Radio broadcasting began in 1920 and by 1930, 60 per cent of North American families had radios. Broadcasters sought a diversity of programing to attract listeners and began introducing cowboys and westerns to the airwaves. Producers knew that kids and cowboys just naturally went together and began developing programs that appealed to them.
These early kiddie westerns, as they were called, were usually scheduled for late afternoon, so the kids could listen to them when they got home from school before dad arrived from work and radio programming would be more family oriented.
One of the earliest kiddie westerns was Bobby Benson and the B Bar B Riders, which ran from 1932 to 1936 and was resurrected and ran again from 1949 to 1955. Bobby was an orphan who owned his own ranch, the Bar-B. But his foreman, Tex Mason, was the real hero of the show. He was the typical cowboy, a man of sterling character, who would side with the defenseless Native Americans or the poor, hard-working settlers and would always shoot to wound or disarm, not to kill.
The kiddie westerns ran as serials and sold cereals. One of the key elements was that the listeners would participate in the adventures by eating the sponsor’s cereal and sending in box-top premiums for “valuable prizes.” The early version of Bobby Benson was sponsored by H-O Cereals, which offered Bobby Benson Code books, cereal bowls, drinking glasses and card games. Other sponsors soon caught on. Shredded Wheat, which sponsored Straight Arrow (1948–1951) offered “Injun-uity Cards” placed inside the cereal box. Ralston-Purina, producers of the Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters Club (1933 -1950s), brought prizes to the ultimate level. They offered decoders, badges and the cherished Tom Mix wooden revolver (which degenerated to a cheap plastic toy in the later years of the program). The Ralston company also inserted ads during the radio program for listeners to send in for a series of 12 special Ralston Tom Mix comic books available only by writing in.
The classic kiddie western was The Lone Ranger, which ran continuously from 1933 to 1956. With his companion, Tonto, the Masked Man was more like Batman than a typical western hero. He also was the type of hero who would shoot the gun out of a bad man’s hands instead of killing him.
Most of the heroes in these serials didn’t have time for the fairer sex. Red Ryder, which aired from 1941 until 1951, was known to go riding with the local school marm but drew the line at hand holding or kissing. Like so many of his counterparts, Red Ryder had a sidekick, in his case “Little Beaver,” a young Native American. While the depiction of the Native Americans in the kiddie westerns was a significant improvement from the dime store novel “Wild Indian” versions, stereotypes were still prominent.
Comic books were a natural spin-off of the radio cowboy markets. Unlike other kiddie western heroes, Red Ryder started out as a comic book hero before moving to radio, instead of the opposite.
Ken Mather is a Spallumcheen-based author. He can be reached through www.kenmather.com.