American Family Robinson

By Bob Stepno

The Centerville Herald — “Covers Centerville Like the Dew” — but it’s in trouble in this editor’s speech to his employees.

The small town newspaper and its editor became a symbol of American capitalism in “American Family Robinson,” a soap-opera style serial created by business interests to deliver right-wing economics lectures and propagandize against Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” policies.

Announcements said the series was “produced by the National Industrial Council,” which was an activity of the anti-Roosevelt National Association of Manufacturers, broadcast twice a week on 255 stations.

“The American Family Robinson’s drop-dead attacks on the New Deal reflected the print orientation of NAM publicity and the politics of the commercial newspaper, which, despite the inroads of radio, remained ‘the core of the apparatus of public opinion formation.’ The continuous interjection of editorial comment into the series’ soap opera plot reduced protagonist Luke Robinson, ‘the sanely philosophical editor of the Centerville Herald,’ to a caricature of the factory town editors that the NAM assiduously cultivated with an open-ended supply of preprinted mats, columns, and tracts. Like Centerville’s Luke Robinson, they too might counsel a principled conservatism.”

— See Better living: Advertising, media and the new vocabulary of business leadership, 1935-1955 by William L. Bird, Northwestern University Press, 1999, pp 53-60.)

Old-time-radio collector Randy Riddle has made digital copies of original transcription discs of the series, which he describes concisely as “‘American Family Robinson,’ a continuing drama about a small town newspaper editor, his wacky relatives, and the evils of FDR’s New Deal and socialism.” (See Duke University article.)

The series’ leading character was Luke Robinson, editor of the Centerville Herald, a conservative businessman who wove anti-“New-Deal socialist” messages into most episodes. He made constant fun of the hypocrisies, incompetence, blustering and buffoonery of his liberal brother-in-law, a sometimes W.C. Fields sound-alike flim-flam artist.

Pro-business themes became major plot elements throughout the series, from vague casual remarks about “promoters of foreign ideas” to pronouncements against “experimental reforms on the age old law of supply and demand.”

The fictional Robinsons’ own economic life reached a crisis in 1934, as reported in episodes 54 through 63: The paper had been losing money and the family had to figure out some new ideas to rescue it.

Here’s where the story stood in episode 54:

Business manager George Barton reports to Robinson that the paper is $6,000 in the red, enough debt for the stockholders to shutter the paper in a week. As with most developments in the series, the deficit is an excuse to blame Roosevelt:

Barton: Of course with the country laughing off a federal deficit of $4.5 billion. I suppose a mere $6,000 isn’t much, but I can’t feel it’s a laughing matter…

Robinson: Unfortunately, we don’t have taxpayers, present and future, to pay our deficit for us.

Barton says the business staff has already done all the cutting it could: “We’ve spared nothing but the payroll and it looks like that comes next in our economy measures.”

Robinson is adamant — as much about defending employers everywhere as about protecting his workers (emphasis added):

“No. We must not lay-off anyone who wants to work except as a very last resort. We’ll try to think of something else.  After all, every employer is faced by this predicament of maintaining employment as his first interest.”

The financial manager reports that circulation and advertising are both down, blaming government policies for both situations. Most of the cancelled subscriptions were from farmers, so Robinson claims federal produce-import policies are behind their hard luck. When told advertising is down, he blames general national insecurity, “even to the extent of not knowing if the Constitution itself is going to be upheld,” that year’s steady mantra for conservative New Deal opponents.

Despite Robinson’s best efforts in the spirit of capitalism, the board votes to close the paper, even though the most loyal employees offer to work for nothing. But that apparently would be too much like socialism, so instead they are all to be fired, and Robinson prepares to go home and sulk.

The rescue effort falls to a younger generation of entrepreneurs: Robinson’s son Bob, daughter Betty, and son-in-law Dick Collins, who organize a “Save the Herald” campaign behind the editor’s back. (Coincidentally, old-time radio had an unrelated newspaper couple named “Betty and Bob,” leading characters in their own soap opera. See its page: “Betty & Bob“.

In “American Family Robinson,” Betty Robertson-Collins is the one who comes up with an almost 21st-century approach to saving the paper, what recent online journalists refer to as crowd-sourcing or social-networking. She and the boys fan out across town, convincing local residents to not only subscribe, but to write free opinion articles for the joy of seeing their names in the paper. Shades of Facebook!

(For newspaper trivia buffs, The Centerville Herald motto, “Covers Centerville like the dew,” mentioned in more than one episode, is borrowed from the Atlanta Journal‘s famous “Covers Dixie like the dew.”)

In Episode 57 (audio player above), Dick calls for “The biggest and fastest circulation drive that’s ever been seen,” to convince a local business leader to buy a large share of the paper. He asks Betty what it would take to get women to buy the paper. She fires off a list, starting with four things the paper already has…

  • all my recipes
  • radio programs
  • news about radio stars
  • a good snappy lovelorn column
  • a story about their worst enemy
  • or one about their best friend
  • or a story that had their name in it.

Traditional letters-to-the-editor aren’t enough, Betty argues, saying most people are convinced their letters will get no further than the wastepaper basket, proposing her crowd-sourced alternative:

“We’ll have a column, the readers’ column, three people a day…
Have a tie in to the radio station to have the best episodes read on the air…”

Of course there’s no suggestion that these correspondents would get paid — in fact, the whole idea is that they will buy subscriptions just to see their names in print.

In addition to the save-the-paper storyline, archived copies of the program show the Robinsons also managing to preach the gospel of limited government spending and free-rein to private industry in other contexts — from a local “dress shoppe” to plans for a factory, and even on a visit to a dude ranch.

“It’s all right for a young man to talk and think sensibly about national affairs,” an old cowboy says. “It’s important. Most of these young dudes we get out here talk a lot of half-baked socialism.”

The American Family Robinson series had two incarnations — in the 1930s, preaching business’s opposition to New Deal economic policies, and in the early 1940s, preparing for war. Episodes from both were digitized from original transcription discs by collector, blogger and radio historian Randy Riddle of Rand’s Esoteric OTR Podcast.

The Library of Congress catalog lists 38 episodes on tape, from April to August, 1940.

Radio collector J. David Goldin’s “RadioGoldIndex” American Family Robinson listings includes 148 episodes from 1934, 1940 and 1941 with brief summaries, but little about the role of journalism in the plots.

The Old Time Radio Researchers group maintains a library of MP3 copies of radio shows, including more than 50 American Family Robinson episodes, although not all involve the newspaper as a business or as a social force. The MP3 player above is an undated “episode 57” from that collection.

The series was written by Douglas Silver and Marjorie Bartlett, and directed by Martha Atwell. The writers had some newspaper roots, according to a history page at radio station WIRA, which Silver owned later in his career:

Douglas Silver and his wife, Marjorie, were the major broadcasters… Both Silver and his wife had been radio script writers… Doug Silver was born in New York in 1904, son of Henry Clay Silver, a New York World newspaper city editor…
Doug Silver was a St. Lucie County Commissioner from 1953 to 1958. He sold the radio station in 1953, and was a free lance correspondent for the  Miami Herald.

Even in American Family Robinson, the editor shifted careers — with Luke Robinson becoming assistant manager of a local furniture factory, in a transition that may have reflected the sponsors’ attitude toward newspaper professionalism: “Gus Olsen, a janitor who had made the best of his lot in life, assumed Robinson’s place as the managing editor and owner of the Herald.” (Bird, p.57)

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