British Association for American Studies


Eliminating “Blood and Thunder” from Containment Culture: Audience Efforts to Censor Postwar Radio Programming in the Run-Up to Television

The decade after WWII (1945-1955) was distinct and pivotal in the formation of American media policy, and in establishing postwar social norms.[1]  The major broadcast networks (NBC, CBS, and ABC) had profited from wartime spending and garnered some regulatory goodwill through their work with the Office of War Information.  Still, they struggled as they transitioned programming from radio to television – while fending off regulation efforts from Congress and an activist FCC.  At the same time, a range of progressive and conservative groups debated how to define “the American Way.” Ultimately, Wendy Wall (2008) argues, the postwar emphasis on “getting along” silenced progressive voices, including minorities and women who objected to the postwar reassertion of patriarchal gender norms.[2]  Instead of giving everyone a voice, postwar consensus or containment culture privileged and sought to universalize beliefs and arguments made by conservative social groups seeking to define the United States as emphatically capitalist, patriarchal, and white.  This article examines the way those debates played out in listener complaints over radio programming during the run-up to television, a medium that became one of the staunchest, most enduring upholders of this status quo.

Radio was vital in postwar social debates because of its nearly universal reach, domestic context, and – most critically – because it was seen as the template for the emerging medium of television.  We can see this in letters from listeners like Miss Marguerite Kuelling, who castigated NBC’s program department for consigning the American public sensational, crime-ridden “emotional drivel” instead of reinforcing positive moral values through uplifting, educational programming.  Throughout the postwar decade, listeners like Kuelling joined social critics, psychiatrists, social scientists, and religious organizers, in blaming network radio programming for causing, or at least worsening, the postwar chaos they felt surrounding them.  This article draws on my review of 244 complaint letters written to the FCC and NBC between 1946 and 1957.  The majority were written by women, many of whom were connected to religious groups or PTAs.  Significantly, at least 109 complaints, or 45% of my sample, came from small towns and growing suburbs.[3]  Most letters include some sort of appeal to values that also drove white flight to the suburbs, including faith in law-and-order, patriarchal family structures, and Christian religious tenets.  However, while letter writers characterized these values as universal and necessary to guarantee postwar peace, they were far from inclusive.  Specific complaints varied, but most letter writers lamented objectionable radio “noise” disrupting and damaging their otherwise peaceful homes.  These included sounds of violence (screams, gun shots, slaps, etc), sexual pleasure and/or difference (quivering sighs, deep-voiced, masculine women, and swishing, effeminate men), and racial difference (jazz, ethnic accents, and, increasingly, any sound associated with an “urban” – read: non-white – atmosphere).  In other words, letter writers fretted about sounds that diverged from conservative, white, middle-class norms.  In so doing, they helped to encode white, patriarchal, heteronormative values into the DNA of the new medium of television, ensuring that it would develop – as the Kerner Commission’s 1968 report on racial division put it – as “a white world…with white men’s eyes and a white perspective.”[4]

Letter writers made it clear that they were worried about more than just noise; they directly connected the sounds to which they objected with the actions they might inspire in impressionable listeners.  Kuelling criticized programming across the network’s schedule, but she directed particular ire at the chaotic “noise” created by daytime and afternoon serials aimed at women and children.  Much of her advice focused on mitigating radio soap operas’ negative influence on the resurgent patriarchal structures underpinning postwar family life: she argued the genre taught women to hate men so much that even a level-leaded woman like herself “wouldn’t feel at all responsible for dropping a touch of arsenic into my husband’s coffee.”[5]

Kuelling and others also fretted that children’s moral development – and therefore the nation’s future – was endangered by the enervating emotionality and criminal ideas that suspenseful adventure serials like Terry and the Pirates (1937-1948) and crime series like The Adventures of Sam Spade (1946-1951) introduced to the “virgin territory” of children’s minds.[6]  After all, as another disgruntled listener named Mrs. O’Ritchie wrote to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that same year, how would the nation’s youth learn about their responsibility “to help rebuild this decaying old world” if they were constantly being instructed in the methods of crime and delinquency by mystery programs “full of trouble and divorce and deceit and hate”?[7]  Mrs. H.D. Johnston was even more explicit, arguing that radio was “the big demoralizer.  It shows up how rotten our social system is – how women are debauched and how vile man really is.”[8]

