Dragnet is a long-running radio and television
police procedural drama about the cases of a dedicated
Los Angeles police detective, Sergeant
Friday, and his partners. The show takes its name from an actual
police term, a "dragnet",
meaning a system of coordinated measures for apprehending criminals or
Dragnet was created and produced by
Webb, who starred as the terse Sgt. Friday. Webb had starred in a
few mostly short-lived radio programs, but Dragnet would make him
one of the major media personalities of his era.
Dragnet had its origins in Webb’s small role as a police
forensic scientist in the 1948 film,
He Walked by Night, inspired by the actual murder of a police
Los Angeles. The film was depicted in
semidocumentary style, and Marty Wynn (an actual LAPD sergeant from
the robbery division) was a technical advisor on the film. Webb and Wynn
became friends, and both thought that the day-to-day activities of
police officers could be realistically depicted, and could make for
compelling drama without the forced sense of
melodrama then so common in radio programming. Webb frequently
visited police headquarters, drove on night patrols with Sgt. Wynn and
his partner Officer Vance Brasher, and attended police academy courses
to learn authentic
and other details that could be featured in a radio program. When he
proposed Dragnet to NBC officials, they were not especially
impressed; radio was aswarm with
private investigators and crime dramas, such as Webb’s earlier
Pat Novak for Hire. That program didn’t last long, but Webb had
received high marks for his role as the titular
private investigator, and NBC agreed to a limited run for Dragnet.
James E. Moser, Webb prepared an audition recording, then sought the
LAPD’s endorsement; he wanted to use cases from official files in order
to demonstrate the steps taken by police officers during investigations.
The official response was initially lukewarm, but in 1950 LAPD Chief
William H. Parker offered Webb the endorsement he sought. Police
wanted control over the program’s sponsor, and insisted that police not
be depicted unflatteringly. This would lead to some criticism, as LAPD
racial segregation policies were never addressed, nor was there a
suggestion of police corruption.
Jack Webb in an advertisement for
Fatima Cigarettes, ca. 1951. The now-defunct Fatima brand was
the primary sponsor of the early Dragnet radio episodes.
Dragnet debuted inauspiciously. The first several months were
bumpy, as Webb and company worked out the program’s format and
eventually became comfortable with their characters (Friday was
originally portrayed as more brash and forceful than his later usually
relaxed demeanor). Gradually, Friday’s deadpan, fast-talking persona
emerged, described by
John Dunning as "a cop's cop, tough but not hard, conservative but
caring." (Dunning, 210) Friday’s first partner was Sgt. Ben Romero,
Barton Yarborough, a longtime radio actor. When Dragnet hit
its stride, it became one of radio’s top-rated shows.
Webb insisted on realism in every aspect of the show. The dialogue
was clipped, understated and sparse, influenced by the
hardboiled school of crime fiction. Scripts were fast moving but
didn’t seem rushed. Every aspect of police work was chronicled, step by
step: From patrols and paperwork, to crime scene investigation, lab work
and questioning witnesses or suspects. The detectives’ personal lives
were mentioned, but rarely took center stage. (Friday was a bachelor who
lived with his mother; Romero was an ever-fretful husband and father.)
"Underplaying is still acting," Webb told
Time. "We try to make it as real as a guy pouring a cup of
coffee.” (Dunning, 209) Los Angeles police chiefs C.B. Horrall and
(later) William H. Parker were credited as consultants, and many police
officers were fans.
Webb was a stickler for accurate details, and Dragnet used
many authentic touches, such as the LAPD's actual radio call sign (KMA-367),
and the names of many real department officials, such as
Ray Pinker and Lee Jones of the crime lab or Chief of Detectives
Two announcers were used. Episodes began with announcer
George Fenneman intoning the series opening ("The story you are
about to hear is true; only the names have been changed to protect the
Hal Gibney describing the basic premise of the episode. "Big Saint"
(April 26, 1951) for example, begins with, "You're a Detective Sergeant,
you're assigned to
auto theft detail. A well organized ring of car thieves begins
operations in your city. It's one of the most puzzling cases you've ever
encountered. Your job: break it."
The story then usually began with footsteps and a door closing,
followed by Joe Friday intoning something like: "Tuesday, February 12.
It was cold in Los Angeles. We were working the day watch out of robbery
division. My partner's Ben Romero. The boss is Ed Backstram, chief of
detectives. My name's Friday."
Friday offered voice-over narration throughout the episodes, noting
the time, date and place of every scene as he and his partners went
through their day investigating the crime. The events related in a given
episode might occur in a few hours, or might span a few months. At least
one episode unfolded in
real time: in "City Hall Bombing" (July 21, 1949), Friday and Romero
had less than 30 minutes to stop a man who was threatening to destroy
the City Hall with a bomb.
At the end of the episode, announcer Hal Gibney would relate the fate
of the suspect. They were usually convicted of a crime and sent to "the
State Penitentiary" or a state mental hospital. Murderers were often
"executed in the manner prescribed by law." Occasionally, police pursued
the wrong suspect, and criminals sometimes avoided justice or escaped,
at least on the radio version of Dragnet. In 1950,
Time quoted Webb: "We don’t even try to prove that crime doesn’t
pay ... sometimes it does" (Dunning, 210)
Specialized terminology was mentioned in every episode, but was
rarely explained. Webb trusted the audience to determine the meanings of
words or terms by their context, and furthermore, Dragnet tried
to avoid the kinds of awkward, lengthy
exposition that people wouldn’t actually use in daily speech.
Several specialized terms (such as "A.P.B." for "All
Points Bulletin" and "M.O." for "Modus
Operandi") were rarely used in popular culture before Dragnet
introduced them to everyday America.
While most radio shows used one or two
sound effects experts, Dragnet needed five; a script clocking
in at just under 30 minutes could require up to 300 separate effects.
Accuracy was underlined: The exact number of footsteps from one room to
another at Los Angeles police headquarters were imitated, and when a
telephone rang at Friday’s desk, the listener heard the same ring as the
telephones in Los Angeles police headquarters. A single minute of ".22
Rifle for Christmas" is a representative example of the evocative sound
effects featured on "Dragnet". While Friday and others investigate
bloodstains in a
suburban backyard, the listener hears a series of overlapping
effects: a squeaking gate hinge, footsteps, a technician scraping blood
into a paper envelope, the glassy chime of chemical vials,
and a dog
barking in the distance.
Scripts tackled a number of topics, ranging from the thrilling (murders,
missing persons and
armed robbery) to the mundane (check
shoplifting), yet "Dragnet" made them all interesting due to
fast-moving plots and behind-the-scenes realism. In "The Garbage Chute"
(15 December 1949), they even had a
locked room mystery.
Though rather tame by modern standards, Dragnet--especially on
the radio--handled controversial subjects such as
drug addiction with unprecedented and even startling realism.
Dragnet broke one of the unspoken (and still rarely broached)
popular entertainment when a young child was killed in ".22 Rifle for
episode followed the search for eight-year-old Stevie Morheim, only to
discover he’d been accidentally killed by his best friend while they
played with a
rifle his friend had received as a
Christmas gift. Thousands of letters were mailed to NBC in
complaint, including a formal protest by the
National Rifle Association. Webb forwarded many of the letters to
police chief Parker who promised "ten more shows illustrating the folly
of giving rifles to children." (Dunning, 211) "Big Betty" (November
23, 1950) dealt with young women who, rather than finding Hollywood
stardom, fall in with fraudulent
talent scouts and end up in
The tone was usually serious, but there were moments of
comic relief: Romero was something of a
hypochondriac and often seemed henpecked; though Friday dated women,
he usually dodged those who tried to set him up with marriage-minded
Due in part to Webb’s fondness for radio
Dragnet persisted on radio until 1957 as one of the last
old time radio shows to give way to television’s increasing
popularity. In fact, the TV show would prove to be effectively a visual
version of the radio show, as the style was virtually the same. The TV
show could be listened to without watching it, with no loss of
understanding of the storyline.