The Creative Team as Historian: Inside the Production Process on Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (1992)

  • Gary R. Edgerton


Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio was Ken Burns’s eighth major PBS special, premiering on January 29, 1992. Its production history offers a glimpse into Burns’s working methods at Florentine Films during an extraordinarily heady period for both the producer-director and his still-struggling company. This historical documentary was conceived and created while The Civil War was being edited and later released to wide attention and acclaim, a period when Burns’s professional profile changed dramatically as he became a national celebrity virtually overnight. The heightened work environment and reaction surrounding The Civil War also affected Empire of the Air’s shooting and assembly stages, in minor ways at first, but then more tangibly after the summer of 1990. The production of this PBS special, in retrospect, provides a revealing object lesson into the shared authorship which typically occurs when creating mediated history on film for television.


Historical Narrative Radio Broadcasting Creative Team Public Television Historical Documentary 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 7.
    Tom Lewis, Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993), 401.Google Scholar
  2. 8.
    The chief archives are Armstrong’s papers at the Armstrong Memorial Research Foundation and the Butler Library at Columbia University; Lee de Forest’s papersat the Library of Congress; David Sarnoff’s papers at the David Sarnoff Research Center in Princeton, New Jersey; the George H. Clark Collection of Radioana at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution; the Antique Wireless Museum in Holcomb, New York; the Museum of Broadcasting (now the Museum of Television & Radio) in New York; and the Broadcast Pioneers Library in Washington, D.C. 9. See Erik Barnouw, A Tower in Babel: A History of Broadcasting in the United States to 1933 (New York: Oxford, 1966); Erik Barnouw, The Golden Web: A History of Broadcasting in the United States, 1933–1953 (New York: Oxford, 1968); Erik Barnouw, The Image Empire: A History of Broadcasting in the United States from 1953 ( New York: Oxford, 1970); Kenneth Bilby, The General: David Sarnoffand the Rise of the Communications Industry (New York: Harper & Row, 1986); and Susan J. Douglas, Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899–1922 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).Google Scholar
  3. 29.
    Hayden White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 50.Google Scholar
  4. 39.
    See Amy Henderson, On the Air: Pioneers of American Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988), 24–43; Museum of Television & Radio (formerly Museum of Broadcasting) opened its doors on Manhattan’s East 53rd Street in 1976. Today, literally tens of thousands of people visit this repository weekly to view and listen to excerpts from more than 50 thousand hours of broadcast and cable programming.Google Scholar
  5. 42.
    Erik Barnouw, ed., International Encyclopedia of Communications, 4 vols. (New York: Oxford, 1989).Google Scholar
  6. 58.
    See Leede Forest, Father of Radio: The Autobiography of Lee de Forest (Chicago: Wilcox & Follet, 1950), 4. In this autobiography, de Forest writes with characteristic romance and hyperbole: “Unwittingly then I had discovered an Invisible Empire of the Air, intangible, yet solid as granite, whose structure shall persist while man inhabits the planet; a global organism, imponderable yet most substantial, both mundane and empyreal; fading not as the years, the centuries fade away—and electronic fabric influencing all our thinking, making our living more noble. For this, my life has been rich indeed!”Google Scholar
  7. 61.
    See Susan J. Douglas, Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, from Amos n’ Andy and Edward R. Murrow to Wolfman Jack and Howard Stern (New York: Times Books, 1999); Michele Hilmes, Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922–1952 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); J. Fred MacDonald, Don ‘Touch That Dial!: Radio Programming in American Life from 1920 to 1960 (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1979); and Barbara Dianne Savage, Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War, and the Politics of Race, 1938–1948 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).Google Scholar
  8. 62.
    Jib Fowles, “Three Men Who Truly Made Radio: Ken Burns’ Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (PBS),” Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television 14.2 (1994), 219.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 64.
    Steven O. Shields, “Book Review of Tom Lewis’s Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio,” Journal of Radio Studies 1.1 (1992), 177.Google Scholar
  10. 66.
    Jim Cullen, “Review of Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio by Ken Burns, Morgan Wesson, and Tom Lewis,” Journal of American History 78.4 (1992), 1290. See Daniel J. Czitrom, Media and the American Mind: From Morse to McLuhan (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982) and Susan Smulyan, Selling Radio: The Commercialization of American Broadcasting, 1920–1934 (Washington, D.C.: Smith-sonian Institution Press, 1994).Google Scholar
  11. 68.
    Tom Lewis, Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (New York: Edward Burlingame, 1991).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Gary. R. Edgerton 2001

Authors and Affiliations

  • Gary R. Edgerton

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations