Empire of the Air-The Men Who Made Radio

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Empire of the Air—The Men Who Made Radio. Ken Burns, dir. 1991. DVD.

DVD Cover

Description: For fifty years radio dominated the airwaves and the American consciousness as the first "mass medium." This film by Ken Burns examines the lives of three extraordinary men who shared the primary responsibility for this invention and its early success, and whose genius, friendship, rivalry and enmity interacted in tragic ways. This is the story of Lee de Forest, a clergyman's flamboyant son, who invented the audition tube; Edwin Howard Armstrong, a brilliant, withdrawn inventor who pioneered FM technology; and David Sarnoff, a hard-driving Russian immigrant who created the most powerful communications company on Earth.

Against the backdrop of radio's "Golden Age," this fascinating backstage drama tells the history of radio through archival photographs, newsreels of the period, and interviews with such well-known radio personalities as Garrison Keillor, sports commentator Red Barber, radio dramatist Norman Corwin and broadcast historian Erick Barnouw.

Director's Commentary: I decided to make Empire of the Air, which aired in 1991, after listening to my friend Tom Lewis talk passionately about the topic.

We were intrigued by the notion that, in an era absolutely saturated by the mass medium of television, we have so quickly and completely forgotten how a different mass medium – radio – had dominated American consciousness and culture for nearly half a century.

This is the complicated backstage drama of the early days of radio – an era more often than not smothered in sentimentality and nostalgia.

Pursuing the story of radio illuminated for me larger American themes about the vitality of our inventiveness and our unapologetic commercialism.

It also introduced me to three extraordinary men whose genius, friendship, and rivalry ultimately interacted in tragic ways.

--Ken Burns

Additional information, background material, and activities related to Ken Burn's Empire of the Air can be found at pbs.org.

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