates Jack Webb’s radio and early television series, Dragnet, by many years. According to Battles, the radio crime dramas of the thirties articulated the newly emerging police radio networks with the networks of commercial radio in terms of both content and form. Often based on real events and constructed as moral fables, these shows dramatized the capabilities of a newly reformed and professional police force able to penetrate the private spaces of the home:

Radio’s ability to both link and collapse the distance between the public and the private, the mobile and the fixed, time and space, communication and transportation, state and citizen, and industry and listener was distilled in the imagination of police omnipresence as positive and productive (p. 184).

In this way the commercial radio networks and the concept of the dragnet as a network of police efficiency were meshed in the radio crime drama.

In her discussion of specific shows, Battles focuses on four series in particular; Police Headquarters, the eponymous Calling all Cars, G-Men (which only lasted twelve months because of a difference of intention between radio producer Phillips H. Lord and FBI chief, J. Edgar Hoover), and Gang Busters, the series Lord produced as a replacement. All of these shows were designed to showcase police professionalism and expertise, thus inspiring public regard for police authority.  Battles also discusses two ‘vigilante’ shows; The Shadow (as voiced by Orson Welles) and Green Hornet. These latter shows, Battles suggests, had more in common with the hard-boiled and noir fiction of the time by calling into question the authority of the state and the capabilities of the police.

Of particular interest to students of film and television is Battle’s discussion of the ways in which the radio crime drama deliberately set out to challenge the glamour and allure of the gangster as represented in the films of the time.  As Battles notes, during the depression era the gangster had attracted populist sympathies by offering a celebration of heroic, ethnic achievement against the odds.  At this point I couldn’t help but make a connection to the popularity of the Australian television docudrama franchise, Underbelly, particularly in its representations of ethnicity and crime during the first and third seasons: a connection which underlines the relevance of this study for students of contemporary crime drama.

According to Battles, radio crime dramas such as Gang Busters deglamorised the gangster, while challenging vigilantism and modeling citizen support for the police in the apprehension of criminals who were constructed as cowardly, needlessly vicious and motivated by selfish individualism in despite of the common good:

Kidnappings, bank robberies, home invasions, and the robbing and killing of small business owners were among the crimes designed to highlight for the listener [what] crime cost the average citizen. (p. 137)

Battles is particularly adept at illuminating how the representation of the criminal was achieved through voice, including the use of accents and slang. Such criminal voices then resonated in stark contrast to the unaccented voice of “the educated radio policeman” with his (invariably masculine it would seem) command of the technical and professional language of policing.

Based on a Ph.D dissertation of the same name, Calling All Cars offers a scholarly, detailed and thorough account of the radio crime drama in relation to the social context of the time.  In the process, Battles offers a salutary reminder that anyone interested in the history of policing and/or the visual representations of crime in the twentieth century would do well to remember the vital role and influence of radio in both fiction and in fact.