Westerns: From Shoot-‘Em Ups To Realism

The western was the most underdeveloped popular genre in radio. While "cowboy" heroes abounded in novels, magazines, and motion pictures, their appearance in radio programming left much to be desired. For the most part, western broadcasts until the early 1950s were designed with children in mind. Although there were several noteworthy series in the 1930s and 1940s that presented mature stories within western contexts, most programs featuring recognizable, recurring western heroes were written to please juvenile audiences.

It was not until the premier of Gunsmoke in 1952 that a realistic western program was successfully developed for adult listeners. Unfortunately for radio, however, Gunsmoke and the other adult series it inspired were unable to blunt the growing ascendency of television over radio broadcasting. Thus, radio realized the potential of the western at precisely the time it was becoming secondary to television as a medium of mass entertainment.

It is ironic that the western failed to flourish in radio, since as an entertainment type it was purely an American product which enjoyed long-standing popular and critical attention. The western was developed in the nineteenth century by such writers as James Fenimore Cooper and Ned Buntline. They related stories of the spread of American civilization through the wilderness, and offered home-grown heroes for an expanding nation.

In the present century, the western was refined by a group of writers which included Zane Grey, Max Brand, William Macleod Raine, and Clarence Budington Kelland. These authors, who fully understood the western formula and the variations possible within it, turned out hundreds of titles which spread the genre to a vast audience. In the process, the western became enshrined as a truly American art form possessing a significant relationship to the pioneer ethos of the nation.

Critics have found in the genre a fertile field in which to seek the relationship of popular art to social realities. Some have seen the western as a form of folklore, while others relate it to militarism within society. The western has been interpreted in terms of Marx and Freud, as well as Christ and John Calvin. And intellectual pluralists have sought to understand it in terms of psycho-social imperatives, artistic necessities, and structural adaptability. Such overwhelming attention from laymen and critics, however, was not directed toward the western as manifest in broadcasting. Here, it remained immature and stunted until its full realization could have little impact upon the listening public.

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