Friday, February 01, 2008

Erik Barnouw

You probably don't know his name. He was neither a DJ nor an engineer. He was a raido historian who wrote the books you may have read in your media classes. He wrote some of the most scholarly texts on radio history. Specifically a three part series on radio history published by Oxford in 1966, 1968, and 1970. He won the Bancroft Prize for the third and final volume
  • A Tower in Babel: A History of Broadcasting in the United States To 1933 , Oxford University Press, 1966.
  • The Golden Web: A History of Broadcasting in the United States 1933-1953, Oxford University Press, 1968.
  • The Image Empire: A History of Broadcasting in the United States from 1953, Oxford University Press, 1970.

He was born in Den Haag in the Netherlands and attended Princeton University in 1928. Against the advice of his professors and his father (A Columbia University Linguist) he skipped graduate studies and went to work. his first job wiring for Fortune magazine lasted less than a month. he traveled abroad on a fellowship and returned for a second try in 1931. He got a job directing the R.J. Reynolds Camel Quarter Hour for the Columbia Broadcasting System. It was a program that aimed at encouraging women to smoke. But it was the great depression and work was work.

That experience got him a job as a writer and editor for CBS in 1939 then as an editor at NBC from in 1942. He became a professor at Columbia University in 1946. During his tenure at Columbia he organized their Film Division MFA and served as department chair until 1968. He was a historian of mass media, radio included. His teaching did not stop his film making or writing. More here.

In 1971 Barnouw received a George Polk Award for excellence in journalism. He retired in 1973 from Columbia University as an emeritus professor. He continued to serve as the President of International Film Seminars, and as a film curator at the Library of Congress until 1981. but he never stopped writing about media. The New York Times, quoted his former editor Sheldon Mayer as saying "He loved [Broadcasting in a way. He had an eye for the scoundrels, and the fakes, and the dangerous people." ...A man after my own heart.

He is best known now for his film about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He had been to japan to film the destruction and the U.S. government seized his film. It disagreed with their propaganda that radiation was harmless. Decades later they released the film to him and he finally edited the movie he'd shot. He talked abotu it on this radio program here.

He was famous to a few, the educators, and the informed, the newsmakers and the news writers. In 1975, John Leonard of The New York Times wrote, ''Erik Barnouw's three-volume 'History of Broadcasting in the United States' is what everybody who writes about television steals from.'' More here.

In 1983 the organization of American Historians issued the first Erik Barnouw Award, honoring his name. One or two awards are given annually in recognition of outstanding programming on network or cable television, or in documentary film, concerned with American history, the study of American history, and/or the promotion of history. Barnouw died of cancer at home in Fair Haven, Vermont.