As Jennifer Stoever (2016) argues, judgments about what sounds are or are not considered noise are inextricably linked to the racial and gendered hierarchies that organize American society.[9]  According to those hierarchies, female and minority voices were inherently noisy, and therefore dangerous.  In order for the nation to survive and thrive, they had to be silenced, or at least controlled.  Letter writers’ postwar complaints about radio noise emphasize how quickly conservative critics moved to segregate the nation’s physical and imaginative spaces by excluding feminine and minority voices.  After disruptive decades of economic depression and war – made increasingly noisy through radio’s amplifying effects – critics called for domestic peace and quiet that could only be achieved by removing all references to increasingly racialized urban disorder from radio, television, and the public consciousness.

Critics like Kuelling failed to convince the networks to cancel their soap operas, adventure stories, and crime dramas.  Nevertheless, they succeeded on the level of ideology.  By 1955, Continuity Acceptance Manager Stockton Helffrich had declared war on radio soap opera producers like Frank and Anne Hummert, who he argued were “exploiting old and lucrative patterns in radio broadcasting without sufficient awareness of the fact that television has upset the old patterns.”[10]  Citing the increase in “articulate” correspondents complaining about characters’ behavior and that “the forces of evil are unrelieved and inadequately counteracted by the forces of good,” he argued that soap opera producers must be reined in for the good of the network, regardless of their ratings successes.[11]  Program executives were initially hesitant to bring soap operas to television, partly because they feared backlash.  NBC, which saw itself as a public service leader , experimented with talk and variety shows appealing to more highbrow tastes throughout the 1950s.[12]  Even when soap operas did come to dominate television in the 1960s, their tone and focus had shifted.  Where many radio soaps had featured ambitious working women, television serials emphasized domestic settings, kindly patriarchs, and marriage as women’s highest calling.[13]

NBC also sought to insulate the profitable crime genre from mounting criticism that the visual medium of television amplified the damage of violent noise.  In 1949, network executives decided to transition Dragnet (radio, 1949-1957, TV 1951-1959) from radio to television.  While the series was still new, producer/star Jack Webb had garnered attention and positive headlines for his portrayal of a Los Angeles Police Department detective who solved crimes inspired by real LAPD cases with methodical calm and minimal violence.  Executives hoped Dragnet’s style of “underplaying crime” and emphasis on police authority would assuage critics who worried that more flamboyant, violent radio private eyes – and their sexy secretaries – would move to television and become the norm.[14]

Television crime shows were never as chaste as critics wished, but conservative audiences’ organized letter-writing campaigns and political actions helped ensure that anyone depicted breaking social norms on television would be punished.  By 1950, the National Association of Broadcasters enacted the Television Code to forestall federal regulation.[15]  The TV Code, which guided industry productions for the next three decades, required that law enforcement be “upheld” and “portrayed with respect and dignity,” crime “presented as undesirable and unsympathetic,” “illicit sex relations” be denigrated, and “respect [be] maintained for the sanctity of marriage and the value of the home.”[16]  These restrictions entrenched conservative values, especially deference to white patriarchal authority.  Feminist media historians have shown how sitcoms, Westerns, and crime dramas evinced increasing suspicion of women’s intellectual and moral judgments, and urban spaces and their minority inhabitants, through the 1950s.[17]  Moreover, despite high profile examples of programs that glorify male criminal antiheroes or competent female investigators, the presumption that law enforcement is white, male, and right persists across US television, and is only beginning to be questioned in US culture.


