Erik Barnouw shaped the writing of American broadcasting history with his landmark trilogy published in the late 1960s. His historical work was responsible for making that subject academically respectable (because of his archival digging, smooth writing style, and having Oxford as a publisher) and laid the groundwork for the generation of historical publication that has followed. His long life in and about the media was a model of shared professional and academic experience.
A Varied Career
Born in The Hague, Netherlands, on June 23, 1908, Barnouw was the son of Adriaan and Anne Midgely Barnouw. His father was a noted linguist who became a Columbia University professor of Dutch history and literature after the family immigrated to the United States in 1919. Growing up in an educated household, the young boy learned to speak German, Dutch, Belgian, French, and English. Barnouw's early experience was largely theatrical, as he wrote and acted in several plays while studying English at Princeton University, from which he graduated in 1929. Despite strong advice from faculty mentors--and the offer of a fellowship--he decided against graduate school and an academic career, desiring instead to pursue his theatrical interests. But his timing was terrible--the eve of the Depression. After a few months on the theatrical boards, his first media post, as a writer for the new business monthly, Fortune, lasted only a few weeks. He luckily picked up a fellowship to travel overseas, one that allowed several months of studying drama with Max Reinhardt in Vienna.
On his return to the United States in 1931, the job situation in theater and most other places appeared bleak indeed. A lucky chance meeting (fittingly, in a speak-easy, as this was during Prohibition) led to employment with an advertising agency active in network radio. Barnouw was charged with directing the Camel Quarter Hour six times a week, although as he later admitted, "I had never had a radio. I went out and bought [one, and] listened to it all weekend, so I could come to work ... knowing a lot about it." He spent the next 4 years directing six or seven daily or weekly radio series for CBS and NBC. While on a Maine vacation break in 1937, he was offered a chance to teach radio writing at Columbia University's School of General Studies. Given the demand for more writers as dramatic programs expanded, networks were willing to pay tuition for their attendees in such a course. His first book, Handbook of Radio Writing (Little, Brown, 1939)included scripts from the classes and his own writing at the networks.
While teaching, Barnouw was a script editor for a CBS series in 1939-1940, and there first crossed paths with Norman Corwin (Poet Laureate of Radio's Golden Age, University of Southern California). Soon to become radio's premier playwright, Corwin recalls:
I had the privilege of working together with Erik when I was a freshman employee at CBS. I was assigned to direct a sustaining [unsponsored] variety program under the inviting title of The Pursuit of Happiness, a Sunday afternoon series which enjoyed the services of Burgess Meredith as MC, and presented stars of the stage and screen in song and speech derived from Americana old and new. Erik was among its writers, and in one of his first scripts, he turned in a playlet to which some of the brass at the network took exception. It was not anything radical, just something that I felt Henry Thoreau might have been proud to have written. Today it might be thought of as "liberal," which was not yet the dirty political word it was to become. Although I carried no weight, I felt there were absolutely no grounds for objection, and said I would resign from directing the series if Barnouw's script were to be censored. That threat frightened nobody, but apparently gave pause to the objectors, and in that pause Barnouw's script was upheld. Erik heard about my stand, and it cemented a friendship which lasted for the rest of his many days. I took great pleasure in Erik's high achievements, especially from his emergence as the prime historian of broadcasting. Barnouw went on to become the unrivaled Boswell of documentary cinema, and along the way he became curator of recorded material deep in the chambers of the Library of Congress. He remained active and spirited to the end of his distinguished life. I feel lucky and privileged that our paths, having crossed early, progressed to our mutual benefit, and, I should like to think, to the respect of a few receptors around and...