I had heard it rumored that 99% Invisible could get serious, but I don’t think I was fully prepared for “Milk Carton Kids.” The story centers, as you might guess, on missing children—in particular, the missing children featured on milk cartons.
The first of the milk carton kids was Johnny Gosch. In 1982 the Gosch’s neighbors called to say that Johnny, a paper boy, hadn’t been by to deliver their paper that morning. He had never before missed a delivery. When Johnny’s dad went to check on his son he found Johnny’s wagon, still full of newspapers, abandoned on the corner of their street.
At first, the Goschs could not get police to take their case seriously. At the time, many places (Iowa included) treated missing children in the same way the treated adults: to open a missing persons case, Johnny would have to be gone for three days. The three days came and went, and Johnny was still not home. 1
Two years later, another area paper boy, Eugene Martin, went missing. A relative who worked for the local dairy company, Anderson & Erickson Dairy, initiated the first “milk carton kids” campaign in the nation. The first milk carton featured both Eugene and Johnny, who had not been found at the time of the program’s launch in 1984.
With help from the National Child Safety Council, the program soon expanded to more than 700 dairies nationwide. Though widespread as a cultural token, the program was generally unsuccessful at its stated goal: finding missing children. In its history, only two featured children were ever found. One of the discoveries had nothing to do with milk cartons and the other is not at all what you would expect.
That said, the program’s defenders, including Noreen Gosch, say it achieved something else. The cartons started a national dialogue about missing children, kicked off conversations between parents and their children about safety, and helped to change laws across the nation in order to better streamline efforts to find children like Johnny.
But the provocative nature of these cartons was also, in part, responsible for their downfall. These cartons were depressing. Should a child really have to stare into the eyes of the missing every morning over her cereal? Only two years after the campaign began, and four years after Johnny disappeared, the last missing children panels were phased out.
Roman and reporter Annie Brown go on to discuss the widespread and completely unfounded “stranger danger” paranoia of the 1980s. Though thousands of children are reported missing each year in the United States, only about 115 of those children are thought to be kidnapped by strangers. Not that you would know it from reading the milk cartons.
This episode was a long-overdue reckoning for me. I have been listening for several weeks at this point, and have heard Roman and his team cover the frivolous and the silly (“Lawn Order,” “Reefer Madness); the architectural (“The Great Restoration,” “How to Love a Brute”); and the whimsical (“Bathysphere“). All were handled well, and I understood, at least to a certain extent, why the praise for the show had been so lavish. But it wasn’t until I heard “Milk Carton Kids” that I understood why so many insisted that this be among the first shows we reviewed for Audiologue.
Roman’s earnestness is always compelling, but it occasionally teeters on the edge of cloying or saccharine when the subject matter is, well, too easy to pun off of. But that earnestness is the show’s primary asset when he and his team have the opportunity to delve into the serious, even the tragic. I was most impressed by two things—things which seem like they should not be able to effectively co-exist: the show’s abundant empathy for those featured and its inclusion of clarifying, but difficult, context. Milk cartons, despite their cultural longevity, actually weren’t that effective and played a part in furthering the Stranger Danger panic, which was, and continues to be, without empirical justification. All this should undercut the power of the episode, but it doesn’t. And that’s what 99% Invisible is: powerful and true.
- Years later, Johnny’s mother Noreen was the primary author of legislation to differentiate children from adults in missing persons cases in Iowa. ^
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