The author has recommended the following video for more information about TV code and whiteness: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lIPPi9aauT8



[1] Victor Pickard, “The Battle Over the FCC Blue Book: Determining the Role of Broadcast Media in a Democratic Society, 1945-8,” Media, Culture & Society 33, no. 2 (2011): 174.

[2] Wendy L. Wall, Inventing the “American Way”: The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement: The Politics of Consensus from the New Deal to the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).

[3] 97 letters were addressed from larger cities, and 17 had no return address.

[4] Otto Kerner et al., Report of The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968), 213, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000339500.

[5] Marguerite Kuelling, “Letter from Marguerite Kuelling to Program Division,” July 31, 1947, Folder 6; Box 355; National Broadcasting Company Records, 1921-1976, Wisconsin Historical Society.

[6] Kuelling.

[7] Mrs. O’Ritchie, “Letter from Mrs. O’Ritchie to FCC,” August 27, 1947, File 44-1; Complaints and Investigations Thereof, Misc; Box 189; General Correspondence, 1927-46; Office of the Executive Director; General Communications Commission, Record Group 173, National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD; Ida M. Proffitt, “Letter from Ida M. Proffitt to FCC,” September 29, 1947, File 44-1; Complaints and Investigations Thereof, Misc; Box 189; General Correspondence, 1927-46; Office of the Executive Director; General Communications Commission, Record Group 173, National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

[8] Mrs. H.D. Johnston, “Letter from Mrs. H.D. Johnston to President Truman,” October 1, 1947, File 44-1; Complaints and Investigations Thereof, Misc; Box 189; General Correspondence, 1927-46; Office of the Executive Director; General Communications Commission, Record Group 173, National Archives at College Park, College Park, MD.

[9] Jennifer Lynn Stoever, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (New York: New York University Press, 2016), 12.

[10] Stockton Helffrich, “Confidential Memo from Stockton Helffrich to Joseph Berhalter,” January 25, 1955, Folder 112; Box 349; National Broadcasting Company Records, 1921-1976, Wisconsin Historical Society.

[11] Stockton Helffrich, “Memo from Stockton Helffrich to William Fineshriber,” February 11, 1955, Folder 112; Box 349; National Broadcasting Company Records, 1921-1976, Wisconsin Historical Society.

[12] Marsha F. Cassidy, What Women Watched: Daytime Television in the 1950s (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 17.

[13] Jason Loviglio, Radio’s Intimate Public: Network Broadcasting And Mass-Mediated Democracy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 100; Elana Levine, Her Stories: Daytime Soap Opera and US Television History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020).

[14] Sam Kaufman, “Memo from Sam Kaufman to Syd Eiges,” December 7, 1949, Folder 14; Box 118; National Broadcasting Company Records, 1921-1976, Wisconsin Historical Society.

[15] Deborah Jaramillo, The Television Code: Regulating the Screen to Safeguard the Industry (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018).

[16] “The Television Code” (National Association of Radio and Television Broadcasters, 1952).

[17] Mary Beth Haralovich, “Sitcoms and Suburbs: Positioning the 1950s Homemaker,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 11, no. 1 (1989): 61–83; David Marc, Demographic Vistas: Television in American Culture, Revised Edition (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996); Allison McCracken, “Study of a Mad Housewife: Psychiatric Discourse, the Suburban Home and the Case of Gracie Allen,” in Small Screens, Big Ideas: Television in the 1950s, ed. Janet Thumin (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2002), 50–65; Carol A. Stabile, The Broadcast 41: Women and the Anti-Communist Blacklist (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2018).

About the Author

Catherine Martin is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Media Studies in Denison University's Department of Communication. Her book project expands on her dissertation, You Don't Have to Be a Bad Girl to Love Crime: Femininity and Women's Labor in US Broadcast Crime Programming, 1945-1975, to interrogate the intersection of gender, race, and power in post-World War II representations of crime on US radio and television. Her work has appeared in The Velvet Light Trap, Radio Journal, and Journal of Radio and Audio Media