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On The Air

May 2024
1min read

Pioneers of American Broadcasting

By Amy Henderson; Smithsonian Institution Press; 202 pages.

Broadcasting does not have a long history. The list of its pioneers and stars is etched in our national memory, and some of the early titans are still active: William S. Paley, George Burns, and Walter Cronkite chief among them. Others are gone but not forgotten: Jackie Gleason, Edward R. Murrow, Orson Welles. The Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Broadcasting’s 1988 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery placed them all together under one roof, and On the Air is the catalogue of that splendid show.

Amy Henderson’s book is more concerned with individuals than specific technological breakthroughs, and its pages are filled with succinct biographies of the creators of America’s most pervasive national media. From the story of Marconi’s first transoceanic transmission to the political result of the Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960, On the Air is an amusing and informative look at the entertainment revolution.

The pictures, too, are wonderful. We see a whimsical Fred Allen reading into an antiquated CBS microphone, and Red Barber calling a baseball game in his wedding suit. Eddie Cantor is shown with his audience during his first live-audience radio show, and the great Lucille Ball is juxtaposed with a publicity shot of Jack Webb and Ben Alexander on the set of “Dragnet.” Al Hirschfeld’s pen-and-ink portraits of Groucho Marx, Jack Paar, and Alfred Hitchcock are here, as well as photographs of David Sarnoff reporting the loss of the Titanic and Dave Garroway during the first broadcast of the “Today” show in 1952.

The development of broadcast journalism and the rise of television are documented with equal care, and the reader is given a complete, if brief, view of the past seventy years of radio and television. America did not at first see the development of radio as a democratic tool so much as a redemptive cultural force, Henderson notes. As the Depression wore on, however, broadcasting became a popular form of cheap entertainment; comedy and variety hours ruled the airwaves.

A bit like television itself, On the Air is a quick and fulfilling distraction. For those who recall the early days of television and radio, it will serve as a scrapbook of happy memories, and for those who don’t, it will serve as a lively introduction to our nation’s broadcasting past.

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