Former Fellow Erik Barnouw, Historian of Broadcasting, Dies at 93

Jul 19, 2001

Erik Barnouw, whose classic three-volume History of Broadcasting in U.S is often credited with being the number one source of information and analysis of the industry, died in Fairhaven, VT on July 19. While a Fellow at the Center in 1976, Barnouw wrote the book The Sponsor: Notes on a Modern Potentate which traced the history and influence of sponsors in broadcasting.

Barnouw moved to the United States from the Netherlands when he was 11. While an undergraduate at Princeton, he wrote both plays and lyrics for musicals, then went on to a career in radio. He was a writer and editor for CBS in 1939 and 1940 and an editor at NBC from 1942 to 1944.

While Barnouw's expertise was in radio, tv, and film, his vocations included educator, scholar, and film maker. In 1937 he began his teaching career at Columbia University teaching radio writing. A decade later he founded the division of film, radio, and television in the university's Program in the Arts which he would chair until 1968, leaving the university in 1973. In 1978 Barnouw joined the Library of Congress as its first chief of the broadcasting and motion picture division. While he retired in 1981, he continued to write about his lifetime love—broadcasting. This past January he published Media Lost and Found, a series of vignettes about his work in the film industry.

Barnouw is probably best know for his three-volume History of Broadcasting in the United States, which according to John Leonard of The New York Times, "Quite simply....is what everybody who writes about television steals from." The first volume, "A Tower of Babel," traced the history of radio until 1933. "The Golden Web," the second volume, covered the next two decades of radio, and the last volume, "The Image Empire," charted the rise of television.

While at the Center, Barnouw continued to write about broadcasting, specifically about the dependence on sponsors in American television. According to his fellowship application and book proposal for The Sponsor: Notes on a Modern Potentate, Barnouw wrote: "By and large, the sponsor exercises an elusive environmental control. Thus our study is concerned with an instrument of power, exercised in a form seldom associated in the average person's mind with power, and perhaps all the more telling for that reason. For it provides delights to which men and women turn for relaxation, and for understanding of the world beyond their ken—via images in color more real than life, defining what is good and great and desirable."