This guest post was written by Michelle Dubert-Bellrichard, Archivist, National Audio-Visual Conservation Center.
Phillips H. Lord was a pioneer in radio during its golden age. He produced radio and, eventually, television shows that captured real, American characters, but he would dramatize ordinary people — treating them like heroes. For example, Lord’s radio programs like Sky Blazers would highlight the work of American aviators, and We the People was a human interest series that showcased ordinary people telling their stories to the nation, whether they were humorous, inspirational, or tragic. Based on show ratings, it was clear that Lord understood his listeners’ interests. And a common theme in a majority of his programming proved that America has long had a fascination with true crime.
When a nation-wide crusade to fight against gangsterism emerged from federal agencies in the 1930’s, Lord was the first to tap into America’s interest in true crime through his radio program Gang Busters. According to Phillips H. Lord, “Gang Busters was the first program to ever portray in radio the work of the police and law enforcement officers in their war against the underworld.” It was Lord’s intention with his show Gang Busters to teach citizens that ‘crime does not pay’ by depicting the lives, crimes, and eventual capture of American criminals. To create the dramatized true crime stories for Gang Busters, Lord worked closely with local and federal police departments to develop stories, create biographies of Gang Busters’ subjects, and even have individuals associated with cases on the show to narrate broadcasts. Lord said, “In all these broadcasts we have emphasized respect for the law, triumph of the police over criminals, and the futility of crime.” Gang Busters, initially titled G-Men, debuted less than two years after the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde and there was a sense that America was striving to feel safe again, and Lord, along with police, took the opportunity with Gang Busters to promote law enforcement. In episodes of Gang Busters, Lord made sure to show that criminals stood no chance against the law. Lord and his writers selected true crime stories that depicted police serving justice.
In addition to demonstrating the hard work of law enforcement to stop crime, Lord encouraged listeners to do their part in making America safe. Gang Busters introduced the idea of citizen detectives to America. In the middle of Gang Busters episodes and for five minutes each week, Gang Busters provided clues to its listeners of official descriptions of wanted persons still at large. They asked listeners to send in any information concerning the persons described to their local radio stations or police and were warned to be cautious of these criminals as they may be “armed and…considered dangerous.”
Lord worked closely with local police departments and the FBI to provide these descriptions of fugitives. He set a trend encouraging lay people to work with police and be proactive in helping solve crimes.
The Gang Busters materials in the Phillips H. Lord Collection contain some of the most diverse research materials and best encapsulate the influence Phillips H. Lord programming had on American popular culture. Not only are scripts included, but so are FBI wanted bulletins, crime scene photos, correspondence with listeners, and newspaper clippings highlighting the aftermath of Gang Busters shows.
This hefty collection of nearly 170,000 items of America’s mysteries and the macabre will be available to researchers in the near future.
You can search for Gang Busters radio programs in the Library’s main online catalog and listen to them and other audio recordings in the Recorded Sound Research Center. Don’t hesitate to get in touch through Ask a Librarian if you have questions about recorded sound or moving image research at the Library of Congress.