After the release of writer/producer/director Ken Burns' monstrous serial documentaries - "The Civil War," "Baseball," and "Jazz" being the best-known - some of his older work is making its debut on DVD, here through new distributor Paramount.
A real gem for radio buffs is "Empire of the Air," which strings three narrative threads into a funny/sad tale of the heroes and geniuses who created the technical and commercial infrastructure that begot radio.
Though most buffs will recognize the name of "General" David Sarnoff (creator of RCA, and its extraordinarily successful corporate legacy and bullying to influence government policy), the best characters are Edwin Howard Armstrong, and self-anointed "father of radio," Lee de Forest.
Sonically, Burns weaves multiple strands of archival audio - pop ditties, interviews, and test sounds - and uses periodic blackouts and fade-ins to plunge viewers into a brief simulation of what audiences experienced when entertainment came from a beautifully sculpted radio receiver, and one's limitless imagination.
We all know TV helped kill radio, but the assembled historians, friends, co-workers, and associates of these three figures give us a superb slice of what these remarkable, devious, and colourful men achieved in a short time-span. While de Forest shored up his ego (topped by a horribly maudlin appearance on "This Is Your Life"), rival Armstrong created FM radio - which RCA poo-pooed in favour of a steady income stream from its AM radio sales; Armstrong subsequently spent his personal fortune to assert his patents and historical position in what became the longest patent war in U.S. corporate history.
The real shocker for viewers will be the utter familiarity of the described bickering, technological strides, pop culture fascination, and Sarnoff's marvelous foresight that made radio a turning point in popular entertainment; substitute the word Internet, and the pivotal changes and rapid absorption of radio culture within the family and work environment is nearly identical. (With banks and doctors setting up their own radio stations to boost local business, the parallels with the 'net are crystal clear.)
A gem of a doc that deserves repeated viewing, with Burns's typical brew of archival still, film and TV goodies to enrich an already engrossing history lesson.
This PBS title is available alone, or as part of The Ken Burns's America Collection, which includes "Brooklyn Bridge," "The Statue of Liberty," "Empire of the Air," "The Congress," "Thomas Hart Benton," "Huey Long," and "The Shakers."
© 2004 Mark R. Hasan