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PBS Home Video presents
Ken Burns' America: Empire of the Air (1991)

"The three men most responsible for radio's popularity rarely listened to it."
- narrator Jason Robards

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: September 28, 2004

Stars: Jason Robards
Other Stars: Garrison Keillor, Red Barber
Director: Ken Burns

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:52m:36s
Release Date: September 28, 2004
UPC: 097368857643
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- AB+A- D-

DVD Review

In this age of digital music, satellite TV, and high definition programming, it's easy to forget just what a big deal radio once was. Leave it to Ken Burns, however, to jog our memory. Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio lacks the scope and breadth of the filmmaker's documentaries on the Civil War and baseball, but nevertheless tells a compelling story of three proud, egotistical men who fought bitterly to claim credit for the little box that revolutionized global communication. Produced with Burns' customary care and insight, the film shines a beacon on a subject far too long ignored.

Empire of the Air begins by effectively celebrating the medium invented by Guglielmo Marconi. Over a blank, black screen, we hear classic moments from old-time radio—an announcer reporting the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a sportscaster screaming about Bobby Thompson's pennant-winning home run, the familiar strains of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, the introduction to The Shadow, and NBC's station identification. Although the sounds recall an innocent age, we quickly learn the men who refined Marconi's invention were anything but. Motivated by "greed, envy, ambition, determination, and genius," Lee de Forest, Edwin Howard Armstrong, and David Sarnoff would battle each other to the grave as they took radio to unforeseen heights.

De Forest, who was voted both the nerviest and homeliest member of his high school class, would grow up to hold 300 patents, but the audion tube was the one that put him on the map. The foundation of all radios, the tube made reception practical and paved the way for the medium's proliferation. But although de Forest invented the tube, he never really knew how it worked or, more importantly, how to exploit it. Enter Armstrong, whom some regard as the greatest inventor of the 20th century. He studied the audion tube and in 1913 made "the single most important advance in the history of radio"—a process called "regeneration," which amplified the signal and allowed programs to be broadcast over wide areas. (Later, he would also pioneer FM technology.) De Forest never forgave him.

Sarnoff was a Russian immigrant who, as a child, "lived in Dickensian poverty." He worked as an office boy in Marconi's company, and streamlined "point to mass" transmission—one person talking to millions. Insatiably ambitious, Sarnoff helped create NBC in 1926, and soon became the most powerful communications executive in the world. "I don't get ulcers," he once said. "I give them." He certainly gave them to Armstrong, whose inventions he once helped market. But when Sarnoff refused to implement some of Armstrong's technological advances, the two became fierce competitors. Yet Armstrong lacked the corporate muscle of Sarnoff's RCA and waged an exhausting uphill battle.

For decades, all three men would tirelessly fight for the title "Father of Radio." And through archival photos, rare newsreel and TV clips, and interviews with Garrison Keillor, Red Barber, and others, Burns recounts the war.

Part of the Ken Burns America Collection, Empire of the Air possesses all the hallmarks of its director's style—leisurely pacing, less-is-more narration (performed here with typical crustiness by Jason Robards), humor, and irony. The documentary drags a bit in sections, but marvelously evokes the era's flavor, while painting warts-and-all portraits of its three admirable and acrimonious protagonists. Radio itself sometimes gets lost in all the backstage drama, but viewers will surely come away with a renewed appreciation for this vital technology…and never take it for granted again.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Clean and vivid, the full-screen transfer nicely manages the various media—black-and-white photos, newspaper clippings, newsreel footage, old television excerpts, and contemporary interviews. Only a few errant nicks mar the presentation, and the color interview sequences look sharp and bright.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: A documentary about radio demands a solid audio transfer, and PBS delivers with a full-bodied mono track. Static, of course, is an essential element of old-time radio, and the pops and crackles, vocal distortion, and tinny tones of various vintage programs add welcome atmosphere to the film. The narration and interviews are clear and easily understandable, and the unobtrusive music score is well-integrated.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 7 cues and remote access
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: No extras are included, and thin chaptering makes navigating the disc a chore.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

Ken Burns produces another thoughtful, classy documentary that sheds new light on a rarely explored topic. Radio aficionados, fans of corporate intrigue, and anyone interested in communications technology will find plenty of fascinating nuggets in Burns' absorbing film.


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