“Empire of the Air” – a history of radio broadcasting

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Mike Hansgen, who notes that Ken Burns’ film, Empire of the Air is now streaming on YouTube. This impressive documentary was originally broadcast in 1992.  The following is a summary taken from the Empire of the Air website:

For 50 years radio dominated the airwaves and the American consciousness as the first “mass medium.” In Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio, 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of Lee de Forest, a clergyman’s flamboyant son, who invented the audion tube; Edwin Howard Armstrong, a brilliant, withdrawn inventor who pioneered FM technology; and David Sarnoff, a hard-driving Russian immigrant who created the most powerful communications company on earth.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,” Empire of the Air relates the history of radio through archival photographs, newsreels of the period and interviews with such well-known radio personalities as Garrison Keillor, the late sports commentator Red Barber, radio dramatist Norman Corwin and the late broadcast historian Erik Barnouw.

As with many videos on YouTube, this film could be removed at any time without warning. I suggest watching this soon:

Click here to view on YouTube.

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9 thoughts on ““Empire of the Air” – a history of radio broadcasting

  1. Michael Black

    It was a book, apparently first (though not by much, leaving me wondering if they were more integrated) by Tom Lewis. I read it out of the library, but kept putting off buying a copy until it disappeared. I don’t think it’s still in print.

    Sadly, the Ken Burns documentary doesn’t get as much replay on PBS as his more popular ones.


  2. Guy Atkins

    This is my favorite documentary, bar none! Even for non-radio hobbyists it brings early 20th century USA history to life, and shows how technology was changing quickly, even back then. I particularly enjoyed learning about Sarnoff’s contribution to radio history; he was a marketing and business visionary.

    1. Robert

      I second Guy – I have had the DVD for a number of years and it is excellent and almost awe-inspiring as you see what these people were able to accomplish!

  3. rtc

    A bit of trivia about the narrator…actor Jason Robards,Jr.
    On December 7,1941 he was a radioman on one of the ships
    at pearl harbor and actually copied the famous cw message
    “air raid pearl harbor this is no drill”…he was a part of radio
    history himself.


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