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All I Needed to Know I Learned from Dragnet Excerpt: Do Hard Things; Expect Others to Follow

The following is an excerpt of my newest ebook All I Needed to Know I Learned from Dragnet  which examines the careers and histories of seven great detectives of literature, radio and film. This is the first of five lessons learned from the immortal  Joe Friday:

Do Hard Things; Expect Others to Follow

A pop culture stereotype of a recruiter for dangerous jobs is someone who slyly makes you promises about great benefits and retirement packages and never mentions the risks of the job: including the risk you may not live to enjoy the retirement benefits.

This isn’t true of the vast majority of recruiters, and it wasn’t true of Joe Friday. In the episode, “The Interrogation,” Friday and Gannon were worked out of Internal Affairs. They brought in an undercover rookie cop named Culver who’d been identified as a man who committed an armed robbery.

Culver protested his innocence, felt being pulled into internal affairs was the last straw, and threatened to quit the force. He’d already had enough grief after his fiancée left him over his decision to become a police office. After Friday found out Culver was indeed innocent, he hesitated to tell him because Culver would most likely quit.

Instead Friday decided to address Culver’s inclination to leave. Friday correctly guessed that Culver’s fiancée was disappointed because he was a college graduate and she hoped he’d get better job. This was back when a degree actually held that promise.

To address the despondent cop, Friday could have explained that the department had good job security. There will always be a need for someone to ensure public safety. He could have talked about all the opportunities to be promoted within the department to Lieutenant, Captain, or even the Chief’s office. He could have explained there were plenty of women who would respect Culver’s life choices and be supportive of him.

Instead, Friday said that perhaps the fiancée’s fears were justified and explained what it meant to be a cop. It meant having a schedule constantly subject to change, being disrespected at social functions, and being the butt of jokes. “You’re a cop, a flatfoot, a bull, a dick, John Law. You’re the fuzz, the heat; you’re poison, you’re trouble, you’re bad news. They call you everything, but never a policeman.” He also said the job required sacrifice and frugality. “If you count pennies, you can put your kid through college, but you better plan on seeing Europe on your television set.”

Of the hazards of the job, Friday was said, “When you try to arrest a drunken prostitute in a Main St. bar, and she rips your new uniform to shreds, you’ll buy another one out of your own pocket.”

Friday also didn’t promise a job that was great for your emotional well-being and told Culver he would encounter “…underfed kids, beaten kids, molested kids, lost kids, crying kids, homeless kids, hit-and-run kids, broken-arm kids, broken-leg kids, broken-head kids, sick kids, dying kids, dead kids. The old people nobody wants—the reliefers, the pensioners, the ones who walk the street cold, and those who tried to keep warm and died in a $3 room with an unventilated gas heater. You’ll walk your beat and try to pick up the pieces.”

He warns of boredom and promises more of the same if Culver decides to move up to detective. “You’ll do leg work until you’re sure you’ve talked to everybody in the state of California.”

In addition, Friday promised him that the job would include filling out constant paperwork and that it would mean working with difficult decisions and people he didn’t like in prosecuting crimes. “You’ll learn to live with the District Attorney, testifying in court, defense attorneys, prosecuting attorneys, judges, juries, witnesses. And sometimes you’re not going to be happy with the outcome.”

Why would anyone stay on the police force under those conditions?
Friday explained, “There are over five thousand men in this city who know that being a policeman is an endless, glamourless, thankless job that’s gotta be done. I know it, too, and I’m damn glad to be one of them.”

And that was enough for Culver, who said he’d call his fiancée. It’s also enough for tens of thousands of cops across America who find fulfillment in doing something that’s not always fun but is necessary and vital to the security of civilization.

Friday’s honesty about the challenges he faced was not uncommon in that time. Earlier in that decade, President John F. Kennedy, in challenging America to go to the moon declared, “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

In addressing Officer Culver, Friday also avoided a key pitfall that many leaders make today. Authors Chip and Dan Heath in their book Made to Stick said that many of those trying to motivate others were “stuck in Maslow’s basement,” a reference to the famous psychologist’s hierarchy of needs, which suggested people’s basic needs—such as food, clothing, shelter, and safety—had to be first be met before they’d care about any higher level needs such as belonging or serving their fellow men. However, we make a mistake if we only seek to motivate everyone by lower-level needs.

