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Edwin Howard Armstrong and David Sarnoff, two majorfigures in Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio. Erik Barnouw provides historical testimony in this two-hour documentary by Ken Bums. Photographs courtesy of «General Motors. Film & History, Vol. XXI, Nos. 2 & 3, May/September 199145 An Appreciation of Erik Barnouw's A History ofBroadcasting in the United States Christopher H. Sterling It's now been a quarter of a century-almost to the day--since I walked into the old University Co-op bookstore near the University of Wisconsin in Madison, to find a new book called A Tower of Babel, about the rise of American radio to 1933. I shelled out $8.50 for a copy in days when I could rarely afford a book at its retail price (I was just in my first year of graduate work), took it home and devoured every word in two or three days, hungrily reviewing its bibliography of riches I barely knew about. I was especially excited to see that a serious author and a university press were issuing a scholarly series (two more volumes were promised) about a topic I found exciting~but figured few other people cared about. Maybe this was a legitimate field of study after all! I eagerly awaited the next two volumes—the two years between each was a suspense of wondering how Barnouw would treat events, trends and sources about which I was learning more in my graduate work. I met Professor Barnouw just after the second volume appeared~he was in Madison doing research at the Mass Communication History Center at the State Historical Society. His three-volume history, widely praised on its appearance, helped change the lives of many of us then only discovering the history of communication. As just one of those who had many new research doors opened by his pioneering work, I'm pleased and honored to help pay tribute to an important scholar and his seminal history. Specifically, these brief comments seek to place Barnouw's work into a broader context. What Came Before Barnouw? There was a widespread feeling at the time of its publication-and indeed since, that Barnouw's History was the first serious study of radio and television. That's only partially true. A number of predecessors are still important documents, most of which Barnouw cited as contributing to his more comprehensive effort. The most recent model of what a study of broadcasting could be that was available to Barnouw as he was writing in the early 1960s was the first two volumes of Briggs' detailed history of the BBC to 1939, published by the London office of Barnouw's Christopher H. Sterling is Professor and Director of the Graduate Telecommunication Program and the National Center for Communication Studies at the George Washington University. 46 Christopher H. Sterling publisher.1 Briggs was writing about only a single organization, but he showed what a scholarly institutional history could be. There were a number of important scholarly historical books on American radio which had helped to pave the way to Barnouw's important trilogy. All were at least fifteen to twenty years old when Barnouw's first volume appeared~and only a few examples can be cited here. Maclaurin's 1949 investigation of radio patents and how they affected development of the U. S. industry remains the most valuable study of the subject yet done.2 White's 1947 history of radio focused on the lack of program diversity and the struggle of educational stations.3 Banning's 1946 history of a key station in the formative years of radio drew on company documentation to illustrate how radio rapidly built a role in American life.4 The history most students knew best back in the 1960s was the privately printed two-volume set by Archer, which suffered from its almost total reliance on RCA records and its pedestrian writing and confusing organization.5 Still, Archer had access to people and documents now long gone. Even earlier studies of aspects of the industry were of value to Barnouw and still are to us today as records of early thinking. Studies such as Hettinger's 1933 book on the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9922
Print ISSN
0360-3695
Pages
pp. 44-50
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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