When America Stopped to Listen

Maker of 'The Civil Wars' series now chronicles the evolution of radio, its impact on American culture, and the personalities behind it

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

DURING the Great Depression of the 1930s, social workers reported that destitute Americans would sooner have given up iceboxes, furniture, beds, and bathtubs than part with their radios.

In 1923, one-third of all the money spent on furniture in the United States was spent on radios. For better or worse, Americans stopped writing, playing musical instruments, and going to bed when the sun went down. Radio gave them something to stay awake for.

In the film "Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio," producer and director Ken Burns reminds those who forgot - and informs those too young to know - about radio's profound impact on American culture.

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"In our television age, we have forgotten how incredibly new and powerful radio was. Hearing the same kind of voices, our language changed as regional accents smoothed out. Where once all communication was intimate, radio made it anonymous, passive, removed. Radio changed the way we look at the world," Mr. Burns says.

Having produced his epic series on "The Civil War" last year, Burns now takes a detailed look at radio's evolution and the personalities behind it. The two-hour film (airing on PBS, Jan. 29, 9-11 p.m., ET, check local listings) is just one facet of a triangular look at broadcasting's early years: A 90-minute radio version evolved as a second part of the General Motors Mark of Excellence Productions and will air on American Public Radio in February. Both film and radio programs had their origin in a book of the same name by Skidmore College professor Tom Lewis.

Approached by Mr. Lewis during the final production days of "The Civil War," Burns first balked at the idea of making the film. "But soon I was sucked in by the story and couldn't stay away," he says in an interview at his home.

Radio made America a land of listeners. In the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's fireside chats reassured people at a time when their most secure institutions were failing. Radio allowed them to believe what their ears told them and forget what their eyes saw. American politics changed forever as broadcasting became a viable agent of rhetoric. Public relations was born.

"What it did was to annihilate borders," says Norman Corwin, author and producer of many classic radio broadcasts, whom Burns cites as playing the role of a Greek chorus in the film.

For baby boomers whose champion was television, the only contemporary glimpse into the reign of radio are the homespun yarns of Garrison Keillor's decade-long run of "A Prairie Home Companion."

In Burns's film, Mr. Keillor recounts his boyhood days on the floor of his Minnesota home, "laying in the dark, letting the sounds of the floor model Zenith - the piece of parlor architecture with columns - course through my stomach." The men who started it all

"Empire of the Air," however, "is not a golden-age-of-radio nostalgia program," says Burns, "but a backstage drama of three remarkable lives in collision." In three acts, he unfolds the stories of radio's first pioneers who "possessed the toxin of ambition."

Lee de Forest was the self-proclaimed father of radio who according to many, including the courts, "borrowed" the work of others and did not understand how some of his patented inventions worked. Edwin Howard Armstrong was an uncompromising engineering visionary who perfected and advanced de Forest's primitive gadget boxes into sophisticated broadcast technology. Most of his fortune ended up in the hands of lawyers. And David Sarnoff was a Russian Jewish immigrant who arrived in America penniless and who se ruthless ambition placed him on the corporate throne of RCA.

Their names should be household words, says Burns. But it is likely that Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian inventor of the wireless telegraph, will be erroneously remembered as the father of radio. Elements of Greek tragedy

"Empire of the Air" is a 20th-century story that borrows themes from Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, and includes all the ingredients of Greek tragedy: pride, greed, blindness, deceit, despair - even death.

"Because [the three men] lived in the decades [when] corporations became more and more the sponsors of inventions, lone inventors got submerged in the corporate reality, and they in turn became more ruthless, more paranoid, more self-centered - corrupted in a spiritual way," Burns says.

"Each of our three heroes internalizes this corruption. What should be a story of genius and determination becomes a story of insecurity and ultimately tragedy."

"Empire of the Air" owes its tight and provocative script to Geoffrey Ward, Burns's principal writer for "The Civil War." The script puts demands of concentration on the viewer far in excess of the eight-minute commercial television menu and even beyond PBS standard fare. That was precisely the intention, says Burns.

"We originally thought 'Empire' would be a single 90-minute film and once considered three single-hour programs. Yet for dramatic purposes, we did not want to divide it, so we opted for a very long and difficult format - one that you really have to strap on your hiking boots for, and I'm delighted that we're pushing the boundaries of attention," he says.

So dense is the writing of "Empire," that combined with the narration of Jason Robards and a soundtrack assembled from actual broadcasts of the period, the audio alone stands as a first-rate radio documentary - without the video. Although this unintentional byproduct pleases Burns, it doesn't surprise him.

"Well, as Norman Corwin said, 'Radio always did have better pictures, says Burns.

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