According to the Heath brothers, most of the people they interviewed for their book were motivated by higher-level needs but assumed others were motivated only by money and related concerns. Thus many leaders fail to motivate people because they don’t understand what motivated them. Friday believed Culver had been motivated to join the police force by a desire to serve and make a difference in his community. Friday also may have reasoned that, if Culver was only interested in money, ease,and status, he didn’t belong on the police force anyway.

Not all of us are cut out to join the police force, but instead of seeking money or easy work, we can find fulfillment in helping others in whatever our work is or however we volunteer outside of work. If we do find something that motivates us because it tugs at our heart or it’ll make peoples lives better, we should also seek to motivate others to share that vision rather than hoping they’ll see some material benefit.

All I Needed to Know I Learned from Dragnet examines the history and career of seven great fictional detectives and twenty life lessons that can be learned from them. The previous ebook All I Needed to Know I Learned from Columbo is still 

For all other e-readers, All I Needed to Know I Learned from Dragnet and   All I Needed to Know from Columbo are available at


Radio’s Most Essential People Countdown: #12 and #11

Previous Posts: 14-1316-1518-1720-19,22-2124-2326-2528-2730-2933-3136-3439-37,

42-4045-4348-4651-4954-5257-5560-5865-6170-66,  71-7576-8081-8586-9091-9596-100

12) Al Jolson

Al JolsonJolson was one of America's premier entertainers beginning with his days in Vaudeville and his starring role in the first feature length talkie, The Jazz Singer.  Jolson also brought his unique musical style to radio in 1932 for Chevrolet. He'd continued to be a ratings draw for many years with programs such as Shell Chateau and the Kraft Music Hall. Jolson's popularity in the early 1940s but picked up after the war with the release of The Jolson Story and then Jolson Sings Again. This made Jolson in demand both as  a star and as a guest performer. Throughout his career, he remained one of his era's greatest entertainers, and also one of its most beloved radio stars.

11) Jack Webb

Jack WebbJack Webb came to radio at the right time in 1946. He began in San Francisco on the historic KGO-AM.  The station was trying to compete for national radio attention in a national radio market dominated by Hollywood and New York. He tried out several formats including a Comedy/Variety show and a news commentary program before with writer Richard Breen, he created the role of Pat Novak for Hire. The sardonic sometimes detective Novak spoke in a way that was unique to that time or any other.

His association with KGO ended as he went to Hollywood to find his fortune and the Novak series struggled on without him. He starred in a copycat series of Novak called Johnny Madero that went nowhere for Mutual, and then in 1948 landed the lead role in another detective series in CBS' Jeff Regan.  In Hollywood, he played a lot of tough guys and hoods. On the CBS Series Escape he  appeared in a variety of episodes that have become classics such as his legendary work on "A Shipment of Mute Fate" and "Operation Fer de Lys."

In 1949, he returned to his signature role as Pat Novak in a national series that added to his acclaim. However, the series was set to go on Summer hiatus and Webb needed money. Of this necessity was born Webb's greatest creation, Dragnet. 

Influenced by a conversation he'd had with an LAPD officer and movie consultant who didn't particularly care for radio private eye shows and their portrayals of incompetent or brutal cops, Webb had been challenged to make a show that showed how policeman really worked.

So in June 1949, NBC premiered Dragnet which would last for more than six years over the radio. Webb as producer/director brought listeners the highest quality of sound effects and took them right to the scene of the crime on the side of the law. Unlike most crime shows, Dragnet didn't focus exclusively on homicides but covered nearly every area a detective might work in including missing persons, bunco, and robbery.

Dragnet's portrayal of the police as ordinary middle class heroes offered a fresh contrast from prior portrayals which portrayed police alternately as super cops or as bumbling fools.  Dragnet changed the shape of the crime drama and it would have many imitators such as 21st Precinct, Tales of the Texas Ranger, and The Line Up.

Had it not been for television, Webb's entire career may have been defined over radio as the vanguard of a new generation of radio producers. His radio work waned and ended in 1955 as he focused on Dragnet over television and several film projects. Still, in his years on the radio, Webb raised the bar for excellence for everyone who would come after.

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EP0002: Pat Novak for Hire: Go Away Dixie Gillian

Pat Novak is hired to frighten a man named Dixie Gillian, but when an empty gun goes off, he finds himself facing a murder charge.'
"You couldn't hold a moth with a searchlight."-Pat Novak to Hellman
Original Air Date: November 24, 1946

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